Every year around this time we’re treated to a refreshing reprieve from the summer doldrums, as the return of cooler, crisper weather and Technicolor foliage also heralds the return of the NHL. The regular season looms on the horizon and by September the players, once scattered across continents and time zones, have all drifted back where they belong – on the ice.
Just as the promise of a new season breeds excitement and optimism, however (both of which almost always become tempered by February), it also comes with a necessary evil: preseason games. Strangely enough, the mere existence of these seemingly pointless games is enough to drive fans of any sport into painful spasms for a variety of reasons. They lack intensity and excitement. They're meaningless. They're forced upon season ticketholders. And yes, at the end of a team’s preseason slate, regardless of game-by-game performance, their record at the start of the regular season is the same as everyone else’s – 0-0-0. And we won’t even go into the conniption fits some people have when these things go to the shootout.
While these arguments are at least somewhat valid, I personally have a hard time getting that upset about or annoyed by or bored with preseason. In fact, I actually enjoy these preliminary games – not because I find them exactly thrilling from a hockey standpoint, or think a team’s performance in the regular season is in any way foreshadowed by preseason dominance or lack thereof. And it’s not something I would focus on in a sport in which I have just a casual interest… in other words, I may root for the 'Skins once the NFL season kicks off, but I'm not about to sit down and watch an entire preseason game.
But for hockey, and the Caps in particular, I find plenty of compelling things about the preseason.
It is, first and foremost, a chance to see what is potentially the next generation of players in action – an opportunity to see Tom Wilson cash in on a beautiful pass, to watch Philipp Grubauer stand his ground in the shootout, to gauge the evolution of a future DC blueliner like Connor Carrick. Some of these players may see time with the Caps during the season, but for many, this is our one shot to see them in a Caps jersey until next summer, and that’s exciting. If prospect development interests you at all (and for some, admittedly, it doesn’t), this is the time to see how those fresh-faced 18-year-olds are starting to morph into legitimate NHLers – and there’s no better way than to watch how they play against, and alongside, other NHLers.
Preseason also provides the chance to watch the team take shape. There are battles for roster spots playing out, at times highly competitive ones and at times ending with an upstart rookie unseating a veteran. There are experimental lines and combinations that can be tested out now without consequence – for example, Adam Oates’s experimentation with Eric Fehr as a center, something that would probably not happen in the regular season (barring something catastrophic requiring it). It may prove to be fruitless. But if it works, maybe it becomes an option for the team in the regular season, which is always good. There are new teammates skating together and new linemates meshing (or not). Does Mikhail Grabovski work better with Brooks Laich or Martin Erat? Who becomes part of the power play unit? Is there a better option on defense than Mike Green and Karl Alzner or is that duo set in stone?
Not all of it is riveting. The argument that the hockey is bad is, particularly early on in the preseason, pretty spot-on to be sure. But most of it is at least mildly interesting to watch play out – and more importantly, it’s absolutely necessary. If anyone knows that now, it’s the players who suited up for the Caps last season after a grand total of zero preseason games under a new coach (and those of us who watched every painful minute). Just imagine what the start of the season would have been like had the team gotten their legs under them a bit before the games counted. It might not have been a one-for-one swap, but if you figure that the Caps would have played around 7 or 8 preseason games last year, and then look at their record through the first 7 or 8 games of the season… yeah.
Loving preseason hockey or even liking it is obviously not a prerequisite for being a "good" fan, whatever that may be. It comes down to personal taste and whether you’re willing to spend time and/or money on games that matter but don’t. However you may feel about preseason hockey, though, ultimately it means that the start of hockey season is just around the corner. And I think we can all agree that’s a good thing.