Training Camp Battles: 3rd Line Center

This year's training camp feels a little different than other years because there are so many roster spots up for grabs and the Hurricanes invited more young guys to camp than usual. There are 44 skaters in camp this year and a good chunk of them are either rookies or guys who spend the majority of last season with the Charlotte Checkers. The Hurricanes are kind of forced to go with this approach because most of their off-season money was tied up in the Jordan Staal & Alexander Semin contract extensions, but it isn't the worst thing in the world either. At least as far as the forwards are concerned. 

There's bound to be some experimenting in training camp but as far as I am concerned, the top-six is pretty much set and the Canes just need to round out their bottom-six. Adding a veteran to help out would have been nice but between guys like Bowman, Dalpe, Nash, Rask and others, one would think that the Canes have enough players in their organization who can play adequately play bottom-six roles. There's also a decent chance that they'll get good value out of these players than overpaying thorugh free agency, especially when you have third liners getting five year deals on the open market. 

The only problem is that the Canes are going to be relying on a lot of unproven guys to fill out depth roles now and while it could turn out well, there is also a chance that it might blow up in their face if none of these players work out in the NHL. Not that they haven't put faith in the kids in year's past, but this is the first time I can remember virtually every bottom-six spot being up for grabs heading into camp and it will be interesting to see what the opening night roster looks like. I suspect there to be a lot of roster shuffling throughout the pre-season because just about everyone is going to get a shot on the third and fourth lines at some point.

Over the next few days, we are going to look at which positions will be up for grabs and who will be competing for it, starting today with the third line center spot. This position was question mark at camp last year and the team began the season by using Jussi Jokinen here until Riley Nash was called up and replaced him about mid-way through the season. Some expected Nash to stay as the third line pivot this year, but that all changed after the Canes took Elias Lindholm with their fifth overall selection in the draft. Now many are expecting him to be the third line center right out of camp, which is possible but there are still a lot of candidates for the third line center spot.

After the jump, we will look at each of them and their chances of suiting up for the Canes on opening night.

Candidate 1: Elias Lindholm

Age: 18
Height: 6'0
Weight: 192 lbs.
Career Stats

Why he wil make the Hurricanes

Lindholm is one of the best and most talented players in camp right now and is likely the front-runner to earn the spot. He is only 18 years old, but he has played 60 games in the Swedish Elite League against other professionals and is coming off a very impressive season considering his age. I wouldn't expect him to score at a .625 point-per-game pace in his rookie season, but he was able to do that  in as a 17-year-old while playing in Sweden last year, so it sounds like he ready for the NHL, or at least pretty darn close to it. 

Lindholm's all-around game is another reason why he could be on the big club come opening night. He was regarded as one of the best two-way players in the draft and his play away from the puck might be enough to earn him the third line center spot. If his defensive play is good enough and he doesn't look too overwhelmed against bigger players, then I see no reason why he can't play a top-nine role with the Canes. Even if it takes another year for his offense to come around, Lindholm's two-way play might be enough to earn him a full-time roster spot. It is also worth noting that Lindholm can play the wing, so it's nice to know that option is there.

Why he won't make the Hurricanes

The one thing getting in the way of Lindholm earning the third line center spot is his age and whether or not he is ready for the NHL. His play in the Swedish Elite League suggests that he is ready, but I've heard from others that he needs another year before making the jump. It's been said that Lindholm needs to get stronger, but I haven't seen much of a problem with his physical play in the footage I've watched. However, a legitimate concern with him being the NHL so early is that it starts his entry level contract at 18 and that could create problems down the line. If he is only a third line center at this point of his career, then it doesn't make much sense for the Hurricanes to keep him, especially if the team starts off poorly.

In my opinion, Lindholm needs to be a player that makes the team considerably better for the Hurricanes to keep him this year. There's a chance that he could be that player, but there isn't a need to rush him into the league.

