Some players are battling for one of a precious few roster openings. There are a handful of prospects simply aiming to make a positive impression before heading back to their junior clubs, the veterans are just trying to regain their timing and shake off a summer of rust, while others trying to establish their niche on the big club.
In these first four days of practicing, with a total of 48 players on the ice at the Stars’ practice facility in Frisco’s Dr Pepper StarCenter, many of them are gearing up for the exhibition games that starts Tuesday in St. Louis.
From the coaching staff’s perspective, they’re trying to implement the team’s on-ice systems, particularly to the organization’s newcomers, while observing all of the above storylines and evaluating each player’s performance.
“You’re trying to get a basic concept of how we want to play to the players that haven’t been here before,” Stars coach Dave Tippett reported. “But it’s competitive, this is a training camp - people are trying to earn jobs, whether it’s NHL, American League, or the other side of it is, gaining knowledge, gaining maturity.
“The young players that will go back to junior, to play on a line with Brenden Morrow
, or play on a line with Mike Modano, they go back feeling good about the experience. There’s a variety of things. It’s certainly a measuring stick every year for your prospects coming up, where they’ve gone and where they are compared to last year. There’s a lot of agendas here that come out to play.”
One prospect heading back to junior is 19-year-old left winger Jamie Benn
, who wants to grab the attention of club management as much as he can while he’s here.
“Just go out there and have some fun, work hard and just make a good impression on the coaching staff and the organization,” said Benn, who’s already opened some eyes with his outstanding performance at the recently-completed Traverse City prospects tournament, in which he scored five goals, including three game-winners, in four games. “I know I’m going to go back, it’s an honor being here and it’s an experience I’m willing to take in.”
Another way Benn, the Stars’ fifth-round draft pick (129th overall) in 2007, will benefit from attending camp is that he’ll return to his junior club, Kelowna of the WHL, armed with a bunch of pointers to improve his game.
“A lot of the guys will give me advice throughout the camp and I’ll take that back to junior and be able to give the younger guys in the WHL those tips,” said Benn.
Also, as Tippett noted, skating alongside stars like Morrow or Mike Ribeiro
in camp helps desensitize the youngsters to feeling starstruck and further boosts their confidence.
Even though he’s not quite a youngster any more at 23, right winger Raymond Sawada
is attending his first NHL training camp after graduating from Cornell University last spring and admitted to feeling some butterflies, partially because of his new teammates.
“I’m a little bit nervous out there, being around all the high-profile players, but it’s going fairly well,” the 6-foot-2, 218-pound Sawada said of his first days of camp. “I think I’m getting the jitters out of the way and hopefully, it will be a lot better. I think right now, there’s probably a little too much thinking going on in my head, and I just need to relax a little bit and let the game come to me.”
Once he does that, the highly-regarded Sawada, the Stars’ second round choice (52nd overall) in the 2004 Entry Draft who captained the Traverse City squad, is expected to challenge for a roster spot on the big club. He’ll need to shine in the pre-season games to do that, but until then, he’s working on ramping up his game.
“Right now, just try and make an impression and try and get better every day, at every skate, and just do whatever I can to try and make the team out there,” said Sawada, who scored two goals and nine points in 10 games at AHL Iowa last spring after finishing his college season. “I’ll prepare the same way I always prepare, just focus on whatever I really need to do out there, I guess for me, that’s moving my feet and finishing my checks.”
For 29-year-old veteran Toby Petersen
, the first few days of camp are all about helping enable him to keep his hold on a roster spot that should already be his. After spending virtually all of last season at AHL Iowa, Petersen stepped in as an injury replacement in the post-season and excelled.
Petersen, whose exemplary work on a checking line with Joel Lundqvist and Loui Eriksson
helped temporarily turn the tide in the Western Conference Finals against Detroit, doesn’t want to assume he has a job wrapped up, however.
“I’m coming in here and trying to establish myself as an everyday player,” noted Petersen, “trying to take some of the momentum from last year’s run and have it pay some dividends as we head into the beginning of the new year. It’s a lot healthier for me to think I need to win a spot here, and that probably is the case. I just got to show what I’m capable of here and show all the positive things I can bring to the table for this team.”
Inside his larger objective, though, Petersen just wants to simplify things in the first few days.
“Like most guys here, get back in the swing of things, get the mental edge back, get the heart-rate going,” Petersen said. “Just very simple things with the body, simple things with systems and make sure you’re up to speed with all the systems that the team’s trying to implement, so when the games do start, you’re not a second slow trying to figure out where you need to be.”
As for the more established veterans, the early portion of camp is about regaining the feel for the game and building towards the regular season.
“It’s timing, to get into game shape, and we’ll have some games to do that,” said center Mike Ribeiro
, the Stars’ leading scorer last season with 83 points. “Last year, I missed all of training camp, so it’s kind of nice to be here and skate every day, get your timing right, get a feel for the puck and the ice.”
“Your NHL players, it’s to get them up and going and get them back in a competitive situation,” Tippett added. “Our veteran players, they come out there, they’re trying to get back in the swing of things.”
Veteran newcomer Sean Avery, who signed a big four-year free agent contract in July, has the twin goals and getting his timing back and becoming comfortable with his new teammates and the coaches’ systems.
“I didn’t skate much this summer, so just come in and get my legs going and get my hands going, meet some of the guys and try to get familiar with everything and just really get ready for the start of the season,” the 28-year-old Avery said of his objectives. “I think training camp, once you’ve been around a little bit longer, is kind of a different thing than when you’re 20. I don’t want to rush into anything, I just want to get my legs and my hands and my head going and take it from there.”
Everyone is well aware that the real competition for jobs and more serious evaluations begin with the pre-season games, so once that part of the schedule arrives - and it arrives quickly - the intensity will go up another notch.
However it turns out, everyone is glad to be back on the ice competing again.
“It feels good to get back into real hockey action again, and see all the guys and just get back into it,” defenseman Matt Niskanen said. “It feels good to be playing hockey again. We’re working towards getting game-ready, get ready for the start of the season, and get a little better each day.”