Training Camp Battles: Southeast Division

With training camps starting late this week or early next, we at Pro Hockey Talk couldn’t help but wonder: what are the biggest position battles going in? To give you the most specific answers possible, we asked team bloggers to give their take. After all, these men and women follow their teams almost as much as general managers, so they would know better than us.

(Actually, some of them might watch their teams more closely than GMs, but that’s neither here nor there.)

Previous entries: Northeast Division, Pacific Division, Central Division.

Current entry: Southeast Division

Thumbnail image for Thumbnail image for studlydudley.jpgAtlanta Thrashers

Contributor: Laura Astorian from Thrashing the Blues.

The battle for who’s going to be the best third liner on the team’s a big one. No, I kid. I kid. The Thrashers are a bit stacked with grinders, and defense… but regardless of who makes the cut there we’re ok. It’ll be goal again – if Pavelec can play consistently like he did at the start of last season, we’ll be solid. Instead I think that we might be relying on Mason to be SuperBeard yet again.

Defense’s under some competition that no one expected. There’s a log jam there now since Buff’s been moved to D, so now the question is about who’ll be our 7th defenseman – Valabik or Kulda? Kulda could play in the NHL this year, and Boris was looking much better last year before his leg exploded.

Our biggest weakness is a lack of a big scorer, though I broke it down the other day on SB Nation Atlanta and realized that scoring in general isn’t an issue – just having that one go-to guy. Honestly, after watching everyone predict the Thrashers’ offense when we had Kovy, maybe not having a big guy isn’t a bad idea.

Not sure about having a player come out of nowhere, but Patrice Cormier’ll come out of camp ready to make an impact. He won’t score a bunch, but he’ll be a solid checker who will intimidate and lead the youth by example – he took charge at prospect camp. Alex Burmistrov could stand a little bit of a chance – the kid is fast and has wonderful aim – but I wonder if he’ll be up to snuff as far as Dudley’s size standards go. He was about 180 at camp, so he needs to add a little bit more.

Thumbnail image for truutu.jpgCarolina Hurricanes

Contributor: Carolyn Christians from Canes Country.

Unlike last preseason, the Carolina Hurricanes depth chart is completely wide open among forwards, with only two of twelve positions etched in stone. Beyond Eric Staal and Brandon Sutter who are locked in as the top two centermen, we have no idea how the lines will be sorted out by the opener in Helsinki. The pressure’s on Coaches Paul Maurice and Ron Francis to find the right mix of wings to complete the top six and optimize the talents of Staal and Sutter. And then finish the job by assembling the bottom six from scratch. GM Jim Rutherford has made it clear that the Canes are in “transition” and going younger. Two familiar 31-year- old veterans, Erik Cole and Sergei Samsonov, are facing contract years. These two wingers, each with up-and-down careers, will be in a battle for top ice time, competing with a hungry pack of youngsters (e.g. Zach Boychuk, Jiri Tlusty, Jeff Skinner, Zac Dalpe, Drayson Bowman, shall I go on?) pushing hard to grab their spots. With six pre-season games before heading to Russia, we can expect some entertaining hockey over the next couple weeks.

The most intriguing position battle at camp this year? Easy: Third-line center. The contest seems to be between two rookies, Ohio State’s Zac Dalpe and Cornell’s Riley Nash. Though the consensus is that sniper Jeff Skinner, the Canes 2010 draft 7th overall pick, will be moved to wing “If and When” he joins the fray at the NHL level, I can’t eliminate the possibility he might also stay at center, and compete for the job. Among the veterans, Jussi Jokinen, Patrick
Dwyer or even Tuomo Ruutu’s names have been mentioned. Could AHL All-Star Jon Matsumoto challenge the field at camp, after three full seasons with the Flyers’s affiliate Adirondack Phantoms without a single NHL call-up?

The Canes have a ridiculous number of quality right shooting offensive defensemen (Joe Corvo, Anton Babchuk, Jamie McBain, and Bobby Sanguinetti), but I’m concerned they’re missing enough back-end muscle to preserve Cam Ward’s view of the action. The only reliable stay- at-home type is Tim Gleason, who, at 27, emerged last season as the team’s heart and-soul (and on occasion, blood-and-guts) strong man. Will the league’s top minute-muncher Joni Pitkanen, known for his stellar, albeit risky, breakout passes, take up some of the slack and be a consistent power in the D-zone? Perhaps big man, and Nic Wallin look-alike, Jay Harrison, hampered by injuries last season, then re-signed to a barebones one-year deal in April, will finally become a NHL force to be reckoned with. My money is on young Brett Carson, who I expect will continue to quietly develop, and will earn a place as a regular in the top-four, with the right size and attitude to get the job the done.

While Rutherford’s preseason stump speech repeatedly suggests there is a roster spot waiting for first round pick Jeff Skinner if he shows he wants it, I expect Skinner will have his 9-game tryout, but beyond that, I’d give him a 60% chance of sticking it out the whole season. What’s the point of rushing?

