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Time Crunch for Cusp Players

by Michael Smith / Carolina Hurricanes

With the regular season just a week and a half away, roster decisions are looming. And tomorrow night’s game in Winnipeg could be the final opportunity for many young players to make a lasting impression.

Michael Smith
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While the lineup for tomorrow night hasn’t been finalized yet – nearly the entire team is flying up to Winnipeg – head coach Paul Maurice has said it will be young, a sort of “last dance” before more cuts are made.

“We’ll put players in that have something to prove or something to gain,” he said. “Players that may be right on the cusp of making our hockey team – this is a big game for them.”

Two of those guys are Jerome Samson and Drayson Bowman, who have sat next to each other in the Canes’ locker room during training camp. Both have also seen extended periods in Raleigh, including at the conclusion of last season.

At the AHL level, they’ve also both demonstrated a strong offensive ability. In 74 games in 2009-10 with the Albany River Rats, Samson totaled a team-leading 78 points (37g, 41a), also good for fourth in the league. Last season in 53 games with Charlotte, Samson registered 54 points (26g, 28a). Bowman has had two consecutive 30-point seasons in the AHL, despite only playing in around 50 games each year.

“I certainly feel like I’m ready to be here,” Bowman said. “With last year, I know that I can play in the league. So it’s just a question of whether I go out and perform and whether it’s enough or not.”

Tomorrow is only one game, and decisions won’t solely be based on the results from that 60 minutes. Rather, the young players’ work over the last few weeks, in addition to their contributions over previous seasons, will be assessed as a whole.

“What can they do in one game? They can do something. They can move the gauge of how we feel,” Maurice said. “It may not get them in the opening night lineup, but it may make us look at them as a potential first-round call-up.

“They will all look at it as I either make the team or I don’t. We don’t look at it like that. We always have a little more of a patient, long-term view.”

Being sent down is, of course, what neither of them want to hear. But should that be the case, it in no way means they won’t see time in Raleigh again. In fact, both of them will most likely see time with the big squad when injuries crop up.

“Ninety percent of the league fights it for two years, learns the game, grinds it out, gets bigger, gets stronger, and then makes the turn at the third year pro,” Maurice said. “That’s really when guys are getting their chance. So that’s their challenge.”

“It’s stressful. It comes down to only certain guys now, instead of it being 55 at camp,” Samson said.

“[The intensity] has definitely picked up. It was high to begin with, and now it’s about as high as it gets,” Bowman said. “It’s coming down to it, and there are not a whole lot more chances to show what you can do and that you deserve to be here.”

For the guys fighting for the roster spots, the uncertainty is an extra burden to shoulder through an already strenuous training camp.

“There’s no avoiding it. Every guy battling for a spot wants to be here,” Bowman said. “Rather than try to ignore it, you accept it for what it is, go out and play your best.”

“It’s something you try to forget, but you’re aware of it at the same time,” Samson said. “So you find a line in between the two that will bring the best out of you.”

Despite this, Maurice is looking for a player who can give their all day in and day out, not just in game-situations, but also in practices. Maurice singled out Brandon Sutter, saying that he drove practice the other day and was gassed at the end of it, more so than some of the younger guys were. To Maurice, that’s a sign of Sutter pushing his limits, moreso than the other guys.

“We need more,” Maurice said. “I don’t have complaints about their training camps, but to get to that next level, you’re going to have to have some special performances in games and practices.

“For me, that’s probably the difference between the guys that are going to get the crack and aren’t – can they drive everyday?”

Notes: Eric Staal, Cam Ward, Alexei Ponikarovsky, Chad LaRose, Tuomo Ruutu, Tim Gleason and Joni Pitkanen did not make the trip to Winnipeg …LaRose and Ruutu are being held out for injury reasons … Brian Boucher is scheduled to play the full 60 minutes tomorrow night

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