Training camp matters. It just matters less than we – and in some cases the players – think it does. Just consider what happened to Anton Lander and Will Acton last year.
Training Camp, Fall 2014
Acton and Lander entered training camp a year ago on relatively even footing. Acton had played 47 games in the minors and 30 in the majors the preceding year; Lander had played 46 and 27 respectively. Acton had posted mediocre numbers in the American league but scored a little in the NHL; Lander had been an elite centre in the AHL but managed just a single assist in his NHL run despite several opportunities on good lines.
I strongly felt – and I was far from alone in this – that the balance of evidence suggested that Lander was the better player. Neither had particularly stood out in the majors, but watching both play in Oklahoma City in 2013-14 I knew that Lander’s ceiling was much, much higher; the Oilers just had to find a way to get him play in the NHL the way he did in the minors.
The Oilers disagreed. Acton made the team out of camp. Lander was waived and sent to the minors.
What Was Said
Dallas Eakins isn’t particularly well regarded in Edmonton these days, but I doubt many people would argue with the general principle he outlined on the day the Oilers made their final cuts of camp. I’m going to quote him at length here:
It’s been a terrible day. It’s been hard and heart-breaking and something that you don’t wish on anybody to go through. We’ve got some emotional, upset, disappointed men in our organization today. We feel for them, but that’s the competition of training camp. It’s not a final blow; I think that’s the hardest thing to get through to the guys today, that everybody thinks the team was picked today. Well, the team was picked for game one. After game one things change, and game two and that’s the way it goes. I can say from my experience it’s the worst day I’ve seen for disappointment, emotion. An extremely hard day for everyone in the room… You try to deliver the message, but we also understand that we’re going to have to swing back to these guys again and talk to them again and make sure that they’re alright, that they understand that’s going on. But in the end, that’s competition. It’s when you get so close on a number of these issues, it came down to – one of the decisions was based off the position, so that’s how close it gets. But you’re right, I’m not sure a lot of our words were heard in those meetings; I don’t expect them to be. I’m sensitive to it; it seems like yesterday I was sitting in that chair and it’s not a fun day. So we’ll swing back around and build these guys back up because we’re going to need every one of them.
It’s completely understandable that some players weren’t in a mood to hear that message. Steve Pinizzotto (who would get 18 games later in the year) had been brilliant in the preseason and realistically done everything that had been asked of him; he got squeezed out. Given that it was likely his last opportunity to secure an NHL job, it would only be natural if he was bitter about the decision.
But the message was accurate. It’s a long, long season. Players get hurt and players struggle in the NHL. People in the AHL stand out. Changes are made as a result. As Eakins acknowledged, those guys who were final cuts were still important to the organization in the season to come.
Regarding Lander specifically, Craig MacTavish had this to say:
I think Anton [Lander] had a much better camp than he had last year, but I think there were guys that outplayed him. We’re not closing the book on Anton, but he’s got to back and wait for his next opportunity.
What Ultimately Happened
Acton played all of three games in Edmonton in 2014-15, despite making the team out of camp. He was demoted and played just six games in the AHL before being shipped out of the organization entirely.
Lander played 29 games in the minors and was very good. He got a shot later in the year and put up 20 points in 38 NHL games. He was rewarded by the Oilers with a two-year contract extension.
Nor was Lander an isolated case. Pinizzotto, Iiro Pakarinen and Tyler Pitlick both ended up getting roughly the same number of games as Jesse Joensuu in the NHL, despite Joenssu winning the last right wing job in camp (also worth noting: the difference in quality between the three turned out to be very minor indeed). Martin Marincin ended up playing more than Brad Hunt and Darnell Nurse and was only passed by Oscar Klefbom in the back half of the year; the latter three names were on the Game 1 roster while Marincin was down in the minors.
This also applies to Todd McLellan. Last fall, defenceman Matt Tennyson scored eight points in 27 games in the NHL in 2014-15, despite being cut from the team ahead of players like Taylor Doherty (zero NHL games) and Taylor Fedun (seven NHL games in 2014-15).
On one level, training camp matters far less than we tend to think it does. The end of camp is in some ways an artificial boundary, and teams have to make decisions between closely ranked players at the bottom of the roster. Those decisions are always liable to change if they appear wrong five, 10, 20, even 60 games into the year.
On another level, camp does matter. Players exposed to waivers or returned to junior can be lost for the year (or permanently); the decision to cut Lander would have had nasty repercussions if one of the league’s other 29 teams had been interested. So, potentially, a decision to cut Brandon Davidson this year might matter more to the team over the course of 2015-16 than a decision to send down Nurse, because Nurse will always be available while Davidson could plausibly be claimed off waivers.
Training camp and the drama surrounding it is generally enjoyable for fans, particularly after a long and hockeyless summer. But, much as with reality television, it’s worth remembering that a lot of the drama is centered on petty difference that really won’t matter much in the long run.
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