After the jump, The Litter Box covers the Florida Panthers, Raw Charge forecasts the Lightning and Storming the Crease underlines the Capitals’ biggest battles.


Thumbnail image for vokounstays.jpgFlorida Panthers

Contributor: Donny Rivette from The Litter Box.

Florida is in a rather unique position in that no real “battles” are being waged for an opening day roster spot. Given the large number of new and existing contracts involved, a prospect will really have to knock socks off of GM Dale Tallon and coach Peter DeBoer to earn placement so quickly. Fortunately, the majority of those deals are of the single-year variety: no less than seven veterans – from captain Bryan McCabe to Cory Stillman to Chris Higgins and so on – are staring at unrestricted free agency in 2011, and logic suggests most will be dealt at or before the trade deadline.

The most serious competition probably rests in goal, surprisingly enough. Veteran netminder Tomas Vokoun – still one of the league’s best, and a pending UFA – is secure in his job, at least until the deadline. Florida has a wealth of talent at the position, first and foremost of which is Sweden’s Jacob Markstrom, widely accepted as the best goaltender outside the NHL. Though he’ll start in AHL Rochester, he’s now a trade away from what’s certain to be a long career in the bigs, and few prospects have shown the hunger he has for the starters’ role. Scott Clemmensen has two years remaining on his deal, so barring a bizarro offer thrown Florida’s way, he’s with the organization for that length. And that’s not a bad situation…he’s an older backup with tremendous success as a Devil. Took some time to adjust to the Panthers’ odd All For One and One For Me motto of last year, but when he became comfortable it was lights-out on the competition. Same with his time at the World Championship. Another A-List blue-chipper, Marc Cheverie has a drive similar to Markstrom, which will make life for current Amerks’ goalie Tyler Plante more than interesting. Brian Foster is a bit down the ladder, but owns an impressive resume himself. Long story shortened: All are under contract, and one will be left in the dirt. Florida already loaned out Rochester’s Alex Salak to the SEL, so something has to give.

A glaring weakness is the Panthers players’ lack of familiarity with their own organization. Been a lot of turnover, as Tallon weeded the minors of deadwood and accumulated 13 picks in seven rounds during this summer’s Entry Draft. Such a coup must eventually be balanced for, and the younglings among the ranks have little to no experience working alongside each other, along with a clash of cultures as the “Dale” boys are weaved among the “Keenan/Martin/Sexton” clan. This can be remedied over time, and employing a club liason in the form of ex-Cat captain Brian Skrudland can only improve the working relationships of all involved. Also: we’re talking about 19-year olds; a little slack, please.

Fans are unquestionably hoping to see 2010 3rd overall pick Erik Gudbranson make the club out of camp. Having seen him personally several times in the past week, I’ll stand by the stereotype: dude’s an exceptional specimen of size, strength, and maturity. And a wicked – but effective – mean streak. Does he pull a Kulikov and play himself into the lineup? Perhaps, but Tallon wisely built on defensive depth through the summer just in case the Kingston behemoth isn’t quite ready for prime time, effectively placing promotion in the hands of the 18-year old himself. Not to worry…this kid will be the face of the Panthers for a decade.

Thumbnail image for simongagne6.jpgTampa Bay Lightning

Contributor: John Fontana from Raw Charge.

Key position battle: Lower line wings

With the grand revamping of the Lightning this offseason – additions of Simon Gagne, Dan Ellis, and Pavel Kubina among others – there are still things yet to be settled on the Lightning roster. While the high-profile battle may be on goaltending, or the absolute makeup of the Lightning defense (which will have eight players carried on the roster), the clear battle is in the makeup of the bottom six forwards – specifically on the wings.

While the Bolts should be set with their third and fourth line centers (Dominic Moore and Nate Thompson), the question needs to be asked just who plays next to them? A total of eight forwards (Teddy Purcell, Sean Bergenheim, Chris Durno, Adam Hall, Eric Perrin, Marc-Antoine Pouliot, along with European imports Johan Harju and Niklas Persson) are in a battle for what will likely be four rosters spots. This doesn’t include on-the-cusp prospects (Ashton Carter, Dana Tyrell) or longtime organizational depth (Paul Szczechura, Blair Jones) who will also be in camp.

Who, of these names, fits best alongside Moore and Thompson is anyone’s guess. Settling these lower line slots is the first challenge of Guy Boucher’s coaching career in Tampa.

Thumbnail image for Thumbnail image for georgemcpheecapsgm.jpgWashington Capitals

Contributor: Rob Yunich from Storming the Crease.

The Washington Capitals, after a first-round exit that followed a President’s Trophy-winning regular season, hardly made any changes. The biggest question mark is the center position on the second and third line. Otherwise, Mathieu Perrault and Tomas Fleischmann seem to be the favorites to fill those roles, with uber-rookie Marcus Johansson making a strong push to be occupy a spot on the opening night roster.

On defense, the other big question mark, the top five spots seem to belong to Tom Poti, Mike Green, Jeff Schultz, John Carlson and Karl Alzner. John Erskine and Tyler Sloan have contracts for this season, but they hardly will scare anybody.

