It’s that time of year again.
After a shotgun training camp just nine months ago, the Carolina Hurricanes will skate back onto the ice for a much more traditional camp that will span three weeks and include six preseason games leading up to Opening Night against the Detroit Red Wings, a new Eastern Conference opponent, on Oct. 4.
The Hurricanes have invited 48 players – 27 forwards, 17 defensemen and four goaltenders – to camp, including 12 who skated with the team at the 2013 NHL Prospects Tournament in Traverse City, MI, and one invitee, veteran forward Radek Dvorak.
This will mark head coach Kirk Muller’s first proper training camp with the Canes, even though he’s already been the team’s bench boss for 105 games. If you ask him about it, he’s excited from a coaching perspective, but he’s more excited for the competition that should manifest itself among the 48 players.
“The area that we’re really focusing on a lot is the competitive level,” Muller said in a Wednesday interview. “We’re going to emphasize that a lot on the structure of our game for everyone on the ice. Competing to be a better and harder team to play against is what we’re after.”
On Thursday, 27 forwards split among two groups will step onto the ice for the Canes. By October, that figure will be pared down by about half.
Aside from the top line of Eric Staal, Alexander Semin and Jiri Tlusty, a trio that combined for 135 points (54g, 81a) in the 2012-13 season, a number of forward slots are up for the taking.
Who will flank Jordan Staal on the second line? Who will center the third line? What will be the make-up of the fourth line?
At the conclusion of last season, Tuomo Ruutu and Jeff Skinner surrounded Staal on the second line, but heading into camp, the Canes could tinker with the idea of Skinner as a third-line winger.
“It’s not determined who’s going to play on the right side with Jordan Staal yet,” Muller said.
Drafted fifth overall in the 2013 NHL Draft, Elias Lindholm has been pegged as the team’s possible third-line center. A summer shoulder injury slowed him down, but he logged two assists in Carolina’s third Traverse City game just a week ago. Riley Nash handled center duties on the third line for the better half of last season.
“The third-line center, the opportunity is there,” Muller said.
With the departure of center Tim Brent and the glut of forwards pushing for a full-time spot on the roster, the fourth line appears to be the most wide-open of the bunch heading into training camp.
“What I think will be really interesting are guys battling for the fourth line,” Muller said. “There are a lot of guys, and that’s where I think it’s going to be a real competitive camp to see who’s going to fight for that fourth line.”
The Hurricanes received sobering news on the eve of on-ice camp activity: Joni Pitkanen, who suffered a devastating heel injury on April 2, will miss the 2013-14 season.
In Pitkanen, the Canes lose a top-four defenseman who has averaged over 22 minutes of ice time per game since the 2005-06 season.
Between Ryan Murphy, Brett Bellemore, Michal Jordan, Matt Corrente and Mark Flood – to name a handful – the competition for a full-time roster spot on the back-end is suddenly intruiging.
“We’ve got a lot of depth right now on our defense, and Pitkanen’s situation will open the door. We just have to experiment in camp,” Muller said. “There should be a lot of competition back there on the blue line.”
Pitkanen’s injury will also jumble the projected defensive pairings. Acquired in a draft-day trade with Buffalo, Andrej Sekera was penciled alongside Tim Gleason, with Pitkanen and Justin Faulk rounding out the top four.
The question remains of how the Canes plan to shore up the blue line in Pitkanen’s absence, whether through a trade, a free agent signing or by plugging in someone already in the system; this is something that will play out over the next few weeks.
After suffering a third-degree MCL sprain in early March, Cam Ward enters training camp healthy. Free agent signing Anton Khudobin figures to be the team’s back-up goaltender, as Justin Peters and Mike Murphy, re-signed after a brief stint in the KHL, round out the foursome of goaltenders in camp.
The 48 camp invites have been divided into two groups, and Khudobin and Peters are listed as the two goaltenders for Team Staal (Group A). This will be worth keeping an eye on as the first weeks of training camp unfold and the two battle it out for the back-up spot.
The Hurricanes will play six preaseason games, including a slate of four straight games from Sept. 18-21. The team will play a home-and-home series with Columbus and Buffalo in addition to two games in Canada against Montreal.
“The first four games will be a lot of personnel evaluation,” Muller said. “It’s really about giving guys a fair opportunity to win themselves a job on the team.
“After that, we’ll cut it down, and the last two games will be pretty much our team and [will feature] a lot more structure to our system.”
The NHL will experiment with hybrid icing in the preseason, and a vote from the Players Association at the end of the preseason could see it implemented for the 2013-14 regular season.
With hybrid icing, the linesman will blow the play dead if the defender is first to the faceoff dot (closest to the goal line). If the attacker beats the defender to the dot, play will continue as it does currently, and a tie, according to Elliotte Friedman, will go to the defender in an effort to curb risk of injury. In the case that play is blown dead but the puck does not cross the goal line, the ensuing faceoff will take place at center ice.