Are teams missing the point in how they structure their training camps?
These days, it's not unusual for teams to invite 50 to 60 players to their camps each September, all with hopes of making the big league roster. But the reality is that most teams have, at most, a handful of job openings with the rest of the flock being shipped to places like Portland or Peoria or Albany.
I doubt the current scenario is unlikely to change in the coming years. Still, the question needs to be asked.
Are training camps designed to evaluate players, or prepare teams for the start of the season? Or both?
Sure, there is the evaluation process which is critical to all organizations. Young draft picks need a chance to play against established veterans so management can assess their playing progress. And now and then, there are those surprise breakthrough players that end up sticking. For example, look at Tobias Enstrom in Atlanta last season. He used the pre-season practices and schedule to earn a spot on the roster. Tyler Kennedy in Pittsburgh is another example, making veteran Mark Recchi expendable.
But the overwhelming number of roster spots have been determined long before the first practice in September. Prospects have auditioned at rookie camps, they have shown their skills to the hockey ops brass many times over through game play of previous campaigns. They have been tested, sent through off-season conditioning programs. GM's get to know them like their sons and daughters. With the exception of a few highly regarded draft picks or free agent signings, the evaluations have already been entered into the computer systems of scouting departments across the league.
So why do teams continue to designate valuable pre-season prep time to players who don't even have a remote chance of cracking a roster spot? Wouldn't it serve teams better in the ultra-competitive NHL to set rosters earlier in training camp?
In other words, why don't more teams around the league strive to determine their opening night rosters as early as possible, leaving additional time to practice systems, power play and penalty killing scenarios, while testing line combinations and defensive pairings in pre-season games?
Last season in the NHL, seven of the 14 non-playoff teams (50%) came within 10 points of making the post-season. That equates to slightly more than 1/2 of a point in the standings each month.
It's a razor thin margin between the last playoff team and the rest of the pack.
Look, I understand that all sorts of variables factor into the success of teams, mainly the level of talent and each team's injury situation. But I also know that team's who fail to make the playoffs often lament the day after a regular season ends about lost opportunities of gaining a point or two back at the start of the season. Teams coming out of training camp will often talk about the need for a fast start.
Doesn't this philosophy begin early in training camp? Aren't teams who use these days as a means for preparing for the start of the season and not so much an evaluation process at a greater advantage than those teams that don't?
Steve Gorten wrote an interesting article on Tuesday in the South Florida Sun-Sentinal talking about Florida Panthers general manager Jacques Martin deciding to trim the team's roster by half earlier this week as a way for allowing him to get ready for their season opener a week from Friday at Carolina. 27 players flew back to South Florida after their game on Monday at Montreal. The overwhelming majority of those players will start the season with the team. Now the organization has nine days to concentrate on all facets of their style of play.
"Only having one more (exhibition) game, we feel this is a great chance for our team to get ready for the opener," Martin told the Sun-Sentinal. "We didn't want to bring too many people back."
Taking two points in Raleigh next week, believe it or not, could be the difference between gaining a playoff spot next April and sitting at home in the wide open Southeast Division.
It should be interesting in the coming years to see if more teams incorporate this type of training camp philosophy that purges prospects and fringe players much earlier in the process. After all, based on the parity of today's NHL, it's true that you can't clinch a playoff spot in October.
But you can certainly lose one.