Candidate Two: Riley Nash

Age: 24
Height: 6'1"
Weight: 191 lbs.
Career Stats

Why he will make the Hurricanes

Nash played 32 games with the Canes last season and looked like he belonged in the NHL, despite putting up underwhelming point totals. He was pretty solid defensively and demonstrated some terrific hockey sense during his stint with the Canes and I would expect him to be in the NHL next year, even if it isn't as the third line center. Nash also has a decent skillset and is a good enough skater to keep up with some of the better forwards on the team, so that could keep him in the running for a top-nine role. It hasn't translated to him putting up a lot of points, but he actually scored at a decent rate for a third liner last season (1.45 ESP/60) and I think the Canes will be satisfied if they get 25-30 points out of him if he continues to get those minutes.

Some might view Nash a disappointment after being such a great offensive player in college, but his two-way game has come a long way since then and he has developed into more of a defensive center. At the very least, Nash can be someone who kills penalties and centers one of the bottom-two lines, which would be a big help for the Hurricanes in the upcoming season. He didn't blow away his competition in the upcoming season, but his performance was decent and worthy of him getting another look this year.

Why he won't make the Hurricanes

Nash's rookie season can be summed up as "average." I mentioned earlier that he didn't get beaten up at even strength, but his performance was pretty mediocre (0.7 Corsi Rel. w/ 50 OZ%) overall and I thought he could have done a lot more. It's also worth mentioning that 5 of his 9 points came in two games and he didnt' make much of an impact on many of the games in between. He didn't do anything to hurt the team or make any back-breaking mistakes, but he wasn't much of a difference maker. Nash is a good player, but he may need to elevate his game a little to play in the top-nine.

I expect Nash to play in the NHL, but what he did last year was more of what you would expect from a fourth liner rather than a third line center, in my opinion. That should be good enough for him to make the club, but I'm sure his sights are set higher.

Candidate Three: Jeremy Welsh

Age: 25
Height: 6'3"
Weight: 210 lbs.
Career Stats

Why he will make the Hurricanes

Welsh is a big body and fits the mould of a third line center well. He was also an excellent goal-scorer in college and is the type of player who creates offense by driving the net to get to the scoring areas. He was also a decent two-way center in Charlotte last year and could be decent as a third liner if he is given the opportunity, something he wasn't granted last year. Welsh played only five games last year and was limited to about 5-8 minutes of ice time per game, so it's fair to say that he wasn't given much of a chance with the Canes and that might change with a full camp.

Welsh is also on a one-way deal and might be in the NHL based on that alone, since I can't imagine the Hurricanes want to pay $1 mil. on someone playing in the AHL.

Why he won't make the Hurricanes

Welsh may have not been given much of a chance, but it's tough to say that he is a better option than Lindholm or Nash right now. Lindholm is more talented and Nash has shown that he can play an NHL role while Welsh turns 26 next year and is nearing his ceiling. Unless he moves over to the wing (which is a possibility), it's tough to see him on the Canes next year.

Candidate Four: Viktor Rask
Age: 20
Height: 6'2"
Weight: 200 lbs.
Career Stats

Why he will make the Hurricanes

Rask's performance with the Calgary Hitmen last year suggests that he is too good for juniros and should be playing in either the AHL or the NHL this year. I think the AHL is more likely, but Rask could be a dark horse to earn a spot during training camp. He is pretty big for a kid his age and doesn't rely on his talent alone to be an effective player, which could earn him some high marks with the coaching staff. Rask is also an excellent playmaker and his skating has improved considerably over the last year, so he should be ready to impress a lot of people in camp.

Why he won't make the Hurricanes

As much as I like Rask, I think he is better served playing in the AHL next year. Depending on who makes the Canes out of camp, Rask could get top line minutes there and his performance should give us a good idea of where his development is. He got to play 10 games with the Checkers before being sent down last year, and I would really like to see him get a full year in the AHL before he makes the jump to the Canes roster. Rask should be a good player, but he isn't an elite talent that will make the team considerably better now, so he might be better off getting first line minutes in the AHL instead of third line minutes in Raleigh.

There could be a couple more players in the mix, but I expect these four to battle for the Canes third line center spot and it should be interesting to see who ends up playing there come opening night.

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