Looking good in the first week of NHL training camp is like looking smart on the first day of school.
It's easy when all you have to do is pick a desk, unpack your school supplies, meet the new teacher and see if the class gerbil survived the summer.
They don't separate the whiz kids from the dunce-cap candidates until the first book report, science project or math test.
Just like they don't separate NHLers from the Not Ready For Prime Time Players until late in the process, when rosters are almost trimmed to the final 23.
"It's a huge difference. You're playing against older guys, experienced guys who have been in the league for a while," said Fernando Pisani, who knows from experience that looking good in the first week of camp is a lot easier than looking good in the last week. "You're going up against guys who can make those little plays that people in the stands don't even notice; good sticks, taking away the passing lanes and shooting lanes. As the games go on in pre-season and the vets are getting ready to go, the games change quite a bit."
The Oilers and their hopefuls take a step in that direction tonight. In Calgary. It's still early in the process, the Flames will have a whack of rookies and AHLers on the ice, but it's still Edmonton-Calgary, in Calgary, and that alone should provide plenty of insight for Craig MacTavish.
"Any time you play Calgary, it gives you a really good sense of how your players are going to compete in a really tough environment," said MacTavish. "I relish the opportunity to go down there and see how the guys who are on the cusp of getting in are going to perform in a tough situation, a tough building."
Anyone can look good in low-intensity scrimmages and early pre-season games against rookies. But the deeper they go in camp, the harder it is to strut their stuff.
Jarret Stoll remembers thinking after his first few intersquad scrimmages, gee, this isn't so hard.
But as camp progressed, and the juniors and American hockey leaguers were replaced by seasoned pros, the time and space were gone. Moves that had Golden Bears searching for their jockstraps didn't work anymore, and winning battles in the corner was a struggle.
"It kept getting harder and tougher and that's what young guys have to realize quickly," said Stoll. "Right now it's still pretty early, but as you get closer to the last two games it's pretty close to full teams trying to get prepared for the home opener.
"If you didn't improve, you didn't pick up your game and get quicker at certain things, you'd look stupid out there."
Rookie Patrick Thoresen, a Norweigan-born winger who played in Sweden last year, has looked very smooth in camp so far, a couple of nice assists in two pre-season games. Tonight, when the intensity gets ramped up another notch, will provide more clues about his game.
WELCOMES THE CHALLENGE
Thoresen welcomes the challenge.
"Oh yeah," said the 5-foot-11, 188 pounder. "I've heard that the Battle of Alberta is a rough game. I like to play rough, too, so I'm looking forward to it. I like to play rough, that's no problem."
"He's done a lot of things well up to this point in training camp," said MacTavish. "I'm really interested in seeing how he's going to play in that building."
Same goes for all of them.
"At this stage of the game you know it's going to get increasingly difficult," said the coach. "I've been around long enough to know it's going to get a lot tougher and a lot more difficult and I hope Calgary is a good indication of that."