As the Carolina Hurricanes are apparently aiming to prove, you can never have too many NHL-ready forwards. Injuries can and do happen at any point, derailing an otherwise promising season. And with so many different roles available, no two players are completely alike.
Coach Kirk Muller has a plethora of names in which to build his roster. Over the next few weeks, those will slowly get whittled down. Some know they’ve made it, others will fight until the last day. And those can make just as big of a difference in the end.
Without a true third line center, Muller might have to take to experimenting to find his man. Towards the end of last season, Jeff Skinner played some games at his drafted position, looking far more capable than the last time he was given the opportunity. Still, his defensive game could use a bit more work, and he struggled in the faceoff circle, clocking in at 47.7% in his limited appearances.
Elias Lindholm, another player drafted as a center, debuted at his natural position in day one of training camp on Thursday. Though things are still in their infant stages, he, along with linemates Skinner and Radek Dvorak, signed to a pro tryout contract last week, provide intriguing possibilities.
Pairing the youthful Skinner and Lindholm with the elder statesman Dvorak provides a good mix of scoring and defensive responsibilities. Though Lindholm would have the pressure of anchoring his own line at only 18-years-old, he would be going up against easier competition in all likelihood.
Dvorak still has a ways to go to make the team himself, but his 1200 games of NHL experience puts him far ahead of anyone else on the Canes’ roster.
Beyond Lindholm and Skinner, the options get scare. Tuomo Ruutu and Zac Dalpe were also drafted as centers, but have spent much of their careers on the wing. Riley Nash excelled defensively in the role last year, but could not find the back of the net with regularity.
One darkhorse to consider: Victor Rask. Though he might be better served with a full year in the AHL, the 20-year-old has had strong showings at the last few Canes’ camps. Another could land him in Carolina to begin the year.
Every candidate has a concern or two. If Skinner or Lindholm are not capable of locking down the position, the team might have to look outside the organization.
Muller has not been shy about his desire for a big, imposing fourth line. Where the third line lacks in suitable centers, the fourth appears to flourish, albeit most with inexperience.
Brett Sutter has filled the position occasionally and will be battling for a more permanent spot in the lineup. Though he’s 26, he’s only played a handful of games at the NHL level.
But if inexperience is OK, then Jeremy Welsh must be considered. Through his strong play at Union College, he earned himself a contract as a collegiate free agent. And given that he’s on a one-way deal at $1 million this year, fiscally, he might have a leg up.
Then there’s Nash, defensively talented enough to slot higher than the fourth line–perhaps even the third, if he can find his scoring touch. He’s not a player that will lay you out, but he’s not going to hurt you with mistakes either; he committed just three turnovers last year.
On the flanks could be any number of players. Kevin Westgarth provides the muscle, and is likely to be in Carolina anyway, even if only as a 13th forward. For those chippy games, two heavyweights could see ice time as Nicolas Blanchard showed a propensity for mixing it up last year.
And though he’s probably a long-shot, don’t discount Jared Staal. He got playing time with older brother Jordan last year–even if the games were essentially meaningless–and didn’t look out of place.
A host of other players could make appearances in plug-and-play scenarios. Nathan Gerbe, Aaron Palushaj, Drayson Bowman, and Zach Boychuk could all find themselves in the lineup with a strong camp or as a call-up, depending on the opponent.
One roadblock to consider, however: Muller could elect to play seven defensemen, easing Ryan Murphy into full-time duty. If that’s the case, either Staal could find themselves double-shifted on the fourth line. A recipe for success in 2005-06.
With so many players on two-way deals, the options appear to be endless. Muller can mix and match on any given night based on his opponent. Up front, the battle to make the ‘Canes will be a fun one to watch.
Photo credit: Andy Martin Jr.