Two weeks from now, while the round-robin phase of the 2016 World Cup of Hockey chugs along in Toronto, the rest of the NHL will spring to life without a significant chunk of its workforce. Through Tuesday, the eight-team tournament counted 169 NHL players on its rosters, and 14 of 30 head coaches on its staffs. “It’s a strange training camp, I think, for a lot of teams, because they’re going to be missing coaches and their dominant players,” says Todd McLellan, head coach of Team North America and the Edmonton Oilers. “Usually those are the ones who take charge early, so it’ll be interesting to see how things evolve.”
Appropriate measures are in place everywhere to handle the unfamiliar circumstances. A host of professional tryout agreements have been signed already, with more expected to help fill temporary vacancies. In Columbus, John Tortorella reportedly conducted physical testing with six participating players before turning his attention to helming Team USA. While Washington coach Barry Trotz helps Team Canada as an assistant, the reigning Presidents’ Trophy winners will open their preseason under the guidance of Todd Reirden, recently promoted to associate coach and tasked with handling camp in Trotz’s absence. Currently occupied with helping McLellan on the under-23 North American squad, Tampa Bay’s Jon Cooper has asked his charges to videotape more practices, so he can watch while away.
Nowhere are these collisions of priorities more evident than at North America’s camp in Montreal, where eight members of the Oilers’ organization arrived over the past week. “We’ve got the whole gang coming,” forward Ryan Nugent-Hopkins says. In addition to McLellan, Nugent-Hopkins, general manager Peter Chiarelli, and second-year sensation Connor McDavid, Edmonton also dispatched an assistant coach (Jay Woodcroft), team physician (Dr. Dhiren Naidu), athletic therapist (T.D. Forss), and director of media relations (J.J. Hebert).
“So almost all avenues, other than equipment, is tapped, and has to be accounted for when training camp starts,” McLellan said late last month. “We’re okay. We’re a group that’s been through it once already in Edmonton, a group that’s been through it many times in San Jose. [Assistant] Jim Johnson will be very capable of running it. Peter can monitor from a distance as a manager, and the medical isn’t a problem. We’ve got a boatload of doctors in Edmonton who can cover.”
Indeed, having so many Oilers in one spot even might help a franchise looking to climb from the Western Conference cellar. “It’s a good opportunity for us Oilers to come together and do something special,” McDavid says. “It just goes to show that, players aside, we have some of the best people around the league working in the organization. Todd is one of the best coaches in the league, for sure. Jay Woodcroft is a really good assistant coach. Peter’s amazing. It just goes to show that we’re very fortunate to have the people within the organization that we do.”
And besides, four of the eight teams will be eliminated by Sept. 23, six full days before the NHL’s preseason schedule begins. “I don't know what the young group is going to do,” McLellan says. “But if we don’t have success, I’ll only miss one day of training camp. If we do have success, I think we’ll still be okay.”
For contrast McLellan pointed to Colorado, where Jared Bednar was hired Aug. 25, just 10 days before World Cup participants reported to their various camps. And if Bednar's job wasn’t difficult enough, the Avalanche will be represented by six players at Toronto’s Air Canada Centre, tied for the ninth most of any NHL team. (Tampa Bay leads the pack with 12, followed by Chicago’s 10 and Washington’s nine.) “That’s not easy,” McLellan says. “That’s not an ideal situation.”
Avalanche forward Matt Duchene, at least, wasn’t too concerned, even if he and Team Canada are favorites to last until the championship round (Sept. 27-Oct. 1), meaning he could conceivably return to Colorado only two days prior to its first exhibition (Oct. 4). “We’ll see when we get back,” he said Wednesday, following Canada’s third practice in Ottawa. “It sounds like we’re going to be doing something similar system wise as we’re doing here. I think it should be an easier adjustment going back there, for sure.”
Duchene even found some positives among his and teammates’ potentially extended absences: “It’s actually better. You know a lot of your top guys will be coming in flying, playing in a tournament like this. You know guys will be used to playing at a very high-pace level, and we should be able to help push the pace when we get back.
“Those guys are going to be sharp in terms of systems, and we’ll be sharp in terms of our level of play. It’ll be a good give and take.”