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Training Camp: What to Watch For

by Paul Branecky / Carolina Hurricanes
Paul Branecky
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With the on-ice portion of training camp set to start this Saturday, here’s a list of things to keep an eye on as camp progresses. The first of seven exhibition games begins this coming Tuesday, with the regular season opener set for Oct. 7 in Helsinki.

Although he’s just one of a handful of young players looking to nail down a roster spot, at this point, the Hurricanes’ first-round pick in this summer’s draft deserves his own section.

Skinner received positive reports in his first two games in Traverse City despite not finding the score sheet, but broke out in a big way after that. He notched five points in the team’s 8-1 rout of Columbus before netting an assist and the double-overtime winner in the third-place game against Tampa Bay. That was enough to tie him for the tournament scoring lead with seven points and pace all skaters with 21 shots on goal.

In addition to generating plenty of buzz from other teams who were in attendance, Skinner managed to impress a Hurricanes staff that was already more than pleased with its prized prospect.

“He was doing things we’ve never seen anyone in our organization do at that age,” said General Manager Jim Rutherford. “His tenacity and willingness to win battles were exceptional. When the game was on the line, he was making a lot of things happen.”

It’s rare for players to make the jump to the NHL as 18-year-olds in their draft year, but faced with the decision of keeping him or sending him back to his junior team (he cannot play in the American Hockey League due to his age), the Canes may feel that he has little left to prove after scoring 70 total goals in the Ontario Hockey League last season. Only a key role on Canada’s World Junior team could serve to further aid his development.

“That’s always the juggling act an organization has to go through,” said Rutherford. “He’s going to get another test here at the main training camp, but I would be greatly surprised if our decision was that difficult.”

Look for a contract to be headed Skinner’s way in the next few weeks.

Center Ice

Behind Eric Staal and Brandon Sutter, the next two spots at center are the most available roster positions heading into camp. That being said, there’s no shortage of bodies to fill them.

Skinner, Zac Dalpe, Patrick Dwyer, Jon Matsumoto, Riley Nash and possibly Patrick O’Sullivan (much more on him later if he ends up finalizing the one-year, two way deal the Hurricanes have offered him) will all get legitimate cracks at starting the season down the middle, and perhaps elsewhere. Of that group, only Matsumoto and Nash are considered pure centers, with the rest able to play the wing if needed.

Dwyer gets an edge in terms of NHL experience, having manned the Hurricanes’ third line for most of his 58 games with the big club last season.  However, he’s played wing for most of his career, making a potential switch all too easy. That versatility, combined with his penalty-killing prowess and the team’s risk of losing the 27-year-old to waivers on an AHL reassignment, works in his favor.

Matsumoto, who has yet to make his NHL debut as a 23-year-old former draft pick of the Flyers, would likely land a fourth-line role if he sticks with the Hurricanes this season. That leaves the third line to O’Sullivan if he signs (although the Hurricanes like him more as a winger), and a trio of players who have been impressive from the start of informal practices all the way through the Traverse City prospects tournament.

Dalpe, Nash and Skinner have an average age under 20 and a combined zero games of NHL experience, but all project to make it someday. Between the three of them, odds are that one will step up and claim a role. If not, established veterans such as Jussi Jokinen and Tuomo Ruutu could end up centering the third line, although the Hurricanes prefer them to be top-six wingers.

Defensive Depth

Like at forward, there will also be a chance for up-and-coming players to impress on the back end. The Canes should have no problem fielding an experienced top six, but have around eight players who they consider ready or near-ready to be full-time NHL players.

Anton Babchuk, Joe Corvo, Tim Gleason, Jamie McBain and Joni Pitkanen are assured of spots, with Brett Carson, Jay Harrison and Bobby Sanguinetti most likely to challenge for a regular role as the sixth man. Of the latter group, only Sanguinetti could be assigned to Charlotte without having to clear waivers.

Carson and Harrison have the most experience of that group, having played 59 and 58 NHL games, respectively, compared to Sanguinetti’s five. However, Sanguinetti, a 22-year-old first-round pick of the Rangers in 2006, is the most highly-touted prospect. If he looks good in camp and seems poised to earn enough ice time, he could put himself into contention despite the team’s abundance of similar puck-moving types.

During the off-season, Rutherford said he could carry as many as eight defensemen on the opening-night roster to let the situation sort itself out. In that scenario, players could rotate depending on match-ups, with someone like Harrison, who was brought back to provide a gritty presence, going into the lineup as needed.

Goalie Prospects

Justin Peters has been saying all the right things about having to earn a roster spot backing up Cam Ward, but barring something greatly unexpected over the next several weeks, that job should be his.

However, there could still be a goaltending job to be won in Charlotte. Both Mike Murphy, who had an outstanding tournament in Traverse City for the second consecutive year, and Justin Pogge will be minding the nets next season, and as of yet the team has not named either one as the primary starter.

It could stay that way for the rest of the year, as both players should have a legitimate claim. Pogge, the one-time goaltender of the future in Toronto, is still just 24 and is the more experienced of the two, having suited up for seven games in the NHL and 178 more over four seasons in the minors. By comparison, Murphy, 21, is entering just his second professional season but may be the more highly-regarded prospect at this point.

Both are still developing as goalies, which will make playing time crucial. They should each get their reps in Charlotte, but look for one to possibly gain an edge during camp.

Sophomore Breakouts

Most of the focus at camp will be on incoming players, and rightfully so, but much is riding on the play of those that have been here before.

Hurricanes management believes it’s assembled a group that will grow together and contend at some point, but as of now, no one can answer the question of how soon that will be. If everything is to come together this season, the Hurricanes will need a consistently high level of play from Eric Staal and Cam Ward and help from a productive supporting cast, including healthier years from Erik Cole and Tuomo Ruutu and an encore of better-than-expected seasons by Jussi Jokinen, Jamie McBain and Brandon Sutter.

Beyond that group, a player or two will need to step up from a collection of players who got their first taste of NHL action last season. Drayson Bowman, Zach Boychuk, Oskar Osala, Jiri Tlusty and Jerome Samson and proved capable in stints of various length, but the difference from a competitive team to a playoff team could be one or two of them making a Sutter-like leap from year one to year two after a summer of hard work.

Of those players, Tlusty will get the best chance by simply being the only player subject to waivers on an AHL assignment. He only began skating with the team at informal practices on Thursday after off-season ACL surgery, and is still not cleared for contact. His health is worth watching during camp, but he should have a spot regardless.

Bowman and Boychuk were given the benefit of the doubt based on original training camp groupings, which were loosely divided between veterans and prospects. Although groups will be subject to change with players like Dalpe, Nash and Skinner likely to skate with the big boys at some point, Bowman and Boychuk are starting in the “veterans” group. Look for those two to lead the pack of more advanced prospects looking to cement their status as NHL players.

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