Hockey never sleeps and more things I learned this busy summer
Brendan Shanahan's R&D Camp continues his involvement with the big picture
The Red Wings are flying in the face of building a winner around a young core
Unlike Marian Hossa's free agency of recent years, Ilya Kovalchuk's seems lost
One thing about summer is that it allows for a different perspective on the game of hockey than when we are fully immersed after October rolls around. With that in mind, I give you five things I have learned or relearned or merely observed while "getting away from the game" over the summer:
1. First, there is really no getting away from the game in this day and age. And given the heat of this summer in most locales, being at the rink has been a nice respite from the oppressive humidity outside. True, I'm happiest at the rink no matter what time of year it happens to be, but in my travels it struck me how much hockey is being played coast to coast -- even in July and August. From NHL prospect camps to USHL tryout offerings to USA Hockey Development camps -- with a multitude of camps and clinics geared for youth players -- I witnessed the buzz around the game first-hand.
Add in this week's unique Research, Development and Orientation Camp headed up by Brendan Shanahan and next week's World Hockey Summit and it's easy to see that the business of hockey has evolved into a 12 month a year enterprise on and off the ice. The summit runs from Aug. 23 to 26 in Toronto and will feature NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman, IIHF President Rene Fasel, and other officials who will address player development and the state of the game at every level around the world.
2. Sticking with Shanahan and introducing Steve Yzerman to the mix, it's hard to think of two elite players who managed their final years on the ice more effectively in preparing for the next phase of their lives. The R&D Camp in Toronto is Shanahan's first project in his role as Vice President of NHL Business & Hockey Operations. At the behest of Bettman, Shanahan continues to spearhead the league's effort to keep the game fresh and forward-thinking. The camp will host a group of skaters and goaltenders, including 33 top-rated 2011 NHL Entry Draft-eligibles, who will test potential rule changes, rink modifications and strategy innovations. The camp runs for two days (August 18-19) at the Toronto Maple Leafs practice facility in Etobicoke, ON.
This continues Shanahan's involvement in the big picture that began in 2005 during the lockout when he organized a sit-down that many credit with helping to resolve the conflict. Another byproduct of his interest in the game's evolution was to have player involvement on the competition committee.
Meanwhile, Yzerman has swiftly moved into his role as the new GM of the Tampa Bay Lightning. Like his former Red Wings teammate Shanahan, Yzerman's current rise to prominence in reshaping an NHL franchise was foreshadowed. Most recently, he was GM of Team Canada's gold medal-winning team at the 2010 Olympics. In talking with Yzerman earlier this summer, he credited his three-year stint with Hockey Canada leading up to the Olympics as vital to his growth and development as a manager. That both Yzerman and Shanahan have arrived as top young executives in the game via Detroit in such a short period of time tells me one thing: they were paying close attention to the Red Wings' operation long before they hung up their skates.
3. Which brings me to the Wings. Has anyone being paying attention to their offseason? Sure, Mike Modano's signing stirred the ever-growing legion of tweeters to nod at the Motor City for a couple of days. Otherwise, it has been all quiet on the Red Wings front. A closer inspection, though, shows that GM Ken Holland, his assistant Jim Nill and the rest of the staff are simply following and executing their tried and true formula for continued, sustainable competitive excellence. That is: take upper-end players who are now past their prime and slot them in. Modano fits that bill as a top nine forward, as does Ruslan Salei as a defenseman who adds dependable depth.
The other part of the formula mixes in younger players who have served long apprenticeships overseas or in the AHL. To that end, the Red Wings added forward Jiri Hudler after his one-year defection to the KHL. He is just 26 and was a 23-goal scorer in Detroit before his departure over salary arbitration. In late May, Hudler signed a two-year deal with Detroit worth $5.75 million The Wings also have Jakub Kindl on the blueline and Mattias Ritola up front, both 23 with two solid seasons in Grand Rapids on their resumes. So, while we all may have looked past the Red Wings this summer, to me they look poised to grab our attention once again next spring.
4. In contrast to the Wings' philosophy of adding kids to a veteran-laden group, almost every other locale seems to favor the blueprint that calls for collecting a core of players under the age of 25 and placing veterans around them. It isn't surprising that this is becoming more common. Economics play a role in the trend, as cost containment is easier on entry-level contracts than free agent deals. The nature of expansion over time is also a factor. Historically, once the league is a decade past major expansion it has trended younger as supply catches up to demand and older players who were allowed to hang on are replaced. That cycle is complete.
The success of the Chicago Blackhawks last season and the Pittsburgh Penguins in 2008-09 has a lot to do with the prevailing notion that winning it all is possible with a young core. Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Kris Letang in Pittsburgh winning Lord Stanley's Cup one year and Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane and Brent Seabrook bringing it home the next will inspire that kind of thinking. Those championship squads give credence to teams like the St. Louis Blues, Colorado Avalanche, Toronto Maple Leafs and Florida Panthers, who swear they aren't too far from assembling the same type of winning nucleus based on youth.
5. Finally, it is hard to ignore the Ilya Kovalchuk contract saga no matter how far away from the rink one may have ventured. Believe me, I tried. Aside from the very real world implications of bringing other dubious contracts under stricter scrutiny in terms of possible salary cap circumvention, Kovalchuk and his agent, Jay Grossman, seem to have lost their way in all of this. I mean, what are their motivating factors?
Say what you will about another Atlanta Thrashers' expat: Marian Hossa. At least his agenda seemed clear when he was an unrestricted free agent. It was all about chasing the Stanley Cup. He went where he felt he had the best opportunity to accomplish that goal, playing for the three teams that last succeeded, just not in order. He finally got his championship -- and his money I might add -- in Chicago. At all times though, you got the sense that it was Hossa's agenda being facilitated by his people.
I'm not sure I have that same sense in Kovalchuk's situation. Grossman appears to be the tail wagging the proverbial dog. Is this quest mostly about money or winning?