Keith Gretzky sat in the stands and kept his eyes focused on the ice as coach Jay Woodcroft and staff sent Bakersfield Condors players through various drills as training camp got under way Monday morning at Mechanics Bank Arena.
He liked what he saw.
And why not?
The Condors opened training camp with 31 players, 16 who were on the roster last season when the Condors won the AHL regular season Pacific Division championship before falling to San Diego in the Pacific Division Finals.
Among those 16 are the top-four scorers from last season — Tyler Benson, Cooper Marody, Joe Gambardella and Josh Currie. All but Marody spent time in the NHL last season.
“What’s not to like,” said Gretzky, assistant General Manager of the Edmonton Oilers who added the role of General Manager of the Condors to his duties this past summer.
Consider that four or five more players will likely percolate down from Edmonton before the season opens on Oct. 4 and toss in a few highly regarded new faces and it certainly looks as if the Condors are poised to make some waves in the upcoming season.
“We’ve got the forwards, the D and the goaltending,” said Gretzky, who noted that he would be spending a lot more time in Bakersfield in his new role. “We’re putting more emphasis on our kids. They’re our bread and butter, an important part of our team up top.”
Gretzky said there will be several players in Bakersfield this season who “are close” to making the transition to the NHL but that they will not be rushed.
“We want them to improve down here and develop,” he said. “We’re not rushing our kids. We don’t want them to sit up there and not be playing. They know they’re close. They have to concentrate on down here. Don’t look up. That’s when you lose your focus.”
The focus for Jay Woodcroft and staff will be overall improvement from last season.
“Everybody’s very excited about building on what was laid down last year,” Woodcroft said. “We were very clear with our group in our meeting (Sunday night) that this is a new year, that we’re looking to take a step and to do that we have to put the work in in training camp.
“That’s what this week is all about. It’s about laying a foundation and defining who we are as a hockey team. The biggest thing for us, we want to adapt, we want to evolve and we want to improve.”
While there are many returning players, Woodcroft said he considers this a new team.
“We have some new people around our team,” he said. “We have some people that are competing to be a part of this team. We have some draft picks that will be introduced to our team so it’s a different team. We’re not looking to dine out on anything that was done last year. We’re about building something for 2019-20.”
And as was the case last season, Woodcroft will be looking for veteran leadership to help guide the team.
“The good thing for us is our organization has secured some very good leaders," Woodcroft said. “Guys like Keegan Lowe, Brad Malone, Josh Currie, Joseph Gambardella, and then you bring in a quality person and leader like Anthony Peluso that augments that group.
“We’re looking forward to those guys for setting the tone for the younger ones this week.”
Veteran center Malone, who upped his NHL games played count to 199 with 16 last season, said there is no doubt the Condors are a step ahead this season from where they were a year ago.
“We understand the expectations more,” he said. “We understand what it takes to be a good team every night. There’s expectations within the locker room, then coming through the coaches and all the way through the organization.
“I think we’re hungry. I think we have a little bit of a sour taste in our mouths from last year. We had some goals we didn’t achieve, some expectations we’re going to put back on ourselves and hold ourselves accountable.
"It’s fun to win and that’s what we’re here to do this year. It’s time to get going.”