Friday, September 19, 2014

Training Camp: Day One at Ground Zero

It's the evening of the ceremonial opening day to the 2014-15 hockey season and already there's drama a-brewin' across the rusted pea-green towers of the Walt Whitman Bridge.

Just for you, my legions of dedicated followers, I drove an hour up and an hour back -- into (gasp) and out of New Jersey -- plus froze my baguettes off for an hour of ice-level observation.

Ever since the poet Catullus asked the musical question in Carmina 85: "Why am I doing this, you might inquire?" the answer has never been so much this -- to bring you the following dispatches from a day that really doesn't matter that much in the grand scheme.

Of course, the gnashing of teeth and rending of garments began right as the second on-ice session for the youngsters began. The news broke in the morning that Claude Giroux left the first skating session hella early in, disappeared so quickly that his own teammates had no clue what was going on, and didn't come back.

By the time my phone was about to freeze up, official word came down from GM Ron Hextall that the captain suffered a lower-body injury which will shelve him for at least two weeks. That two-week window, if adhered to by team staff and Giroux himself, suggests that the issue will be resolved in time for the club's home opener on October 9.

However, with the club's penchant for over-stating recovery windows and its players' penchant for being so well conditioned and obedient with a rehab plan that they seem to be cleared ahead of any deadline, be sure to look out for reports that Giroux will give it a go by the end of next week.

"This just happened today. Its the first day of camp and guys go 100 miles per-hour and things happen," stated Hextall. "Obviously its not the way you want to start. That's the hand we were dealt and we're going to deal with it."

It didn't take a rocket scientist to notice, from several years of Peter Laviolette to Craig Berube, that the opening salvos of camp were conducted with less instruction and at a higher pace.

It's great that the front office acknowledges that <bleep> happens, someone's gotta deal with it, and who you gonna call? Just look at the Penguins sitting Sid Crosby and Evgeni Malkin out on the first day and the ripples it's caused. Players get hurt mid-season, playoffs, training camp, exhibition season, and it can't be a rage-filled fantasy of your favorite player going down in a justified manner to take out a hated/key member of the opposition.

Sometimes, but for the grace of a turn of the skate or the twist of a knee and arm go they, with others trying to win a job. It can wipe out an entire offseason of dedicated work ethic and renewed fitness in a snap. You can't predict it, but you can't become overwrought at the thought of even the best players meeting with misfortune that affects the short or long term.

Tim Panaccio later wrote that sources informed him Giroux underwent tests for three related injuries: groin/adductor muscle; abdominal strain and hip flexor.

More about the potential for disaster, and a handy-dandy guide for Flyers fans to slowly commit suicide if the season goes down the tubes later in this column. If all else fails, break out your Hitchhiker's Guide and remember its lasting maxim: Don't Panic.

Table For Five, Disdain for One

I don't think I was in the building more than 10 minutes watching the prospects toil away between the shrill, piercing whistles and the sharp clatter of the sticks wielded by Berube and assistant coach Gord Murphy, when I spied with my little eye a goaltending prospect from central Jersey perched in the crease during a wraparound drill.

I opined thus on the Twitter:  
In a simple twist of fate, it was not any of my beloved followers, but a young man who followed and then bailed, but for whom my nuggets of wisdom apparently remained dear to his heart (or the retweet button in any event), who gave me the shock of a lifetime.

Like Ned Niederlander once said about El Guapo, I'm more than famous ... I'm IN-famous! And since it happened less than a half hour into my season coverage, it's a personal best I don't think I'll ever match.

God, I wonder who will also be elevated to this dubious Pantheon, and how soon I will have company up here. 

Told that a banquet would be held for future nominees, and given the choice of fish, chicken or crow as a main course, I opted for the rubber tilapia. Chicken is so "what you order when wishing not to waste 30 seconds deciding over a meal at a wedding you're forced to attend because your mother went to the mother of the bride's day camp 30 years ago," and crow is too gamey and there's no assurance that all the buckshot could be removed from the carcass.

Ed, my good man, tell me the ceremony is set for Swan Caterers in the Waterfall Room along with date and time, and I'm so there.

BTW, Stolarz himself favorited that original tweet so, OMG, I'm like, totes in tight with the dude. The rest of ya will have to get in line to have that humor chip installed. In truth, there is no sarcasm font for social media, but the quickest way to remedy voyeurs who just react to whatever's presented to them, is for those discerning folks to follow along and get a feel for one's "voice" online.

What are words for, when no one listens anymore

Heading into Year 16 of covering hockey, I'm at a total loss to explain how a player or prospect is judged when performing in a self-contained environment.

Several writers today related that they were "impressed" with Pierre-Edouard Bellemaire, with his speed and his shot. Other players will be feted as having "impressed" radio hosts, writers, bloggers and fans alike.

I heard the same rhetoric all throughout the rookie camp and rookie game last week and into this week, but I wonder -- to what is one comparing or referring when one is "impressed" or note that a player "stood out" in a given setting?

Here's what I see after three years of attending camp: a gaggle of skaters, fully padded and protected, emerging en masse and split into one, two, or multiple groups, moving or remaining still depending on orders barked out or whistled by a coach. They skate in one direction, then the other, and do so at opposite ends of the ice, in different and unique formations.

I believe whatever drill is run, even when it's not individualized, demonstrates nothing of a particular
player's amenable attributes which can be tested, properly observed and analyzed in a game situation: speed, skill, ability to use size, strength, skating, puck-hunting instinct, plus range of motion for goaltenders. Therefore, one player really cannot be said to stand above another or impress someone, because the function of these drills are not to test players against opponents of the same kind but to provide framework for future instruction.

