Seven things we learned during the preseason

Sunday, 09.29.2013 / 11:15 PM
Dan Rosen  - NHL.com Senior Writer

Training camp and the preseason schedule give coaches ample time to figure out what type of teams they have, prospects a chance to impress and veterans a chance to work out the kinks.

That's all over now. The games start counting Tuesday night, but before they do try to decipher some of the knowledge we gained in the preseason.

Here are seven things we learned during the preseason:

1. PTOs can work -- The shrinking salary cap meant a lot of veteran NHL players who normally would have been able to sign guaranteed contracts in July or August instead had to go to training camp on a professional tryout contract. It turns out the PTO angle worked this summer: Several players who were on the verge of being unemployed found work, and teams were able to secure depth at bargain prices.

Mason Raymond went to training camp with the Toronto Maple Leafs and earned a one-year, $1 million contract. He could start the season in Toronto's top six.

Damien Brunner signed a PTO with the New Jersey Devils midway through training camp and a few days later was given a two-year, $5 million contract. He might start the season on New Jersey's top line.

Tim Thomas chose to stay away from the NHL for 15 months, but the Florida Panthers gave him a chance to return by signing him to a PTO after training camp began. Thomas waited for the Panthers' ownership change to be official before signing a one-year contract that could earn him up to $4 million. He should be Florida's opening-night goalie and has a chance to make the Panthers one of the toughest teams to score on in the Eastern Conference.

Florida also gave PTOs to forward Brad Boyes and defenseman Tom Gilbert. Both veterans will be on the opening-night roster and should take the pressure off some of the younger prospects the Panthers are hoping to groom at the NHL level this season.

Florida wasn't done, though. Defenseman Ryan Whitney, who was released from his PTO with the St. Louis Blues on Friday, signed a deal with the Panthers on Sunday night.

"Very excited and honored to sign a contract with @FlaPanthers," Whitney said via his Twitter account (@ryanwhitney6). "Can't wait for season to start."

It should be noted that PTOs did not work for everybody. David Steckel (Minnesota Wild), Johan Hedberg (New York Rangers), Mathieu Garon (Los Angeles Kings) and Ian White (Winnipeg Jets) are among the players who were released from their PTOs before camp broke.

2. Best laid plans don't always work out -- Training camp and the preseason schedule have a way of weeding people out. Sometimes it's the people who general managers and coaches don't want to have to cut.

Such was the case in New York as the Rangers were hoping Chris Kreider would start the season on a line with Brad Richards and Rick Nash. Instead, Kreider is starting the season in Hartford with the Rangers' American Hockey League affiliate.

Kreider didn't do enough in camp to earn a roster spot and since he is still on his entry-level deal, he doesn't require waivers to go down to the minors.

Tyler Toffoli, Tanner Pearson and Linden Vey all had a chance to make the Kings' lineup, but fell short. The odds of L.A. keeping all three were slim, but instead the AHL's Manchester Monarchs are getting last season's top line back, at least for the time being.

The Toronto Maple Leafs were hoping to see growth from Joe Colborne, enough that they could start him at least on the wing in the bottom six. He didn't make it and instead of risking losing him on waivers, the Maple Leafs traded him to the Calgary Flames on Sunday for a conditional draft pick.

Tampa Bay Lightning fans were envisioning Jonathan Drouin, the No. 3 pick in this year's NHL Draft, on the top line with Steven Stamkos and Martin St. Louis. That still might happen, but not this season. The Lightning sent Drouin back to his junior team on Sunday. General manager Steve Yzerman is inclined to take his time with Drouin.

Chicago Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville was hoping Brandon Saad or Brandon Pirri would win the second line center job. It didn't happen, so 36-year-old Michal Handzus, Quenneville's safe pick, is starting the season between Patrick Sharp and Marian Hossa.

Saad is back on the left wing on the third line. Pirri, who was limited by an injury in training camp, is in the AHL.

Jason Zucker was supposed to have a role with the Minnesota Wild to start the season. He didn't make the team and was sent to the AHL on Sunday.

3. Patience, Morrow make the Blues better -- Blues general manager Doug Armstrong and coach Ken Hitchcock got to see what they had through four preseason games before deciding it wasn't quite enough. They convinced Brenden Morrow, who was biding his time as an unrestricted free agent, that the right opportunity for him was in St. Louis.

It should be a win-win for the Blues and Morrow, who signed a one-year, $1.5 million contract on Sept. 23.

Armstrong, Hitchcock and Morrow are familiar with each other from their days together in Dallas. The Blues needed a guy like Morrow who can fill a role on their third line but can be bumped up to a top-six role if necessary.

Morrow has put a lot of miles on his skates during a 13-year career as a grinding forward, but he's 34 years old and clearly can still play. Morrow had 25 points in 44 games combined between Dallas and Pittsburgh last season, then chipped in four points in 14 Stanley Cup Playoff games.

