On Sunday afternoon, the Carolina Hurricanes opened their training camp for this season, beginning what is sure to be an exciting week for the entire NHL. The Hurricanes camp in particular is going to be very fascinating to watch for a few reasons. Firstly, this is their first camp under head coach Kirk Muller and in addition to that, they have a few new players coming in along with nine call-ups from the Charlotte Checkers. That's a lot of bodies to sort through with only so many roster spots available and the best part about it is that they have less than a week before their first regular season game.
The Hurricanes are going to have a very brief amount of time to something together here, so I can imagine that training camp is going to be rather chaotic and Muller will have his work cut out for him. Everyone seems to believe that this team will be better than next year now that they have some more offensive firepower but there are still a few things that need to be determined before the Hurricanes begin the season, and it goes beyond just finding out who makes the team and who doesn't.
After the jump, we will look at some questions the Hurricanes will be facing this training camp and discuss some possible solutions to them. With so many players in camp, they certainly have plenty of options.
Who will center the third line?
The Hurricanes never signed anyone to replace Brandon Sutter, who was dealt to Pittsburgh in the infamous Jordan Staal trade on Draft Day. However, can make the argument that they never "needed" anyone to take his spot as the third line center because the team has enough natural centers on the roster and in their system, so it's understandable that the team wants to see what they already have rather than spend more money on free agents. One would think that between Zac Dalpe, Jeremy Welsh and Riley Nash, the Hurricanes should be able a capable third line center before the end of training camp. If none of them are up to the task, they could also use Jussi Jokinen in that role, but something tells me he will stay in the top-six because of his play-making ability. No one really knows if the third line is going to be a defensive unit like it has been for the last few years, so the door is open for just about anything to happen here. We could even see some of the youngsters get a chance here.
How will the team use Jordan Staal?
In case you didn't know, Jordan Staal was a monster in Pittsburgh when it came to playing tough minutes. This allowed the Pens to use players like Evgeni Malkin and James Neal in more offensive situations and the Hurricanes could potentially do the same thing with Eric Staal, Alex Semin and Jeff Skinner. The question is whether or not they have suitable enough wingers to flank Jordan Staal with in a tough-minute role. A quick glance at the roster's performance last year tells me they do not, but there are a lot of new players here and this could potentially change. Staal has been with Skinner and LaRose during the first couple of days of camp according to News & Observer's Chip Alexander. I wouldn't put too much stock into the lines right now, though because those usually change a lot before the coaches find something they like.
Who replaces Tuomo Ruutu?
Ruutu is on the IR until at least May, which means that someone is going to have to take his place on one of the top two lines. This definitely opens the door for Jiri Tlusty to stay in the top-six after his "breakout" season last year, but I still have my questions about how sustainable his production is as a top-liner. His underlying numbers in a tough-minute role last year were pretty poor and even worse when he was playing on any other line than Eric Staal's. That being said, Tlusty and Staal together were a good combination who were able to tilt the scoring chances in the Hurricanes favor last year, so I wouldn't be against having him stay there for now. Tlusty also played very well in the Czech League during the lockout, scoring 23 points in 24 games with Kladno. He was playing on a line with Tomas Plekanec and Jaromir Jagr, so he had a the luxury of good linemates but he would be going to a similar situation in Carolina if he were to stay with Eric Staal and Alexander Semin for the remainder of the year.
Other candidates to replace Ruutu in the top-six are Zach Boychuk, Zac Dalpe and Drayson Bowman from the Charlotte Checkers, as their great performance in the minors should earn them at least a brief look on one of the top two lines. I also think that Jussi Jokinen will get a chance there, too since he has played on the wing before and had the best season of his career in that position. His reluctance to shoot the puck might keep him at center, though.
Who will play with Tim Gleason?
I went over this in detail a few days ago, but it bears repeating. The Hurricanes need to find someone to play with Tim Gleason and decide if they want to have strictly a shutdown pair like they did last season (Gleason-Allen), or spread out the tough minutes among the defense corps. My prediction was that they would put Joni Pitkanen with Tim Gleason to provide a nice mix of both sides but according to Alexander, Joe Corvo has been playing with Gleason the first couple of days in camp. I'm not sure how long that will last once he plays a couple games against other team's top lines because Corvo didn't look anything like a top-four defneseman in Boston last year. The Canes do have a few options who they can use to provide a nice compliment for Gleason once they decide to change things up, though.
