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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    Gretzky returns to NHL fold as official ambassador of centennial celebration

    EDMONTON, AB - APRIL 6:  Former Edmonton Oilers forward Wayne Gretzky greets fans during the closing ceremonies at Rexall Place following the game between the Edmonton Oilers and the Vancouver Canucks on April 6, 2016 at Rexall Place in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada. The game was the final game the Oilers played at Rexall Place before moving to Rogers Place next season. (Photo by Codie McLachlan/Getty Images)
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    The National Hockey League was founded on November 26, 1917. Almost ninety-nine years later, the commissioner of the league, Gary Bettman, was in Toronto to announce that Wayne Gretzky, arguably its greatest player ever, would be the official ambassador of its centennial celebration.

    For Gretzky, whose relationship with the NHL was tested during the Phoenix Coyotes’ bankruptcy proceedings in 2009, it marks a return to representing the league in an official capacity. (In 2013, he was reportedly paid around $8 million in a settlement.)

    “It’s a tremendous honor,” Gretzky said in a statement. “I’ve said this a million times that everything I have in my life is because of hockey and because of the National Hockey League. I happen to think it’s the greatest game in the world. It was kind to me my whole life. The game just gets better every year, so for me to be involved in just trying to help promote and sell our sport even more it’s a great thrill for me and an honor to be part of it.”

    Watch the following video to see what the NHL has in store for 2017, starting on Jan. 1 with the Centennial Classic at BMO Field between the Maple Leafs and Red Wings:

     

    Report: Panarin wants six-year deal from ‘Hawks, at least $6M per season

    LAS VEGAS, NV - JUNE 22:  Artemi Panarin of the Chicago Blackhawks poses after winning the Calder Trophy named for the top rookie at the 2016 NHL Awards at the Hard Rock Hotel & Casino on June 22, 2016 in Las Vegas, Nevada.  (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)
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    Artemi Panarin is looking to cash in on his Calder-winning campaign.

    Chicago’s prized Russian sniper and the reigning rookie of the year, Panarin is reportedly seeking a six-year contract extension “worth more than $6 million per season,” per the Chicago Tribune.

    As the Tribune points out, that figure could be problematic. Nobody’s arguing that Panarin isn’t worth the money — he’s 24, and coming off a 30-goal, 77-point campaign — but people are wondering how the ‘Hawks can afford him. Eight players on the active roster are pulling in at least $4 million per season, which includes Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews, they of the $10.5M cap hits.

    That said, it sure sounds like Panarin will get done.

    Reports last week said his agent and ‘Hawks GM Stan Bowman were well into extension talks, and Bowman seemed confident a deal would be inked.

    “I respect Tom [Lynn, Panarin’s agent], he’s a very knowledgeable guy and I know Artemi put a lot of faith in him,” Bowman said. “Tom and I will work to get something done.”

    Panarin’s heading into the last of a two-year, $6.775 million deal with a $3.387 AAV — a deal that gained plenty of notoriety as the season progressed. Since it was so performance-laden, Panarin cashed in a couple of times, including a $1.725 million bonus for finishing among the top-10 scorers in the NHL.

    That led to Bowman making some tough financial decisions this offseason, including the deal that sent Bryan Bickell — more specifically, Bryan Bickell’s contract — and Teuvo Teravainen to Carolina in exchange for draft picks.

    So, this latest situation isn’t anything new for the ‘Hawks GM. He’s been down the financial squeeze road before, and usually found a way to keep his core players in the mix.

    If Panarin is considered a core guy — and at this point, it sure sounds like he is — then finding common ground on an extension shouldn’t be too difficult.

    Gudbranson-Hutton pairing will be key for Canucks

    Vancouver Canucks' defenseman Erik Gudbranson, who was acquired from the Florida Panthers in the off-season, answers questions during a news conference ahead of the NHL hockey team's training camp in Vancouver, British Columbia, Thursday, Sept. 22, 2016. (Darryl Dyck/The Canadian Press via AP)
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    There’s a long list of things that have to go right for the Vancouver Canucks if their playoff hopes are to be realized.

    One of the biggest is for new addition Erik Gudbranson to form a cohesive second pairing with sophomore Ben Hutton. If that happens, and if Alex Edler and Chris Tanev can stay healthy, the Canucks should have a reliable top-four defense, and that’s something they rarely, if ever, had last season.

    Gudbranson, a big stay-at-home type, and Hutton, a puck-mover, have been skating together at training camp. The Canucks believe the pairing has great potential, with each defenseman’s strengths complementing the other’s.

    “I want to get his feet moving and hit him in stride and get him up the ice with the puck as soon as possible,” Gudbranson said, per The Province. “I think we’re going to be a good partnership. We’re both on the same page. We’re both excited to play with each other and grow as a unit.”

    Vancouver’s third pairing remains to be seen. Luca Sbisa with Philip Larsen is the most likely at this point, though Nikita Tryamkin and Andrey Pedan on the left side, and Alex Biega and Troy Stecher on the right, could make things interesting. Jordan Subban is another wild card. Olli Juolevi too, though he’s a long shot and will likely end up back in junior.

    The Canucks were decimated by injuries to their best defensemen last season. Edler only played 52 games, Dan Hamhuis 58, and Tanev 69. Other teams with more depth could survive that, but Vancouver floundered.

    That’s why health is another big thing that has to go right for the Canucks. Another injury-filled season and it’s hard to picture them staying in the playoff race.

    Vancouver opens its preseason schedule tonight in San Jose.

    Boedker to make Team Europe debut in World Cup final

    DENVER, CO - MARCH 09:  Mikkel Boedker #89 of the Colorado Avalanche controls the puck against the Anaheim Ducks at Pepsi Center on March 9, 2016 in Denver, Colorado. The Avalanche defeated the Ducks 3-0.  (Photo by Doug Pensinger/Getty Images)
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    Mikkel Boedker‘s first game for Team Europe will be a big one.

    Boedker, a healthy scratch throughout the World Cup, will make his European debut on Tuesday, replacing the injured Marian Gaborik (foot) in the first of the best-of-three final.

    Head coach Ralph Kreuger opted for Boedker rather than dressing Luca Sbisa as a seventh defenseman, and lamented losing Gaborik’s presence in the lineup.

    “We’re losing some leadership and smarts on the puck that were exemplary,” Krueger said, per the L.A. Times.

    What the Europeans will gain, however, is speed. Boedker’s one of the fastest skaters in the league and is coming off a good offensive campaign, tying a career-high with 51 points.

    The 26-year-old appeared in two of Europe’s exhibition games, both against Team North America. He received a ton of ice time in the first — 19:46 — but had that cut in half for the rematch, when he had 13 shifts for just 9:22 TOI.

    Related: Gaborik (foot) to miss eight weeks