It’s finally starting to feel real. Following the Hurricanes’ first practice of the Phase 3 training camp at PNC Arena Monday ahead of the postseason starting Aug. 1, it’s finally starting to feel like we’re going to see some hockey.
Media are allowed in the building for these practices, to observe from the 200-level ledge lounge (under safety protocols that include a symptom checklist and temperature check on the way in, and requirement to wear masks and stay six feet apart). Everything is obviously different in the “new normal” (that phrase is cancelled once COVID is gone), and player interviews are conducted via Zoom, but it was great to be back in the building and experience the sights and sounds of real-life hockey.
Ryan and I will be rotating attending practices, along with attending the post-practice Zoom availabilities, so we’ll have you covered for full training camp coverage. Here are my observations from day one:
I’ll start with the, it’s probably not fair to call it an elephant, but decent-sized animal in the room. Of the group of players on the NHL roster when the season was paused, only rookie forward Martin Necas was absent Monday.
Per NHL protocol, the Hurricanes cannot comment on Necas’ absence or provide the reason for it.
Light on contact, heavy on energy
While what Rod Brind’Amour initially called (and then walked back) a “light practice” didn’t have much in the way of physicality, which Brind’Amour said the team will ramp up to, the energy and enthusiasm for the drills was visible as the team was all back together for the first time since March.
“We definitely went hard,” Brind’Amour said. “We went a little longer than I thought it was going to be. It was hard and I actually appreciate how hard they went. And I expected that. This is like Christmas for a lot of guys to get back at it, they’re just so excited to have an opportunity to do what they do.”
Little surprises on lines
The first group to take the ice for the bulk of the time was basically the NHL group minus Necas, with 12 forwards, the team’s now eight healthy defensemen and three goalies: Petr Mrazek, James Reimer and Alex Nedeljkovic.
The forward lines were basically as expected, with the top trio of Sebastian Aho, Andrei Svechnikov and Teuvo Teravaianen kept in-tact, Ryan Dzingel taking Necas’ place with Vincent Trocheck and Nino Niederreiter, Jordan Staal flanked by Brock McGinn and Justin Williams, and Morgan Geekie centering Jordan Martinook and Warren Foegle.
On defense the pairs were Dougie Hamilton and Jaccob Slavin, Brady Skjei and Sami Vatanen, Jake Gardiner and Trevor van Reimsdyk and Haydn Fleury and Joel Edmundson.
Vatanen skating with Skjei, who would seem to be in line to anchor the second pairing, in his first team practice is a bit surprising, but there’s plenty of time to figure out lines and pairings before game one against the Rangers.
While I was still there, a smaller group consisting of Jake Bean, Ryan Suzuki, Steven Lorentz and Anton Forsberg took the ice following the main group.
Injured players return
While Dougie Hamilton had been rehabbing at the team’s facilities (which was allowed as an injured player during the shut down) and a part of the Phase 2 voluntary workouts, Monday marked his first full-team practice since suffering a fractured fibula that required surgery in January.
Hamilton was glad to be back with his teammates, and the Hurricanes getting back a player who was firmly in the Norris Trophy conversation with 14 goals and 40 points at the time of his injury.
“I feel good,” Hamilton said. “It’s been a long time so just trying to keep improving everything and keep getting better over the next few weeks and hopefully I’ll feel better and better as we go. But I feel pretty good.”
Monday also marked the Hurricanes practice debut of Vatanen, who was injured when the team acquired him at this season’s trade deadline.
“Sami’s the one guy to me that hasn’t had any of it, because he didn’t practice with us,” Brind’Amour said. “He wasn’t a part of anything when he was here. So it’s a big step, I think, these next two weeks for him.”
The Hurricanes are scheduled to practice every day at PNC Arena at 10:30 a.m. through July 25. Practices are closed to the public.