Hitchcock won't ask him to play 20 minutes a game, but a reduced role should help Morrow stay healthy and extend his career while giving the Blues another guy who can be a net front presence on the ice and a leader in the dressing room.

Even better, the Blues are getting a motivated player.

4. Oilers' center depth getting tested -- The Edmonton Oilers are supposed to take a big step this season under first-year coach Dallas Eakins, but they'll have to start the season without their top two centers.

Eakins knew when he took the job that third-year center Ryan Nugent-Hopkins would be out to start the season, possibly through October or longer, but then Sam Gagner was whacked in the face by an Zack Kassian's stick. It broke his jaw and put him out of the lineup for what could be two months or longer.

Eakins had already shifted Taylor Hall from left wing to center for training camp, preparing him to start the season as the Oilers' top-line center, likely between David Perron and Jordan Eberle. Eberle had eight points in the preseason, Perron had six and Hall scored two goals.

The Oilers, though, don't have another No. 1 draft pick -- or anybody even close to being the kind of player Hall is -- to replace Gagner. Eakins instead has to choose from a lot that includes Boyd Gordon, Will Acton and Mark Arcobello.

Gordon was an underrated signing during the offseason, but the Oilers acquired him to be a third- or fourth-line center and a defensive-zone faceoff specialist. He's never been a top-six player in his NHL career.

Acton and Arcobello have combined to play in one NHL game. Arcobello suited up for the Oilers last season and played more than 18 minutes against the Dallas Stars on Feb. 6.

Eakins isn't choosing from an All-Star crew here, but the Oilers have to find a way to make due until Nugent-Hopkins is healthy enough to return. Then they have to hope they can stay afloat as they wait for Gagner.

5. No questions, it's Fleury's net -- Pittsburgh Penguins coach Dan Bylsma made it clear after last season that Marc-Andre Fleury would be the team's No. 1 goalie at the start of the season. He didn't waver at all in training camp, but Tomas Vokoun's absence because of emergency surgery to remove blood clots in his pelvis solidified it for Fleury, who despite a second straight forgettable postseason will be in net for the Penguins when they open the season Thursday against the New Jersey Devils.

Vokoun will be out for an undisclosed amount of time; as it stands now, 26-year-old rookie Jeff Zatkoff is going to be Fleury's backup. Penguins general manager Ray Shero is not inclined to look for a veteran backup such as Hedberg, Ilya Bryzgalov or Jose Theodore, at least not until he finds out more about Vokoun.

Regardless, it's Fleury's net.

Fleury had a rough preseason, posting a 2.64 goals-against average and .865 save percentage in three appearances, but the Penguins aren't concerned about what he did in the games that don't count. He has a history of success in the regular season (249 wins, 2.66 GAA and .910 save percentage in 467 appearances) and Pittsburgh is banking on it continuing.

6. Dallas has some rookies to watch -- The Dallas Stars went 5-0-2 in the preseason, in large part because rookies Alex Chiasson, Valeri Nichushkin and Colton Sceviour had major impacts. Dallas coach Lindy Ruff may be asking for a lot more from the rookies in the regular season, which for the Stars starts on Thursday at home against the Florida Panthers.

Chiasson and Nichushkin, Dallas' first-round pick this year (No. 10), had three goals apiece in the preseason and generally looked like they were ready to contribute to an offense that is supposed to be led by Tyler Seguin and Jamie Benn. Chiasson is 22 and at this stage may be able to handle top-six minutes better than the 18-year-old Nichushkin.

Chiasson had six goals in seven games after getting called up to the Stars late last season before being injured. He should start the season on the second line. Nichushkin, though, is the more electrifying player and will likely be on the third line.

Sceviour, who is 24, is starting the season in the American Hockey League, but he showed with four goals in the preseason that the Stars can call on him for offense when they need an extra jolt.

7. Rangers might be in deep trouble to start the season -- The good news is defenseman Marc Staal's right eye is healed enough that he can play with no restrictions. But the rest of the developments around the New York Rangers should be a cause for concern.

They will start the season without two of their top six forwards in Ryan Callahan and Carl Hagelin. Last season's leading scorer, Derek Stepan, did not play in a preseason game because he didn't sign his new two-year contract until this past Thursday. The Rangers start the season with nine straight road games because of ongoing renovations at Madison Square Garden. They won't play a home game until Oct. 28.

The Rangers just went on a long Western road trip that included four days of training camp and golfing in Banff, Alberta. followed by four games in five nights in four different cities last week. They went 0-4 and were outscored 18-5.

Granted, results in the preseason usually don't mean all that much. Lineups are usually mixed with veterans and prospects and coaches are tinkering with all kinds of line combinations, defensive pairs and special teams systems.

But with significant players missing from the lineup and a long road trip awaiting the Rangers starting Thursday in Glendale against the Phoenix Coyotes, there is reason for fans in the Big Apple to be worried.

Follow Dan Rosen on Twitter: @drosennhl

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