Is it October yet? Not quite, but hockey is back.
The Carolina Hurricanes begin the on-ice portion of training camp on Friday, a camp that will span three weeks and include seven preseason games leading up to Opening Night against the New York Islanders on Oct. 10.
The Hurricanes have invited 51 players – 28 forwards, 18 defensemen and five goaltenders – to camp, including 17 who skated with the team at the 2014 NHL Prospects Tournament in Traverse City, Mich.
This will mark head coach Bill Peters’ first training camp with his new team. Also new to the mix are assistant coaches Steve Smith and Rod Brind’Amour (on the bench this season versus being the “eye in the sky”) and goaltending coach David Marcoux. So, what should be expected?
“I think you’re going to see a training camp that’s very competitive. We’ve got good depth at all three positions, really,” he said. “We play an exhibition game on the third day of camp, so we’ve got to get some work done and get ready. Guys are going to get an opportunity to show us what they’re all about. It’s a clean slate for everybody.”
On Friday, 28 forwards split among two groups will step onto the ice. Come Oct. 10, that figure will essentially be cut in half.
Group A features names like Eric Staal, Jeff Skinner and Elias Lindholm with newcomers Brad Malone and Jay McClement and young guys Phil Di Giuseppe and Sergey Tolchinsky, among others. Group B is highlighted by Jordan Staal, Alexander Semin and Jiri Tlusty with a glut of younger players in Zach Boychuk, Victor Rask, Brock McGinn and Brendan Woods, among others.
With a new coaching staff comes new questions. Tlusty, E. Staal and Semin were a dominant force in the NHL two seasons prior, but injuries disrupted that chemistry last season. Will we see that trio reunited? Will Eric and Jordan play together? Will one or more of the players who have spent the better part of the last few seasons in Charlotte crack the big club’s lineup this year?
“We’ve got depth up front, and guys want to move up the depth chart,” Peters said. “So we’re going to balance off our lines and let everybody play.”
Peters said he envisions three scoring lines and will tinker with his groupings in the preseason to find combinations that work.
“I see a lot of flexibility. I think we need to have three lines that can score, and I think we have enough players to do that,” he said. “Tlusty has had good success playing with Semin and Eric Staal, but I want to have a look at Skinner there. I want to have a look at Lindy in the middle. I know we project him to be a right winger here this year, but at some point we’re going to play him as a center, so I want to play him in the middle a little bit in the preseason.”
Elsewhere among the forward corps, Zach Boychuk and Chris Terry are both looking to make the full-time jump to the Hurricanes this season. Boychuk led the Checkers in scoring last season with 74 points, including an AHL-best 36 goals. Terry led the team in scoring in each of the two seasons prior.
Also worth watching will be Rask and McGinn. Rask is coming off a dominant performance in Traverse City where he led all skaters in points with nine (4g, 5a) in four games. McGinn is prepared to begin his professional career this season.
Decisions on defense won’t be any easier, as the team brings into camp eight blue-liners who had NHL experience last season: Brett Bellemore, Justin Faulk, Tim Gleason, Ron Hainsey, Jay Harrison, John-Michael Liles, Ryan Murphy and Andrej Sekera.
Then there’s seventh overall draft pick Haydn Fleury. At just 18 years of age, he will likely head back to Red Deer (WHL), but he might at least make the decision a difficult one, as he comes off a steady, reliable performance in Traverse City.
Faulk and Sekera combined to be the team’s best defensive pairing last season and are expected to play together again this year. But that’s not to say the coaching staff won’t at least experiment.
“With the D pairings, we’re going to mix and match a little bit. We know we can always go to Sekera-Faulk as a pair. We know that. We don’t need to play them together all through the preseason,” Peters said. “We need a left-handed D man to go over and play on the right side, so we’ll experiment with some different guys. John-Michael Liles tells me he’s comfortable over there, and he’s got the skill set that says he should be able to do it. That’s what we’re going to be trying to find out in the preseason.”
For the first time in years, there is real competition in net.
Five goaltenders will attend camp, including 2014 second-round draft pick Alex Nedeljkovic, but realistically, the battle for the starting position in Carolina comes down to Cam Ward and Anton Khudobin.
Ward is coming off a frustrating 2013-14 campaign that was marred with injuries; he started just 28 games, posting a 10-12-6 record with a 3.06 goals-against average and a .898 save percentage.
“I don’t have a reference point for Cam Ward with his fitness, but he’s healthy. Everyone told me how great he looks,” Peters said. “He’s had a great summer from a lot of different perspectives.”
Khudobin, meanwhile, had a career year, starting 34 games and recording a 19-14-1-1 record with a 2.30 goals-against average (third-best in franchise history for single season) and a .926 save percentage (franchise record for single season).
“I got to meet Anton the other day, and he’s a real engaging, energetic and fun personality,” Peters said. “I think we’ve got a good tandem there.”
Peters wants a player to emerge as the starter, but that doesn’t mean the tandem won’t be crucial in the team’s potential success in the grind of an 82-game season.
“We’re going to let them battle it out in the preseason and see who emerges as the starter, but we’re going to need both of our guys,” he said. “You look at the start of the year, and we’re playing New York back-to-back. We’re probably going to have to use them both. They need to get ready and be dialed in. It’s not going to change our team game who we play in front of.”
The Canes open their seven-game exhibition slate against Columbus (who will be in a split squad situation) on Sunday, Sept. 21. Four away games in Buffalo, New York, St. Louis and Columbus follow before the team hosts Buffalo at PNC Arena on Friday, Oct. 3. The preseason schedule concludes on Sunday, Oct. 5 in Washington.
“They’ll know what’s expected of them,” Peters said. “We need to lay a foundation in camp and try and get better each and every day.”