The Canes have taken care of business thus far at the NHL Prospects Camp in Traverse City, earning a spot in tonight’s championship game vs. the Minnesota Wild (6:30 p.m.) by way of a 2-1 round-robin record.
The prospects’ only loss came against Atlanta on Wednesday night in a game that they knew would not affect their tournament status, having already clinched a spot in the finals after tiebreaking wins against Detroit and the New York Rangers.
That being said, management expects a different approach tonight as the team, led by Zach Boychuk
, Mike Murphy
and Brandon Sutter
, each of whom General Manager Jim Rutherford identified as clear standouts, looks to finish the job.
Rutherford had plenty of complimentary things to say about each of the above-mentioned players. In Sutter’s case, refinements to his game from last season, when he made 50 appearances for the Hurricanes, have made him a more effective player.
“In Brandon, it’s his strength, foot speed and just that confidence level from being a year older,” said Rutherford. “He’s taken his game to another level.”
That isn’t to say that Sutter, who has one goal and one assist in the tournament so far, has completely filled out his lanky 6-foot-3, 183-pound frame, but there have nonetheless been noticeable changes in his on-ice performance.
”You can see it in his skating stride,” said Rutherford. “When he’s skating now, he has another gear to pull away from guys.”
With the Canes’ abundance of depth at center, solidified by the most recent signing of Stephane Yelle, Sutter is still a long shot to start the season in Carolina. However, Rutherford doesn’t feel as though Sutter finds that fact at all discouraging.
“I don’t think anything affects his outlook,” said the GM. “He comes from a hockey family and is very determined. Anybody that has an exceptional camp can make the team, and we’ll try to figure that out if it happens.”
Boychuk, who has been playing with Sutter on the top line during the tournament, enters this season completely healthy after wrist problems that kept him out of the entire 2008 preseason. He has been one of the offensive leaders for the Canes rookies’ thus far with one goal in each of the three games.
“He’s a highly-skilled guy and does a number of good things with the puck, creates a lot of scoring chances and gets his goals,” said Rutherford. “He’s really been fun to watch.”
Murphy is coming off back-to-back seasons as the Ontario Hockey League’s goaltender of the year (an all-time first) and also won the same honor for all of Canadian junior hockey last season (an award Cam Ward took home in 2004). He has a .922 save percentage through three games, having played all but the third period of the Atlanta loss when the Canes gave up five goals, and made 33 saves to keep the Canes in the game in their win vs. Detroit.
With Ward and Michael Leighton on the NHL roster, Murphy will get a chance to develop in Albany, where former second-round pick Justin Peters also resides. How those two will split the netminding duties remains to be seen.
“There’s no set plan,” said Rutherford. “That will be determined by (Albany Head Coach) Jeff (Daniels) as to how these guys are playing. Clearly the position becomes a lot more competitive."
While those three have shone brightest, Rutherford also mentioned defenseman Michal Jordan, a Czech defenseman taken in the fourth round in the 2008 draft, and Matt Kennedy, a forward drafted in the fifth round this past June who has equaled Boychuk’s goal-per-game pace.
”Jordan played extremely well, although he got hurt in the game last night and is not going to play in tonight’s game,” said Rutherford. His game has come a long way, and he’s had a real good camp.”
Kennedy, who was not drafted in his first year of eligibility, was nabbed by the Canes after a breakout season in his overage year with Guelph of the OHL, where he posted 33 goals and 73 points – easily blowing away his previous career-highs of 17 and 22, respectively.“He was captain of that team, he’s got great character and can play the game physically and score,” said
As a 20-year-old, he should play in Albany next season once he signs a contract with Carolina.
Rutherford. “At this point, he looks like a good pick for us, and he’s certainly put himself in a position to get a contract now.”