How to filter this season's 'He's in the best shape of his life!' stories

Aug 20, 2:29 PM

Are you ready? Are you ready for the flood of columns, interviews and general assurances from players that they came into camp in “the best shape of their lives?”

Just once, I’d like to hear someone own a lazy summer. “Honestly Jim, we went pretty deep in the playoffs last year, so I took a lot of time off, then we had a wedding to attend in Cabo, and before you know it, poof, summer was over. I’m a slug right now.”

With all the noise about just how fantastically fit everyone is (and believe me, that noise is coming), it’s tough to figure out who made strides while others didn’t. And hey, it’s tough to figure out if the differences in summer training are significant enough to matter anyway.

So, today we’re going to look at when players return to their teams, and what to keep in mind when sifting through the information we’re given. Because it’s not very often we get to hear “You guys seen Dennis Seidenberg after this summer? He got faaaaaaaat.

Does anybody really come to camp in poor shape?

Yes. Yes they do.

As much as we like to pretend that all athletes are equipped with this crazy work ethic that separates them from your average player, that ain’t exactly the case. Some people are just genetically gifted enough to coast more than others.

It’s pretty rare - maybe one guy a team? - but when you get a player like that on a five-year contract, there are going to be summers where they maybe skip a few leg sets and go golfing. That’s just human nature.

What’s “poor” compared to good? Does it matter?

Obviously no professional athlete spends the summer huffing Cheetos dust. They’ll be skating and lifting occasionally, no matter how comparably lazy they were. So, nobody is coming in at a level that’s unsafe to play at or anything.

But some players work out so. so. so. hard it’s truly tough to comprehend. These days they have fitness coaches and nutritionists and programs that stretch from June to training camp in September and beyond.

They’re 3% body fat, faster than they’ve ever been, and machines with the dial set to “kill.”

A player who comes to camp intending to get into better game shape as camp moves along is easy to pick out in a group of those. In hockey, you don’t get the opportunity every day to showcase your skills, but if you get deep in camp and a veteran still hasn’t made his presence known, you can bet he’s starting the season behind the eight ball. And frankly, that can torch full seasons for guys who never get out of the doghouse.

What can we take from fitness testing?

Almost nothing. At Islanders camp in 2007-08, one of the tests was to kneel, and chest pass a medicine ball as far as you physically could. I dunno, don’t overthink it. Anyway, Bill Guerin got on his knees, grabbed the ball, waited for the word...then basically dropped it and got up. He was the captain of the damn team and under contract - what’s the point of this again?

What teams are looking for are major changes from the previous season for returning players (if a guy can suddenly do an extra 10 squats with the same weight, maybe it’s worth giving him a longer look in camp), and outliers. They want to know which player/players are in the worst shape - helpful context when evaluating guys - and less importantly, which player is the fitness hero.

The goal is basically the same as being in a group of people being chased by a lion. Just don’t be the slowest.

Other notes

Certain people perform better at different builds. Not everyone needs to be on the same summer program, they don’t all need to look the same, and not all bigger guys need to lose weight.

I can think of two bigger players I’ve played who will openly say they found they felt better and had more success following the summers they didn’t go diet crazy trying to slim down.

By the same token, some player’s aren’t meant to stack 15 pounds of muscle on their slighter frames at age 20. They can be more elusive at a more natural size for them. Not all body types are the same, not everyone is out there to do the same things.

***

In the end, take it all with a grain of salt. Players and agents want everyone to hear about their player’s great summers for obvious reasons. Teams looking to create certain rosters will hold up “fitness” as an excuse to demote certain players. What you’re hearing about fitness rarely matters, and is rarely the truth.

All I know is, if a guy like Dustin Byfuglien - at a 270 pound build most would describe as “rotund” - can throw up a 20 goal, 56 point season, guessing a guys fitness level based on his look is probably not the best way to get it right.