While the Canucks’ regular season won’t begin until October 15th, for true diehards, the beginning of the hockey calendar actually starts a month earlier. Preseason hockey is sometimes scoffed at by the masses, who turn up their noses at games that “don’t count.” That’s more true than ever this year, as the World Cup of Hockey overlaps with the NHL’s exhibition schedule.
However, while the preseason may not show up in the standings, it’s still a massively important part of any team’s season. Those that tune in for the preseason continually find an exciting and unique brand of hockey that almost seems like a miniature season in and of itself, with epic rises and falls, exhilarating debuts, and brave last stands. The preseason may not count, but it absolutely matters. Here are ten reasons why it’s always worth watching.
10) Amateur Play-by-Play
While the players on the ice take the preseason seriously, the same can’t always be said for the broadcasting teams. While this can sometimes have embarrassing results, more often than not it’s a chance to hear some fun and refreshing voices calling your team’s games.
The Canucks have had some real gems in the broadcaster’s booth during preseason games, including the ever-entertaining Don Taylor and smooth-rock sensation Michael Buble.
9) Interesting Venues/Split-Squad Games
The preseason also allows for teams to take their show on the road, playing games in locations they would otherwise never dream of. Exhibition games in Las Vegas used to be a regular thing, and now they’re getting a team of their own. Vancouver has played preseason games as far north as Terrace, BC, and as far away as Japan.
Something that has disappeared of late, but used to be a regular feature of the preseason, are split-squad games. These usually consisted of teams each creating two 20-man rosters, and playing near-simultaneous games at each home arena. Nothing beat rigging up a computer to stream one game while the TV next to it played the other.
8) Surprising Successes
Much like the playoffs, the preseason always creates its own heroes. Players often come out of nowhere to light it up and, more often than not, fade into obscurity. For evidence of this, look no further than Anton Lander, who tied with Alex Ovechkin for last year’s preseason scoring lead. On the other hand, sometimes the preseason can predict a player’s breakout, as it did when Colton Parayko put up 6 points in 5 games en route to a stellar rookie campaign.
The Canucks have experienced both sides of this coin, with preseason successes like Ben Hutton outnumbered by the faders like Sergei Shirokov or Fedor Fedorov.
7) Lineup Battles
It’s obvious that the preseason will be more meaningful for players that aren’t guaranteed an NHL position, but it can also mean a lot for players that are battling for spots within the lineup. A good preseason can be the difference between starting the season on the top powerplay unit or languishing on the third line. It is one of the few times throughout the season when fans can witness unbridled competition between teammates.
The Canucks will see some intense battles throughout their lineup this preseason, especially on the bottom end. Nikita Tryamkin, Lucas Sbisa, Andrey Pedan, and Philip Larsen are all battling for time on defense, while Brendan Gaunce, Alex Burrows, Anton Rodin, Jake Virtanen, Markus Granlund, Derek Dorsett, and Emerson Etem will compete for limited forward spots.
PTOs, or professional tryouts, are something that only occur in the preseason. (Players can sign PTOs mid-season, but cannot play games while on them, just practice). A PTO is essentially the preseason in its purest form: a player auditioning for a contract and a job with nothing but their performance on the ice to help seal the deal. Nobody takes the preseason more seriously than a player on a PTO.
While most PTOs do not end up signing NHL contracts, a few do every year, like Brad Boyes with Toronto last season. In the 2016 preseason, there should be more PTOs than ever thanks to players being away for the World Cup, and thus a need for warm bodies. Look for the Canucks to invite a few players, but don’t expect anyone as exciting as former PTOs Brendan Morrison or Owen Nolan. So far, it’s just Tuomo Ruutu and James Sheppard.
5) Cheaper Tickets
How much of a discount your preseason tickets are compared to the regular season is highly dependent on your market, but chances are good you can get tickets to an exhibition game for a relative bargain. While the roster quality won’t be the same, it’s still a chance to watch your favourite team up close, and maybe your only chance to see certain players.
With things like the Penticton Young Stars Tournament (more on that later), and the ever-roving training camp scrimmages, the preseason offers fans all over the province a more affordable and accessible opportunity to cheer on the Canucks.
Fans of the physical side of hockey, or those that yearn for the “old school” days, know that the preseason usually delivers almost as much rough-and-tumble action as the playoffs. There may not be points on the line, but there are jobs up for grabs, so players with a physical element to their game need to take every opportunity to show what they can to. Combined with generally more lackadaisical officiating, this leads to some violent clashes and scrums galore.
Every team seems to be more willing to carry toughness on the roster in the preseason, in part because they know everyone else will be. Youthful enthusiasm meets with veteran desperation, and games where everyone is taking the body can quickly get out of hand. This can lead to players making reputations of a different sort before entering the league. Who can forget Nathan McIver driving the San Jose Sharks insane, or young Rick Rypien and what seemed like a mission to beat up everyone in Alberta?
3) Rookie Tournaments
For many, rookie tournaments are the crown jewel of the preseason. Featuring various teams’ best prospects in what may be their only chance to impress the brass before pre-camp cuts, these showcases are always full of energy and frantic play. Some of these players are invites on ATOs, and for them these tournaments may be their one and only chance to earn an NHL contract. That’s why these games are played every bit as passionately as a first-round playoff matchup.
The Canucks have been hosting a rookie tournament in Penticton, BC, for the past number of years, known as the Penticton Youngstars Tournament. This tournament always delivers fun and entertaining hockey full of storylines, such as Jake Virtanen’s physical domination of Connor McDavid and the Oilers last year.
2) Debuts in Team Colours
While some fans don’t consider a player to have officially debuted with a team until they suit up in the regular season, the preseason still offers a sneak peek at recent acquisitions in their new uniforms. This is especially meaningful for teams that made huge moves, and you can bet that fans will be lining up to see Auston Matthews’ first preseason game in Toronto, or PK Subban’s in Nashville.
For the Canucks, the Youngstars Tournament featured the Canuck-colour debuts of top prospects such as Thatcher Demko and Olli Juolevi. The preseason itself will allow fans to catch a glimpse of Erik Gudbranson and Loui Eriksson in the blue, green, and white.
1) It Means Everything to Some Players
It’s easy to focus on how little the preseason might mean to stars like Sidney Crosby or the Sedins, but the number of players playing for their livelihoods far outnumbers the veterans taking it as a tune-up. That more than half of the players that enter training camp end up being cut gives statistical evidence as to the importance of exhibition games for the majority of the players playing in them.
For new draft picks, it represents their first time skating on NHL ice. For aging veterans, it may be their last shot at proving they still belong. Players on PTOs are literally fighting for their jobs, and some players will simply never make it beyond the preseason in their careers. The preseason means a lot to a lot of players, and that always translates into entertaining hockey for the fans.