Busy summer leaves fall challenges
The Thrashers sale disrupted lives in Atlanta -- mine, too -- but thrilled Winnipeg
After their Stanley Cup tour, Tim Thomas and the Bruins must regain their focus
Now come questions of chemistry (Sharks, Flyers) and health (Canucks, Penguins)
"What did you do on your summer vacation?"
That used to be one of the first questions that teachers asked when kids returned to school. Personally speaking, this summer was an offseason for the ages.
Vacation didn't really enter into the picture, as I sold my home in Atlanta after 12 years there as a team broadcaster, bought a house in Michigan and ground it out getting my family of five relocated and situated. All I can say is that the process the Eliot clan endured seemed a lot more arduous than the move that precipitated it in the first place: the Thrashers' swift sale and relocation to Winnipeg as the Jets.
It wasn't just about us, though. Fifty-some people lost their jobs directly due to Atlanta letting its NHL franchise slip away. It's great to see that several have joined the staff of the Jets, but others are still searching. I was very fortunate as I joined Suburban Sports Group, which operates sports facilities and conducts youth hockey programs.
My opportunity arose when Tom Anastos left his position as Executive Director of SSG to take the head coaching position at his alma mater, Michigan State. My connection to Suburban goes back to the early '90's when Anastos and Lyle Phair -- Tom's teammate at State and a former teammate of mine in the LA Kings' organization -- had me run all of their goaltending programming. I also wrote for their publication Michigan Hockey.
Now I'll serve as the Director of Programming and Communications for SSG, with Lyle moving into the executive role. I'll have a hand in running and shaping the business elements that I was a part of in their formative stages. Actually, Suburban is where I first developed my passion for youth hockey development, which along with broadcasting and writing, I continued to foster while with the Thrashers as Director of Community Hockey Programming.
From a broadcasting standpoint, I'm thrilled to join FS Detroit for its local hockey coverage. Sure, there is disappointment that so much was left undone in Atlanta from a growing the game perspective, but many, many people did all they could while they were there. My enthusiasm for the sport, though, remains unchecked. It's just been repositioned in Hockeytown.
Similarly, the excitement that Atlanta felt when the NHL announced that it was returning for the 1999 season is now being felt in Winnipeg. The fans, business community and civic leaders in the 'peg have rolled with the highs and lows of the possibility of the NHL returning for years. Now it is real and palpable after a summer spent in joyful anticipation. Thousands of fans attended the Jets' open camp on Saturday and the team takes the ice for its first preseason game tonight against Columbus. The fans have plenty to look forward to with many young players like Ondrej Pavelec, Evander Kane, Zach Bogosian and Bryan Little poised to mature into complete players and form a solid nucleus.
Applying the back-to-school theme league-wide, here's a look at some of the more intriguing things that teams did to prepare for the 2011-12 campaign:
Beginning with the champs in Boston, the Bruins' Stanley Cup tour took place as the players shared their accomplishment with family, friends and folks, whether in their hometowns or on college campuses. Goaltender Tim Thomas made both such stops as the toast of Flint, Michigan and the current favorite Catamount alum at the University of Vermont. There is much about our sport that is quirkily endearing and the Stanley Cup summer tour of champions is one of the best and most unique rituals in all of sports. But the challenge it leaves the Bruins is finding the focus, mental drive and physical reserves to do what is necessary to repeat -- something that hasn't been done since the Detroit Red Wings won back-to-back Cups in 1997 and '98.
The runner-up Vancouver Canucks have the same challenges, without the hallowed hardware to console them. That can either be motivating or demoralizing. Much will depend on Ryan Kesler's return to form after hip surgery. He is their best player and without him at full health, the Canucks cannot repeat as Western Conference champions. That distinction could go to any number of strong teams, including:
The San Jose Sharks, who spent the summer studying chemistry again and retooling their roster courtesy of the Minnesota Wild by acquiring Brent Burns and Martin Havlat. The Sharks remain at the top of the class in the West, but remain a team that is looking for more.
The Chicago Blackhawks, who spent the summer chillin' after a long, hard regular season and a rousing first-round seven-game series with the Canucks, bolstered their senior class by signing rearguards Steve Montador and Sean O'Donnell and crafty winger Andrew Brunette, while also committing to standout rookie netminder Corey Crawford with a 3-year, $8M deal. The question is if the Hawks have replaced the depth that helped them win the Cup two years ago.
The Kings made a splash by dealing for Philadelphia Flyers captain Mike Richards and signing Simon Gagne, another former Flyer. Defenseman Drew Doughty, though, has yet to register for the fall semester, remaining an unsigned restricted free agent as negotiations with the team drag on -- a summer bummer that clouds the Kings' season.
The Red Wings are trying to add underclassmen to their mix, but keep coming back to counting on senior contributions for their success. Captain Nick Lidstrom, the reigning Norris Trophy-winner despite being a minus player for the first time in his illustrious career, is back for his 20th campaign.
In the Eastern Conference, the teams that are chasing the champs spent their summers differently.
GM George McPhee in Washington looked as if he might take a sabbatical. Instead, he hung around, reread some old scouting reports and tweaked his lineup beautifully by slotting in veteran netminder Tomas Vokoun, wingers Troy Brouwer and Joel Ward and veteran defenseman Roman Hamrlik. Conversely, McPhee's counterpart in Philly, Paul Holmgren remade his team's leadership (Chris Pronger is now captain) and most pertinently, at the goaltending position. Ilya Bryzgalov now becomes the Flyers' latest answer in the crease, but questions will remain until spring.
In Pittsburgh, summer meant getting healthy, as centers Jordan Staal, Evgeni Malkin and Sidney Crosby all look to return to prominence together. There's still no telling what grades their collective health will get by the time the season starts, meaning the Pens still have more questions than answers, something that adds to the chill in the fall air.
On Broadway, the Rangers did what they regularly do: buy themselves expensive free agent gifts, sometimes of dubious value (see: Scott Gomez, the recently-retired Chris Drury, Wade Redden, etc.) This time it was Brad Richards, and his signing actually made sense while making the Blueshirts better.
Finally, in Buffalo, new principal owner Terry Pegula gave the entire Sabres' academy a makeover. His money and motivation to win the Cup bolstered the organization overall and netted veteran defensemen Robyn Regehr and Christian Ehrhoff as well as forward Ville Leino. Those three may not sound like much, but it was a start and it sure has a fuzzy feel good vibe to it.
And now it all begins, as summer gives way to the promise of fall. Let me know some of your favorite moments from around the league this summer and what they might mean this season at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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