The Anaheim Ducks, Buffalo Sabres, Detroit Red Wings, Los Angeles Kings, New Jersey Devils, Ottawa Senators and San Jose Sharks will open their respective training camps Thursday with physicals and meetings on administrative protocols before getting on the ice for their first practice Friday.
It’ll be their first official and mandatory in-person team get-togethers since the NHL paused last season March 12 because of concerns surrounding the coronavirus.
They were the bottom seven teams in the League based on points percentage, which meant they were left out of the 24-team NHL Return to Play Plan. As a result, the NHL is giving them a head start on training camp before the rest of the League opens Sunday.
And a lot has changed since we last saw the Ducks, Sabres, Red Wings, Kings, Devils, Senators and Sharks in action, enough that these teams are opening camps with a renewed confidence and a belief that maybe, things will be different for them this season.
“The one thing we know about the National Hockey League is it’s fine margins that make the difference,” Sabres coach Ralph Krueger said on the NHL @TheRink podcast Monday. “The differential between the top and bottom teams in this League is as small as any professional sport I’ve ever been involved with. It’s finding those percentage points.”
The Sabres feel they found a few percentage points to put in their win column by signing left wing Taylor Hall to a one-year, $8 million contract Oct. 11.
Buffalo also acquired center Eric Staal in a trade with the Minnesota Wild on Sept. 16, but signing Hall is a move that already has had a tangible impact on how the players returning to the Sabres feel about their chances this season, Krueger said.
“It definitely changed the confidence level of the group,” he said. “It was an extremely important decision from our side and from Taylor’s combined to be able to show that what we’re building here, the culture that we’ve put into place, is one that wants to be competitive with the top level of the National Hockey League.”
The Devils look different than they did in March with the additions of goalie Corey Crawford, defensemen Ryan Murray and Dmitry Kulikov, and forward Andreas Johnsson, along with new coach Lindy Ruff.
The hope in New Jersey is to see improvements in net with Crawford and Mackenzie Blackwood, and growth from centers Jack Hughes, the No. 1 pick in the 2019 NHL Draft, and Nico Hischier, the No. 1 pick in the 2017 NHL Draft.
Hischier, though, will miss the first part of training camp because of a leg injury he sustained training in Switzerland. He is considered week to week.
“I think [general manager Tom Fitzgerald] has publicly branded the next two seasons as the ‘Learn to Win’ phase,” Devils assistant general manager Dan MacKinnon said. “We want to be competitive, be pushing for a playoff spot and also playing those meaningful one-goal games.”
The Senators want the same and hope they’re closer to it now after finishing last season 30th in the League with a .437 points percentage (25-34-12).
Ottawa has undergone the biggest makeover of the seven teams opening camp Thursday with the additions of goalie Matt Murray, forwards Derek Stepan, Evgenii Dadonov, Alex Galchenyuk and Cedric Paquette, and defensemen Braydon Coburn and Erik Gudbranson.
The Senators also expect to have forward Tim Stuetzle in training camp at some point. The No. 3 pick in the 2020 NHL Draft currently is playing for Germany in the 2021 IIHF World Junior Championship, which runs through Tuesday.
“We want to be a team that is not fun to play against,” Senators forward Brady Tkachuk said on NHL Network in November. “I think we’re going to have a great year. I think a lot of people are underestimating us.”
The Red Wings know the only way for them to go is up after last season, when they were last in the League with a .275 points percentage (17-49-5).
They added veteran players such as defensemen Marc Staal, Troy Stecher and Jon Merrill, forwards Vladislav Namestnikov and Bobby Ryan, and goalie Thomas Greiss through trades or signings.
“I believe we’ll be improved,” Red Wings general manager Steve Yzerman said. “How much? I don’t know. But I’m just anxious to get going.”
The Sharks believe they’re positioned to get back into the Stanley Cup Playoffs after missing them last season for the third time since 1998 because they’re healthy and their lineup is loaded with veteran players.
The biggest key for San Jose is the long offseason allowed defenseman Erik Karlsson (thumb), and forwards Tomas Hertl (knee) and Logan Couture (ankle) to get healthy after injuries derailed them last season.
But the Sharks will have instant adversity because they can’t start training camp at home, a result of restrictions placed on competitive sports in Santa Clara County in California. Instead they will be in Scottsdale, Arizona for training camp, and it’s not clear yet if they will be able to play home games at SAP Center or if they’ll have to play at a neutral site or another NHL arena.
San Jose is scheduled to play its first eight games and 12 of its first 14 on the road.
“Maybe being on the road, being off-site for training camp and starting the season on the road, will be good for our group,” Sharks general manager Doug Wilson said. “It’s an unknown, but we are really excited about getting everybody back together.”
The Ducks and the Kings each are pushing for younger players to make an impact around their established veterans.
Anaheim is hoping to see more from forwards Max Jones, Troy Terry and Sam Steel, and is excited about the potential of forwards Trevor Zegras and Isac Lundestrom. The Ducks were 29th in scoring last season with an average of 2.56 goals per game.
Zegras is playing for the United States at the World Junior Championship.
The Kings added center Quinton Byfield with the No. 2 pick in the 2020 NHL Draft, and he is playing for Canada at the World Juniors.
It’s possible Los Angeles also gets contributions from forwards Gabriel Vilardi (No. 11, 2017 draft), Alex Turcotte (No. 5, 2019 draft) and Arthur Kaliyev (No. 33, 2019 draft). Turcotte and Kaliyev are playing for the United States at the World Juniors.
Los Angeles ended last season on a seven-game winning streak.
“We were coming together as a team,” Kings coach Todd McLellan said.