The NHL's marketing campaign to remind fans that hockey is back is, rather appropriately, "Hockey Is Back."
And that's true in the most technical sense possible.
Sticklers will say it never went away, and that's certainly true because I probably went to two or three dozen college games during the lockout. You could have also caught junior games, AHL games, ECHL games, World Juniors games, or even foreign league games. But for most NHL fans, "hockey" begins and ends with the NHL, and therefore, "Hockey Is Back."
But the thing is, no amount of apologizing from the League over the last few weeks, or discounted concessions and merchandise to get fans back in the buildings, is going to make up for loss of these first three and a half months of the season, and no one likely felt it more than the vast majority of NHL players.
Case in point: The Boston Bruins took on the Providence counterparts in a game for which the team distributed tickets for all 17,565 seats at TD Garden for free, and probably had about 13,000 people show up. It was a fun night, mainly because Providence won 7-5.
Goalscoring bonanza aside, just by looking at play for five minutes or so, you could certainly tell which team was in mid-season form, and which was made up largely of guys who hadn't played a competitive game with actual checking since last spring.
Boston certainly didn't have its legs under it, to say the very least, but let's just say you could very much tell which players on its roster took advantage of their opportunities overseas, and which definitely did not. Tyler Seguin, for example, was very obviously the best player on the ice, and had all the look of a kid who's about to improve upon his breakout sophomore season. That's thanks, one assumes, to his having dominated the Swiss league these last few months. Patrice Bergeron also looked good. So did Dennis Seidenberg, whose goal in the game was just gorgeous. Same for Rich Peverley. Same for Zdeno Chara. Same for Andrew Ference.
Not so much for Tuukka Rask, but he also had no help whatsoever in front of him, even as he allowed six goals on 24 shots or something like that. Or Milan Lucic, who skated around like he was dragging a truck behind him.
The Providence Bruins, led by well-known hockey greats like Max Sauve and Jamie Tardif, routinely carved up the Boston Bruins' defense. Hell, the second-best player on the ice was also a Providence Bruin up until a day or two before the scrimmage. Chris Bourque seems to have made the big club and looked excellent alongside Peverley and Chris Kelly (who played overseas himself), posting a goal and two assists. But I guess the question now is whether you can expect that kind of production out of a career minor leaguer when the season starts?
This was brutal hockey to watch from the best professional players on earth, and they were getting torched in transition by AHL guys.
The Providence Bruins, while very good hockey players in their own right, and were playing in what must have been a somewhat motivational situation, are also a decidedly mediocre club. Seventh in the AHL's Eastern Conference with 40 points in 35 games, they should have gotten creamed by arguably the second- or third-best team on paper in the NHL. And make no mistake, these guys weren't out there playing for jobs to start the season, because the big club's roster is pretty much set.
What all of this tells me is that when the puck drops tomorrow night, with the Bruins taking on the New York Rangers of all the super-elite teams on the planet, the hockey isn't going to be anything like aesthetically pleasing, and you can project that league-wide too.
What did the final number end up being? Something like 30 percent of the league played overseas during the lockout? A few more went down the AHL or ECHL, probably? That's a pretty huge portion of the league that hasn't played against anyone in a game with actual contact or trying that hard in eight months and if the Bruins' sloppy performance against their farm team is any indication, the rust isn't going to have come off between Tuesday and Saturday.
It should also be noted that these guys are still very obviously world-class players. Boston only scored two goals in the first two periods of the game, but then scored three in the space of about four minutes on a series of very good plays. The shots in particular were of extremely high quality, with the aforementioned Seidenberg wrister and one from Brad Marchand in the second period being particularly great. But even still, more passes went wide, ended up in guys' feet, or clattered into opposing sticks than anyone would have liked. The goalies let up goals they would have liked back. The defense kept losing guys in coverage.
That all gets ironed out over the course of a two-week training camp with some full-contact exhibitions thrown in for good measure, but when you've been in camp since Sunday after more than half a year off, you can't be expected to be completely good to go for an NHL season. It's not fair, but it's the way things have to be for the league to save some amount of face.
I guess we can maybe extrapolate from this, too, that teams with players who got a lot of time in competitive leagues overseas or here in North America might be in a better position to win games in the first few weeks of the season than those that have a bunch of guys who sat home. That will certainly play havoc with the standings to start out, not that the standings will need much help being insane this season anyway.
And none of this is to say anything about these guys' fitness levels, which should be okay considering they are professional athletes and all, but everyone in the hockey world has already been checking their watches to see when the next guy goes down with a groin injury (should be any minute now) over the season's first few weeks. There will be a lot of them, and that won't help the product any.
Hockey Is Back for sure, but it's probably going to be a lot uglier than you remembered for a while.
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