Will Ryan Murphy play in the NHL this year?
Murphy was invited to camp despite having a down year in Kitchener and a very rough showing for Team Canada in the World Juniors. He did make the team out of camp last year, though and I guess the coaching staff wants to get a look at him to see what he's all about. Personally, I don't see much room for him on the defense corps unless he is ten times better than he looked a few weeks ago at the World Juniors. It seems like Bobby Sanguinetti is going to make the team as a seventh defenseman and I don't think there is any room for him in the top-six.
Is there room for everyone?
The short answer here is no and this will likely be the biggest predicament the Hurricanes will face at camp. There are just so many forwards attending camp and only 12-13 spots to go around and at least a few will end up being the odd-men out. To make things worse, a few of the call-ups from Charlotte could end up being exposed to waivers if they don't make the team and that will end up hurting both organizations. The Canes did open up another roster spot by sending Anthony Stewart to Los Angeles for someone who probably won't be playing every night in Kevin Westgarth, but that still leaves a huge logjam for the last few forward spots.
My thought on the kids from Charlotte is that those who can play center (Jeremy Welsh, Zac Dalpe, Riley Nash) have an advantage over some of the others because the team needs another center for the bottom-six right now and all three are capable of filling that role. Each of them have their own strengths and weaknesses, though. Welsh's size makes him more suitable for a checking role, Nash has a stronger defensive game but neither of them have played as well as Dalpe has this year. Dalpe also has more versatility than either player and can be used in the top-six if needed. You also have to wonder if there is enough room for either Zach Boychuk or Drayson Bowman to even make the team and get top-nine minutes. It's possible that they might win a roster spot over Tim Brent, Andreas Nodl or Patrick Dwyer but I have to think that at least two of those players will be on the team. Sure, I'd love to see all the kids get ice time but there just isn't enough room on the roster right now unless Rutherford makes another trade to clear space.
What will the fourth line look like?
The Hurricanes fourth line was one of their key weaknesses last year. Sure, they got some tertiary scoring from that group but Tim Brent, Derek Joslin and Anthony Stewart were all destroyed in terms of territorial play at even strength. They all regularly played against depth players for other teams and couldn't get the puck moving in the right direction. Add in the fact that they did a horrible job at controlling the shot battle despite starting over 50% of their shifts in the offensive zone, and you can come to the conclusion that the Hurricanes fourth line has plenty of room for improvement.
The good news is that the Hurricanes have some pieces that they can use to make their fourth line better than it was last year. For instance, they can use some of the AHL call-ups in a similar role and see how they perform or they can put Nodl or Dwyer on this line and use it in defensive situations. Either one would be an improvement over last year. The bad news is that they added another player to the mix in Westgarth who will likely be a fourth liner and doesn't have a good resume at all when it comes to carrying the play forward. Hey, at least they have the enforcer they wanted now.
Who will be on the penalty kill?
Carolina lost two key penalty killers in Brandon Sutter and Bryan Allen and while the "easy" solution might be to simply plug in Jordan Staal and Joe Corvo into their spots respectively, the Hurricanes could go in a much different direction here. Carolina's been relying on some of their top players such as Eric Staal to kill penalties for awhile now but another thing they could do is use some of their depth options on the PK instead. Using rookies and fourth liners on the PK isn't always the most popular option but this is what a lot of teams do to take pressure off some of their top players. I could see the Hurricanes doing this with Eric Staal, especially if Riley Nash or Jeremy Welsh makes the team. Being able to contribute on special teams is often what sets some players apart from others and I wouldn't be surprised if one of the Charlotte hopefuls is in the lineup on opening night because of this.
As for the defensemen, there is a good chance that everyone but Sanguinetti will get a regular look on the PK.
It's only Tuesday, so I'm sure some of these questions will be answered in due time but there is still a lot the Hurricanes have to sort out in a very brief amount of time.