GM George McPhee is notoriously tight-lipped, but with many low-priced free agents still out there for the taking, a defenseman might be added with the approximately $5 million of available room under the salary cap (according to capgeek.com). Otherwise, the Caps will depend on the roster of the two-time defending Calder Cup champion Hershey Bears to fill any vacancies.

Note: Rebecca from Japer’s Rink also submitted a Capitals piece, which can be found here.

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    Jaromir Jagr leaves game with lower body injury

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    Calgary Flames forward Jaromir Jagr played just four shifts on Saturday night before exiting their game against the Minnesota Wild in the first period.

    The Flames later announced that Jagr would not return with what the team is calling a lower body injury.

    They had no other update.

    After going through the entire summer unsigned as a free agent, Jagr finally landed a one-year deal with the Flames just before the start of the season. So far he has appeared in five games for the team recording a pair of assists.

    He recorded 46 points (16 goals, 30 assists) while playing in all 82 games for the Florida Panthers a year ago.

    Even though he appeared in every game a year ago he still showed some signs of finally starting to slow down, and you have to assume that there is going to be some sort of an injury concern for a player that is turning 46 years old in February.

    Senators top Maple Leafs but lose Bobby Ryan for a month

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    The Ottawa Senators’ 6-3 win over the Toronto Maple Leafs on Saturday night came with a price.

    After the game coach Guy Boucher confirmed that veteran forward Bobby Ryan broke his right index finger during the game and is expected to miss at least the next month.

    Ryan has yet to score a goal for the Senators in eight games this season but has recorded five assists.

    He fought through an injury plagued season in 2016-17 that ended with one of the worst individual stat lines of his career. He was able to salvage the season however with a tremendous postseason performance that saw him finish with 15 points (six goals, nine assists) in 19 games as the Senators went all the way to Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Finals where they would lose in double overtime.

    The Senators are off to a great start this season earning at least a point in seven of their first eight games (4-1-3).

    Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

    The Penguins seem to have a backup goalie problem

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    The Penguins worked to address one area of concern on Saturday when they acquired forward Riley Sheahan from the Detroit Red Wings.

    Now they need to start working on another major area of concern — their backup goalie.

    The Penguins had to know Antti Niemi was never going to step into Pittsburgh and replace what Marc-Andre Fleury gave them on the ice, but they had to be expecting a little more than what they have received thus far.

    After giving up seven goals in the Penguins’ 7-1 loss in Tampa Bay on Saturday night, Niemi has now given up 16 goals in 128 minutes of hockey this season. His save percentage is a brutal .797.

    In games Niemi starts the Penguins are 0-3 and have been outscored 22-6, losing games by margins of 10-1 and 7-1.

    In the games he hasn’t started they are 5-0-1 and have outscored their opponents 24-17.

    It would be unfair to put all of the blame on Niemi, because even with regular starter Matt Murray in net they have also had stretches where they have struggled defensively and not quite played at the level they showed the past two seasons.

    Niemi has also made all of his starts in the second half of back-to-back situations against teams that were not only rested the night before, but also teams that should be among the best in the league this season (the Chicago Blackhawks, two games against the Tampa Bay Lightning).

    But none of that can excuse the way Niemi himself has played thus far, either. At some point you  need your goalie to make a save no matter who your team is playing or what is happening around him. His rebound control has been shaky, he looks uncomfortable when he is making saves and it is not like he is coming off of a great performance a year ago. In 42 appearances with the Dallas Stars he finished with an .892 save percentage, one of the worst marks in the league, and was at .905 the year before. He is 34 years old and has not performed at a better than league average level (or even at a league average level) in several years.

    It has to be an area of concern for the Penguins because if Murray has a flaw early in his young career it is that he has missed some time due to injury. In the past they have had Fleury there to step in. They do not have that luxury now.

    Niemi is only signed for one year at $700,000 so it is not like they have a huge investment in him.

    If they decide to go in another direction already (they will probably give Niemi a little bit of a longer leash, I am sure) they have Tristan Jarry in the American Hockey League, or perhaps explore a trade if they are uncomfortable with such a young duo and inexperienced backup behind Murray.

    Either way, it is really difficult to see them sticking around with this sort of performance from their backup for much longer.

    Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

    WATCH LIVE: Florida Panthers at Washington Capitals

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    The Washington Capitals, fresh off of a 4-3 overtime win on Friday night thanks to Alex Ovechkin‘s NHL record 20th overtime goal, return home on Saturday night to host the Florida Panthers.

    After winning their first two games of the season the Capitals have stumbled a little bit over the past couple of weeks winning just two of their past six games. They are looking to win consecutive games for the first time since those back-to-back wins to open the season.

    The Panthers, meanwhile, are coming off of a 4-3 loss to the Pittsburgh Penguins on Friday night that cost them goaltender Roberto Luongo who was placed on injured reserve on Saturday afternoon.

    You can catch all of the action on NBCSN. Game time is 7:30 p.m. ET.

    Click here to watch live.

    Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.