There was a significant crowd today, quite a difference from my first camp four years ago. We arrived over an hour early, and the seats were already filling up. I can only imagine tomorrow will be even busier.
The fans in attendance had no shortage of wows and oofs. The coaches were active and treated camp as a time for teaching as well as evaluation. Here are some of my thoughts after day 1.
Yes, Nathan MacKinnon is bigger. No, he hasn't lost any of his speed. The biggest difference you can see comes with his strength in the corners. He regularly comes away with the puck, no matter how hard the battle. One of the best plays of the day came from such a moment. He and Duncan Siemens were battling down the ice, with Siemens doing an outstanding job defending against the young phenom. With a substantial shove into the boards, followed up by a dominant battle, it looked as if the rookie defenseman would be the man with the puck as the play moved back toward open ice. However, it was MacKinnon that controlled the rubber and proceeded to set up an offensive play. It was mind-boggling that he was able to come away with the puck after such an incredible shift by Siemens.
It wasn't the only time Siemens was making a great play. He was paired with Erik Johnson for the scrimmage, and the two worked well together. Siemens' ability on the backend gave Johnson the freedom to roam. He was also superb at interrupting the transition play, often using his stick for a perfectly timed poke check, one that often resulted in an offensive breakout. Siemens was also strong on the forecheck, channeling his inner forward at times. He looks close to being ready for NHL action, but some top pairing minutes in the AHL won't hurt at all.
Johnson's play was all too familiar. One moment, he'd have you groaning and the next cheering. Ryan Wilson elicited similar responses. Patrick Roy recently said that the 6th D position is his for the taking, but he needed a strong camp to get it. He's been hit and miss so far. He got better as the day wore on and the scrimmage got more physical, and he had two amazing shifts back-to-back that saw that Wilson that looked like a second-pairing defenseman a few years back. More play like that tomorrow, and the 6th spot should be his.
Tyson Barrie had the better day of the defensemen. He was far more physical than one might expect of a offensive-defenseman coming off of a knee injury. He's clearly 100% healed and does not shy away from contact in the least. His offense and transition work seems to have picked up right where he left it back in April. Jan Hejda looked completely healed, as well, but the best sight was the awesome beard he was rocking. It gave him a bit of an edge that, at times, seemed to translate to his play on the ice. Pairing him with Barrie this season should be a very good thing.
Nate Guenin had some positive shifts, mostly generated from his physicality. His defense remains suspect, though, and it seems clear that he's fallen so far out of favor with the coaching staff (as evidenced by the guys on the ice with him during scrimmages) that a 7th D position will be a victory for him. It wouldn't be a surprise to see him with the Monsters.
Another player we'll most likely see starting in Lake Erie is Joey Hishon. Don't think that means he wasn't good; he showed off his talents, using those hands and quick release to his advantage. He's also fearless, taking on anyone in the crease and along the boards in order to gain control of the puck. Two of the most entertaining moments came from such play as he dumped Garrett Meurs hard and won a battle against
Mason Geertsen Kyle Wood. Hishon was centering a line with Gabriel Landeskog and Alex Tanguay today, clearly a sign that the coaches wanted to see his top-six potential. He did well and didn't look out of place, but he certainly could benefit from a little more marination in the A—provided he gets top line minutes. The only downside is that he needs talented players surrounding him to progress, and what's available on the Monsters isn't quite at his speed. It's unfortunate Conner Bleackley is too young to join Hishon as they could work quite well together, and Bleackley would benefit from a bigger challenge than he'll probably get back in juniors.
Speaking of Tanguay, he's another who didn't seem to be suffering any lingering pains from his injuries last season. While he looked like a vet who hasn't played competitively for some time, he appears poised for a stellar year. His timing was a bit off at times, but that something that will work itself out without much trouble. Jarome Iginla's timing was off, as well, but he's a sight to behold in that Avalanche sweater. Anyone who thinks he's too slow to keep up with this team needs to stop worrying. He was flanking MacKinnon in the scrimmage, and he was never late to the play or unable to keep up. His nose for the net is uncanny, and once he settles into Roy's systems and the Avalanche style of play, he's going to be a thing of beauty. The idea of Matt Duchene dishes a puck from the corner to Iginla crashing the net should put a huge smile on your face.
Duchene looked like a kid in a candy store, as happy as he could be to be out there. He and Ryan O'Reilly still have that chemistry and are simply electric together. A favorite moment today came early when Duchene and others were helping with some goalie drills before camp officially started. While waiting for the new drill to start, Duchene sent a puck down the ice on net, starting from inside the opposing blueline. The slap shot pinged off the iron, a half an inch away from hitting twine. It made your head shake, thinking just how good he really is.
In net, Semyon Varlamov didn't look like a goalie prepared for a major regression. He was sharp, quick, and agile. Reto Berra, on the other hand, did little to ally any doubts coming into camp. He was better positionally and faster to the puck, but he continually got beat glove side, something he must work on if he's to be the level of back up goaltender the team needs. The other netminders were decent, if not spectacular. Roman Will continued to impress, and Calvin Pickard and Sami Aittokallio performed as we've seen in the past. Spencer Martin continued to have a rough time of it, while Francois Tremblay showed promise.
Those are the guys I watched today. I'll be checking out others tomorrow, so if there's someone in particular you want me to scout, just let me know.