RALEIGH, N.C. -- On the first day of Carolina Hurricanes training camp, there was no mistaking Radek Dvorak's on-ice smarts.
In one drill, the veteran forward picked up a loose puck, drifted back toward the faceoff circle and laid a pass on Jeff Skinner's tape in the slot. Moments later, Dvorak won a one-on-one battle in the corner and then schooled a minor-league defenseman by backing in for a shot on goal, which rang off the post.
Dvorak has not made the team -- at least not yet. At 36, he is at Carolina's camp on a professional tryout. His 1,200-game NHL career speaks to his consistency, but it also identifies the fine line he cuts with every stride down the ice: Is he the ideal savvy veteran? Or is he a forward whose game is diminishing in the twilight of his career?
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"This is my league," Dvorak said after his first day of training camp. "I've been here such a long time. I'm still thinking I can play."
That's what the Hurricanes are hoping, and not just for his on-ice skills. General manager Jim Rutherford made it clear recently that he wants to change the chemistry in the locker room. Last season's team did not include a single player with more than 700 NHL games played. Dvorak figures that's one area where he can make a difference.
"Experience," Dvorak said when asked what he brings to Carolina. "I've been in this League for a long time. I've been in big games before. Hopefully I can bring that with me."
But it's more than that. Dvorak operates with no sense of entitlement. Last season he cobbled together a half season in Switzerland and a nine-game stint with the Anaheim Ducks. Despite scoring four goals for the Ducks, he received no guaranteed offers for this season.
But he's not bitter, not even annoyed. He's thrilled.
"It was great news that they invited me to the camp, that they gave me a chance to be back in the NHL," Dvorak said. "Nothing is for free these days. It's an opportunity to play in the best League in the world."
So if the Hurricanes get a chance to kick the tires before signing him, that's fine with the 17-year veteran. Carolina coach Kirk Muller played three seasons with Dvorak with the Florida Panthers in the late 1990s, so there's some familiarity on both sides.
"You can't underestimate experience with players like that," Muller said. "I've played with Radek. He's a great pro. He's a really good penalty killer, and that's an area we want to improve on."
In addition, Dvorak has relied on his speed as a calling card. He still has good hands and a nice touch around the net too. But he's not banking on Muller giving him a break because they once were teammates.
Despite scoring four goals for the Ducks, Radek Dvorak
received no guaranteed offers for this season. (Photo: Debora Robinson/NHLI)
"I played with him, but it's not like I have any advantage from that," Dvorak said. "I'm just one of the guys. I want to fight for my job."
That's the kind of approach Carolina is looking for. The Hurricanes spiraled out of control, and out of the playoff picture, last season when they managed two wins in a 19-game stretch. In a sport that values intangibles and leadership, a guy like Dvorak might be just the right touch in the locker room.
"Just knowing how he is with the younger guys in the room, bringing all that experience is great," Muller said. "[We're] just checking if his legs are still good to go and if he's still capable of keeping up with the pace of the game right now -- and I have confidence that he is."
So does Dvorak, but that's not his message.
"The 1,200 games, it means nothing. It's behind me," he said. "After 1,200 games, I even have to work harder. There are still a lot of guys sitting on the side. I have a chance. Every time you have a chance in life, you have to take advantage."
If Dvorak makes the roster, the Hurricanes will mark his eighth NHL team. It will be the first, however, where he has had to come to camp without a contract and fight for a spot.
"I go practice by practice, day by day," he said. "I'll just do my best and hope for the best."