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 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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    Canucks look to remain unbeaten on tough weekend road trip

    VANCOUVER, BC - OCTOBER 15: Brandon Sutter #20 of the Vancouver Canucks celebrates his game winning goal against the Calgary Flames during a shootout of their NHL game at Rogers Arena on October 15, 2016 in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada. (Photo by Ben Nelms/Getty Images)
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    The Vancouver Canucks were a popular preseason pick to finish the 2016-17 season as one of the worst teams in the Western Conference. Who knows, when all is said and done they still might end up closer to the basement. But for now, the Canucks are — quite surprisingly! — the NHL’s last unbeaten team thanks to a 4-0-0 start that has included a bunch of one-goal wins, including three overtime games.

    Relying on overtime and come-from-behind wins every night probably isn’t the best long-term strategy when it comes to winning games, but for right now it has worked, and the wins in October count just as much as the wins later in the season.

    Every point helps.

    If they want to remain as the NHL’s only unbeaten team through the weekend they are going to have to do it on a tough road trip that features a set of back-to-back games in Los Angeles and Anaheim.

    Any set of back-to-back games on the road is a tough situation, especially when you are talking about two teams that have been Stanley Cup contenders in recent years as the Kings and Ducks typically are. But this weekend swing may not be as daunting as it would have first appeared when the schedule came out.

    They get a Kings team on Saturday that is off to a 1-3 start and has already given up 15 goals in four games. A lot of that is due to the absence of starting goalie Jonathan Quick. Backups Jeff Zatkoff and Peter Budaj have not played particularly well in his place. They didn’t get their first win until Thursday on a controversial overtime goal against Dallas.

    Then on Sunday the Canucks make a visit to Anaheim to face the Randy Carlyle-led Ducks who are only 1-3-1 through their first five games while only scoring 10 goals.

    In other words: Everything seems to be going Vancouver’s way right now. They are keeping teams off the scoreboard, finding ways to win, and even when they go on their first road trip of the season they are getting a pair of teams that are struggling. If they can somehow get through this set of back-to-back games they return home for another three-game home stand against Ottawa, Edmonton and Washington. So they have a great opportunity to get off to a fantastic start.

    Even Dylan Larkin is fighting for the Red Wings now

    NEWARK, NJ - DECEMBER 11:  Dylan Larkin #71 of the Detroit Red Wings plays against the New Jersey Devils at the Prudential Center on December 11, 2015 in Newark, New Jersey. The Devils defeated the Red Wings 3-2 in overtime.  (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)

    Something very strange has been happening in Detroit in the early parts of the 2016-17 season.

    The Red Wings … are fighting. A lot.

    This is a strange development because not only fighting has been rapidly decreasing across the league for several years now, but also because the Red Wings have been last in the league in fighting majors in 10 out of the past 11 seasons. The one year over that stretch they were not last (2012-13) they were 29th. Nobody fights less than these guys.

    In most of those years they never even reached double digits in fighting majors, and have only had eight in each of the past two seasons.

    But through the first five games this season they already have five of them, and that includes a rather stunning participant on Friday night during their 5-3 win over the Nashville Predator — 20-year-old forward Dylan Larkin, the team’s leading goal-scorer from a year ago and a top-five finisher in the Calder Trophy voting.

    He dropped the gloves with Predators defenseman Yannick Weber early in the third period on Friday night.

    Have a look.

    According to the database (all fighting stats listed here are via their database) that is Larkin’s first ever fight. And not just in the NHL, but apparently anywhere in hockey. He seemed to handle himself quite well. But let’s be honest, the Red Wings probably do not want to see the guy that is probably their best offensive player risking injury to drop his gloves and fight somebody.

    As mentioned above, the Red Wings already have five fighting majors this season a number that currently leads the NHL. No other team in the NHL has more than three.

    When it comes to their actual play on the ice the Red Wings have now won three games in a row after the starting the season 0-2.

    They received a little bit of extra help late in the third period on Friday when protecting a one-goal lead they were given a full two-minute, 5-on-3 power play in large part because of Predators forward James Neal taking one of the worst penalties of the season when he cross-checked Alexey Marchenko after the play.

    Neal’s teammate, Calle Jarnkrok, was already penalized on the play for high-sticking Darren Helm. Those two penalties pretty much ended whatever comeback hopes Nashville had on the night as Helm ended up scoring a power play goal with 22 seconds to play.

    Blue Jackets call up Sonny Milano from AHL

    NEW YORK, NY - MARCH 31:  Sonny Milano #22 of the Columbus Blue Jackets skates in his first NHL game against the the New York Islanders at the Barclays Center on March 31, 2016 in New York City.  The Islanders defeated the Blkue Jackets 4-3.  (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)
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    Immediately after earning their first win of the season — a 3-2 victory over the Chicago Blackhawks — the Columbus Blue Jackets made a roster move by calling up one of their top prospects, forward Sonny Milano, from the Cleveland Monsters of the American Hockey League.

    To make room for Milano on the roster the Blue Jackets sent Oliver Bjorkstrand down to the AHL.

    The 20-year-old Milano was the Blue Jackets’ first-round draft pick (No. 16 overall) in the 2014 NHL draft. He spent most of the 2015-16 season playing for Lake Erie (now Cleveland) during their Calder Cup winning season, recording 31 points (14 goals, 17 assists) during his first full season of pro hockey. He also added another eight points (four goals, four assists) during the Calder Cup playoffs.

    His 2015-16 season also included a brief cup of coffee in the NHL with the Blue Jackets where he appeared in three games and recorded one assist near the end of the seasonHe had one goal in two games with Cleveland to start this season..

    Milano is a highly skilled player that can do some pretty incredible things with the puck and should bring a little bit of excitement to a team that could really use some fresh talent up front.

    Trevor van Riemsdyk could be out ‘for a bit’ for Blackhawks

    CHICAGO, IL - APRIL 05:  Trevor van Riemsdyk #57 of the Chicago Blackhawks shoots against the Arizona Coyotes at the United Center on April 5, 2016 in Chicago, Illinois. The Blackhawks defeated the Coyotes 6-2.  (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)

    It turned out to be a tough Friday night for the Chicago Blackhawks in Columbus.

    Not only did they lose the game to the Blue Jackets, 3-2, thanks to another rough night for their penalty killing unit, but they also lost a defenseman to injury.

    Trevor van Riemsdyk had to leave the game in the first period with what was described as an upper body injury when he crashed into the net. After the game coach Joel Quenneville said that van Riemsdyk could be “out for a bit” due to the injury, via Eric Lear of Blackhawks TV. He appeared in all 82 games for the Blackhawks a year ago and played nearly 20 minutes a night.

    Before Friday he had appeared in only one game this season, while his name had been being mentioned in trade rumors. With van Riemsdyk getting back into the lineup on Friday there had been some speculation that it could make veteran defenseman Brian Campbell a healthy scratch, but the Blackhawks instead opted to dress seven defensemen. Even with the injury to van Riemsdyk, Campbell only played 12 minutes on Friday.

    In other Blackhawks injury news, Quenneville said that injured forward Marian Hossa — who did not play on Friday — is questionable for the Blackhawks’ game on Saturday against the Toronto Maple Leafs.