The Hurricanes are just one decision away from finalizing their European-bound roster, but specific roles at every position have yet to be determined.
The team is at 26 players after two rounds of weekend cuts, which is the maximum allowed by the NHL. That leaves at least one forward who will be headed to Charlotte rather than St. Petersburg and Helsinki.
General Manager Jim Rutherford said that he was leaning in one direction regarding that choice of player.
“I think that it’s been pretty much determined at this point, but for two or three of those guys that are still here, that can change if something happens with their play,” he said.
There is no set time for the last assignment to Charlotte, but Rutherford said it would likely happen between Wednesday’s game at Florida and Friday’s North American preseason finale against Atlanta.
Of the remaining group, it seems that four-year NHL veteran Patrick O’Sullivan’s spot is among the safest. The winger leads the team with three points in three exhibition games.
“He’s a highly-skilled player with great hands,” said Rutherford “At some point the coaches are probably going to lean on him more to bring more of an overall game, but he’s a smart enough player to do it. I’m very, very happy that we’ve been able to bring him into our organization, and I believe he’s a player that’s going to contribute to our success.”
Another good bet is 18-year-old Jeff Skinner
, who has lived up to Rutherford’s preseason expectations. If Skinner does make the trip to Europe, he could play nine NHL games before the Hurricanes would have to make a final decision about whether he stays for the whole season or goes back to junior.
The biggest question about Skinner appears to be his position. He’s had the most success at left wing in exhibition games but thrived in his natural center position at the Traverse City prospects tournament. The belief is that younger players will be more comfortable at the less-defensively-challenging wing positions, which is part of why the team is now more inclined to use a veteran like Jussi Jokinen
in the third-line center spot
”It’s not a matter of these players not being able to do it,” said Rutherford. “It’s more of a matter of where these players are put to really get the best experience and confidence.”
After those two, it’s a guessing game between Drayson Bowman
, Zach Boychuk
, Zac Dalpe
and Patrick Dwyer
. Rutherford said he had noticed marked improvements in Bowman and Boychuk since their debuts last season, but added that, of the two, he believed Bowman has had a slightly better camp. Dwyer is aided by his versatility, experience and ability to kill penalties, but Dalpe has been consistently impressive at every level since the Hurricanes drafted him in 2008.
It does not appear that Sergei Samsonov's injury will affect any roster decisions. Rutherford said that the forward had a "relatively comfortable" day of rest on Sunday and could play as soon as Friday. He will undergo a medical examination on Monday.
Unlike the situation at forward, Rutherford indicated that things are less clear on the back end. All eight defensemen remaining in camp will travel to Europe, but specific roles have not been defined past the big three of Joe Corvo, Tim Gleason
and Joni Pitkanen
That leaves Anton Babchuk, Brett Carson, Jay Harrison
, Jamie McBain
and Bobby Sanguinetti
to fight for playing time.
“I think we still have games to watch before we decide,” said Rutherford. “We have guys who are capable of playing, and it’s still open to where they get slotted in.”
In goal, there may be a stiffer battle to back up Cam Ward
than previously thought. Justin Peters
, the favorite to land that job entering camp after a strong debut last season, hasn’t done anything to lose his grip on it after a by-all-accounts strong game in Nashville last week. However, Justin Pogge, acquired at last year’s trade deadline, has been impressive.
“We were fortunate to make the trade for Pogge, and we feel we have an even better goalie than we thought we had traded for,” said Rutherford. “There still could be a real competition between Peters and Pogge, even over the course of the whole season.”
Complicating the matter is that both Peters and Pogge would have to go through waivers if assigned to Charlotte, which will almost certainly happen to one of them following the trip to Europe. However, due to the fact that there have been more NHL goalies than NHL jobs this offseason, Rutherford was cautiously optimistic that they would clear.
If so, rotating them throughout the year could prevent the possibility of a developing goalie (both are just 24) gathering rust while Ward earns his typically heavy workload.
“The advantage we have now is that if Cam runs off 10 games in a row, even if we have to put a goalie on waivers and risk losing that goalie, we’re not stuck now because if we lose one we have the other right there,” said Rutherford. “Hopefully we don’t lose one, but it’s a real advantage to us that we have someone playing Charlotte so if someone sits here for a month we can change them out and have a fresh goalie.”