Fitness is one thing; a deficit can be resolved by a tough off-ice conditioning stint and insertion into the lineup in preseason games of consequence to achieve the desired result.

However, comparing and contrasting players amongst each other on the first day they're on the ice is pointless -- especially if they're like Bellemare who is experiencing his first taste of North American hockey or Shayne Gostisbehere who has all of two games of pro experience coming off three superlative college seasons. Sure, each player may possess an attribute or two which anyone can notice is different from another player, but how is it, in itself "impressive" in a vacuum?

Maybe while honing in on one specific player, waiting for something to jump out, you're missing 2-3 other things from other players that might be notable or that might fly under the radar but be just as telling as the obvious. The tendency to talk in absolutes on the off chance that followers might see you as some kind of authority -- or worse, someone who will tell fans what they want to hear -- is disingenuous from my seat.

Let the rookies go at it against the veterans, and then we'll start seeing who can stand up to the test and draw legitimate praise or criticism.

I can see how easy it is to fall into the trap when voices of authority or writers you trust use the same buzzwords over and over to tout their favorites, but it's up to the fan and follower to do some eyeballing themselves and not blindly trust (or blindly dismiss) by keying on empty terms.

My personal responsibility in this space is to give it to you straight, in a way that neither confirms nor denies any preconceived notions about this franchise. This early in the year, don't give in to any excessive hype or slagging of a player. Things will reveal themselves over time, not this weekend, but truly starting with the exhibition games on Monday.

When Shoulders and Groins Attack

Giroux, unfortunately, has been afflicted by oddly-timed injuries in the last two preseasons. We all remember that evil golf club that split right at the place where he gripped the shaft last Summer, and now the unexpected and nebulous malady which affects the region from his groin on down.

Should the captain and Hart Trophy nominee continue to be bedeviled by a hernia, groin or hamstring, all is not lost, but it does put yet another crimp in the club's plans to make a strong start to the year with nine of their first 15 games on home ice.

There's precedent for the top guy on the Flyers being absent for long stretches right from the drop, with mixed results.

First, it was yet-to-be-enshrined Hall of Famer Tim Kerr who encountered shoulder issues at the end of the Patrick Division Semis against the Islanders in 1987 -- problems which cost him the remainder of the playoffs. The burly winger then had to endure a second surgery to correct what appeared to be an infection in one of the screws inserted into the bones, whose healing process and rehabilitation knocked him out of action all the way from training camp to the following March.

Faced with the prospect of losing roughly one-sixth of the club's potential offense, the Flyers reached into Sweden and extracted Magnus Roupe to begin the season as a replacement, and a poor one he was. Roupe scored in his first NHL game, a 2-2 season-opening tie at home against Montreal, then three weeks later against Los Angeles, and not again. He was shuttled to Hershey after compiling a whopping six points over 33 games. 

Scoring was spread out uniformly amongst Brian Propp, Murray Craven, Rick Tocchet, Peter Zezel, Scott Mellanby, Pelle Eklund and Dave Poulin. Tocchet chimed in with a then-career-best and team-leading 31 goals, Craven set a career high with 30 and seven players netted at least 50 points as Mike Keenan's final Philly team poured in 292 goals -- just 18 fewer than with a totally healthy Kerr the year before.

Kerr returned with approximately 15 games to go, then participated in a seven-game first-round loss to the Washington Capitals where his shoulder strength again came into question after netting a single goal in six appearances.

Eric Lindros was no stranger to freak accidents which affected his health. A looming presence during the inaugural World Cup of Hockey for his native Canada in 1996, Lindros suffered an injury of unknown origin and unknown location at some point during the September tournament.

Nobody would have been the wiser if not for Big E accidentally locking his skate blade with the pad of then-goaltender Ron Hextall during a drill early in training camp and suffering a nagging groin injury. The issue took almost two months to be fully resolved, and was the first in a long line of soap operas from a media standpoint on Lindros' medical issues.

All told, Lindros' initial absence during the 1996-97 season totaled 23 games, during which the Terry Murray-led defending Atlantic Division champions went a pedestrian 12-10-1. Mikael Renberg struggled to regain form after an abdominal injury which cut into the previous season. John LeClair had a rough go in the season's first month. Rod Brind'Amour went 11 games with one goal after helping keep his team treading water early on. Lucky for Murray that Bob Clarke went out and snagged Dale Hawerchuk from St. Louis the previous March for extra support at center.

Lindros returned two nights before Thanksgiving, the Flyers lost two straight, but then went 17 games in succession without a loss at the Legion of Doom began to hum in complete form, and the rest of the team regained its confidence. 

Should Giroux be lost in a netherworld of feeling good one day and off the next that bleeds into the beginning of the schedule, there's no bona-fide veteran talent on the top line which can help steady the ship; Berube and his team might just have to weather another stormy start and push fast-forward on the recovery curve just like a year ago. Darroll Powe ain't cutting it, even for the sake of a depth move that might push Brayden Schenn, Vincent Lecavalier or Matt Read up to the first line.

For Berube to have to jumble lines like a Boggle game released from its cube will spell disaster for a team on the bubble of the Eastern Conference playoff race even with a 100-percent functional Giroux.

Or, this could turn out to be nothing, and Giroux will be back at the season's outset with a little extra rest having to endure a bit more work in a quicker fashion to make up the difference in conditioning. However one might infer or imply that Giroux might not have been as attentive to his offseason regimen as he should have been, let's be happy he wasn't smashing up his high-octane sports vehicle in a foreign country.

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