In a season that is expected to be much different from the last for any number of reasons, changes should be notable right from the start.
While no player, coach or front-office member publicly cited last season’s brief training camp as a reason for the team’s fatally slow start at the time, hindsight has brought some apparent flaws to light.
Chief among them is the fact that there just wasn’t much on the line for veteran players whose status in the team was cemented heading into the year. Even after Brandon Sutter’s standout camp, room could not be found for him in the opening night lineup. It wasn’t until Tuomo Ruutu’s late-October suspension that Sutter could be recalled, never to leave again.
“One of the things that Rod Brind’Amour told me was that at last year’s camp, the team was pretty much set and it wasn’t overly competitive,” said General Manager Jim Rutherford.
Another was the relatively low number of pre-season games – just four instead of the more traditional six or seven.
“With the shortened camp and fewer games, it was hard to get guys who have been through 15 camps wired for exhibition games,” added coach Paul Maurice.
This year’s camp, the on-ice portion of which begins on Sept. 18, will be quite different. Three more pre-season games are on the schedule and a handful of open roster spots are there for the taking.
“This year’s will be competitive not just for open spots, but for veterans who recognize that there are good young players coming,” said Rutherford. “No one wants to be pushed down the lineup or out of the top six, which could very well happen.”
“We’re not going to have a problem with (players being motivated) this year, because our young guys are going to be jacked up just be out there,” said Maurice. “Training camp is going to be a jump-off point of what these guys can handle. We’re going to give them big minutes in exhibition games.”
Competition is expected to be fiercest at forward, where, realistically, there could be as many as four open spots for as many as 10 players. With Rutherford having said that the team could carry as many as eight defensemen on the initial post-camp roster, jobs on the back end could change on a nightly basis.
An early glimpse of the progression of young talent will be available at the upcoming Traverse City prospects tournament, which begins this Saturday and runs through the following Wednesday. Many of the participating players have already been working out in Raleigh, with one notable exception – recent first-round draft pick Jeff Skinner.
“This will be a fun guy to watch,” said Rutherford. “I’ve gotten calls from people at Canada’s junior camp and from people that have seen him working out with NHL players who tell me what a special player he is.”
Even after Skinner’s arrival, things could be further intensified by the arrival of one or two veteran tryouts (something Rutherford said will “probably” happen), or the possibility of a more permanent two-way contract for a player with NHL experience.
With that being said, Rutherford was very careful to maintain that younger players will get their promised opportunity to make the team.
“If it doesn’t work out six weeks into the season, then I’ll make adjustments,” he said. “But I think that it will.”