Questions abound as Canes prep for preseason opener
Posted September 18, 2013
Looking to answer several important questions before their Oct. 4 opener against Detroit, the Carolina Hurricanes will play the first of six exhibition games Wednesday night at home against Columbus.
Unlike last year, when the training camp was shortened due to the lockout, the full slate of preseason action will allow players and coaches ample time to see what the team will look like prior to the regular season opener.
With Cam Ward healthy and Anton Khudobin added to the roster, the goaltending situation has never been more solid. Many people around the league feel that Khudobin is ready to be a number one, Justin Peters has had a good camp showing as well. In short, this is the best the goaltending depth has been in years for the Hurricanes.
There should be no worries about the top line duplicating last seasons’ output. Eric Staal appears to be fine after a scary knee injury suffered at the World Championships and seems to be more comfortable in his captaincy of the club.
Alexander Semin has a new contract and Jiri Tlusty, after missing some time in camp for precautionary reasons, is ready to show last season was not a one-time event.
Head coach Kirk Muller’s has stressed to the players that battling will get them an opportunity to make the team, and quite a few players received the message.
Muller says he has liked the effort, but there is only so much drills and intra-squad scrimmages can tell you. Squaring off against opponents in different jerseys will give the coaching staff a better read on what this team will look like.
Here are few things to watch for during the preseason.
Who will play alongside Jordan Staal and Tuomo Ruutu?
From the early indicators, it will be Drayson Bowman. Jeff Skinner was thought to be the player that would fill the other wing, but he and Staal didn’t mesh. Where Skinner is slated will be something else to watch for.
Zac Dalpe seems like the ideal candidate to fill this role. He should be given a chance to show that he is ready to be a full-time player at the NHL level. He took some steps forward last year, but injuries, inconsistency and the lockout sidetracked what should have been his breakout.
Don’t rule out Zach Boychuk. After playing for three teams last season, the former first round pick has played with a sense of confidence and in the scrimmages has shown the scoring ability that made him a top pick.
Is Elias Lindholm ready to center a line in the NHL?
The Carolina front office certainly thinks so and has from the moment his name was called to head to Raleigh.
Lindholm will be partnered with Jeff Skinner, hopefully forming a solid pairing and bringing more balance to the forwards. On paper, this is the team’s third line, and how this line plays will determine how other players are used in the organization.
The team signed veteran Radek Dvorak, a smart, reliable winger that kills penalties and can contribute to the scoresheet. If you watched the playoffs last year, you know that the third line is crucial to a team.
The past few seasons the Hurricanes have had the parts, but never the sum of what an NHL third line needs to be.
Patrick Dwyer, who quietly has fastened together a good NHL career, is a candidate for the wing. Nathan Gerbe would also be a fit here. The scrappy winger who signed as a free agent provides hustle and grit in with his game and has a nose for the net.
The team would like to put an experienced, defensively responsible player on the other side of Skinner and help take the load off a rookie center. The third line will play a huge factor in how successful this season will be.
Lots of wingers, not a lot of centers
The Canes have tremendous depth on the wings, but up the middle there are questions after the Staals. Even taking Lindholm into consideration, the candidates are Victor Rask, Jeremy Welsh, Brett Sutter and Riley Nash. There is at least one spot on the fourth line for one of these players to grab. Also, keep an eye out to see if Jeff Skinner slides to the middle. It is his natural position and the team might just see if he clicks there entering his fourth campaign.
Which wingers separate from the pack?
Competition is a good problem to have, and with as many as four open wings for this team quite a few have stepped up to show they want to stay in the NHL. Brock McGinn has played physical and is giving the coaching staff reason to keep him around.
Veteran Chris Terry, who had his first taste of the NHL last year, has been noticeable in a good way almost every day, to the point that Kirk Muller has acknowledged how pleased he is with the effort. Niclas Blanchard brings a tough element to the team, something that the fourth line can never have enough of. Add in the speedy Aaron Palushaj and his NHL experience to make a push to be on the opening night roster.
Jobs will be won and lost with the performances by this group and it could come down to the last preseason game to see who makes the roster.
Who will quarterback the power play?
With Joni Pitkanen lost for the season with the fractured heel, the options a bit limited. The power play struggled for long stretches last year, but Kirk Muller might have found a solution.
Watch for Alexander Semin to be the key player with the man advantage. This doesn’t mean he will play the point, but look for the plays to run through the talented winger. This is also a chance for Ryan Murphy to show that he is ready for prime time.
The defenseman and former first round pick will have to showcase his playmaking skills in order to secure a spot on the roster. Also expect Justin Faulk to get more time on the power play either with the top unit or the QB for the second grouping. The Canes need a consistent man-advantage attack, especially with the firepower coming into the Metro Division.
How will the defense gel?
Jim Rutherford made the blue line a touch more physical by adding Mike Komirsarek, something this team desperately needed to help out Tim Gleason and Jay Harrison. Ron Hainsey was added at the start of camp, and while he replaces Joni Pitkanen on the roster, their games are very different.
Hainsey will become a favorite with his shot-blocking ability. This added element will make the Canes a tougher group in their own end, and blocking shots is contagious. But how the pairings shape up will be something to look for through these six games.
In camp, Gleason has partnered with Komisarek. Right now the top six in no order would be Faulk, Gleason, Komisarek, Andrej Sekera, who arrived via trade at the draft, Hainsey and Harrison. The team would like to keep an extra defenseman, and that comes down to the play of Murphy and Brett Bellemore.
Many times the preseason is about fine tuning some parts. This year, the Hurricanes will have to use these games to see who is ready to do the reliable things to take the team on the long road to the playoffs.