With the business of free agency winding down and arbitration a few weeks off, many teams held their prospect camps this past week. If you've never attended and you have the opportunity, make it a point to take in some of the action.
Not so much because the hockey is scintillating -- it is July after all -- but because the sense of wonder is uplifting, especially that of the players just selected during the June amateur draft. There are others with college or junior eligibility remaining, guys turning pro this season and also a smattering of players who played in the minors last year. Yet, seeing the most recent crop of picks up close and engaging in their first NHL experience is the highlight -- at once enlightening and invigorating.
The proliferation of prospect camps league-wide is an indication of the importance of having young players ready to make the jump to the NHL quicker than ever. The camps benefit the players and the organization. "These kids get to come in and get acclimated before the main training camp in September", says Dan Marr, Director of Pro Scouting for the Atlanta Thrashers. "They have a chance to get familiar with the surroundings, the people involved and the coaching staff's philosophies. We get to give them lifestyle tips and put forth a personalized training regimen for each to follow no matter where they play this upcoming season."
The carryover effect to the main camp aids in the evaluation process. As Marr explained, "The young players have a chance to now compete without the air of newness had they not attended a prospect camp. Instead of having to factor that into the evaluation, the club can get a truer picture of where each player is in relationship to NHL competition. Everyone is that much further along in the process as a result of holding a camp in July."
Make no mistake, as helpful as getting the prospects together is, the jump to training camp is vast. In July, the players go up against their peer group. The pecking order is almost pre-determined in that the highest picks stand out. In Atlanta's case, Zach Bogosian stood out like you'd expect from a third overall pick. Same thing for graduating juniors Riley Holzapfel and Spencer Mahacek in that they looked more complete than most of the others.
Does that mean that these kids will show the same at the main camp? Probably not. They're going up against men at that point -- guys with more moxie and muscle. And even if a prospect plays well at training camp, it doesn't always serve as an accurate indicator of season-long sustainability. Every year there is a litany of first-timers who surprise early only to level off as the season grinds on. That too, is a natural part of the process at the NHL level.
For now, there are hundreds of hopefuls who feel a lot closer to realizing their NHL dream this week than they did even days ago. The ones who realize that this was merely a first step in a long and challenging process have the best chance of sticking with the big club. For most, though, they can pencil in summer camp again for next year.
And that's a great hockey fix in July.