By Thomas Manshack, Staff Writer
When the Carolina Hurricanes take the ice for training camp this weekend, don’t blink – you might see the end of an NHL dream or two.
For those rookies whose careers are hanging by a thread, the abrupt mid-January starting date will represent a potentially decisive turning point in their career prospects. Failing to make the cut in camp, or not getting that extra call-up, will likely push them over the brink into NHL irrelevance.
Typically, age 23 represents a make-or break moment in a prospect’s career – either he has already established himself as an NHL-level player, or the window closes very quickly within the following season or two. Only 21 players age 23 or above, who were in their first or second NHL season, played at least half of 2011-12. That’s 21 guys out of the entire prospect pool of the 2004, 2005, 2006 and 2007 entry drafts. Last season, only three players over age 25 (the Habs’ Raphael Diaz, the Pens’ Joe Vitale, and the Hawks’ Lennart Petrell) managed a full rookie season.
While it’s still possible to make the NHL as a veteran player, not everyone can be Jay Harrison. Particularly at risk are forwards, who tend to peak in their early years. Defensemen and goalies take slightly longer to develop and might get the call in their mid-20s, but the clock is ticking loudly. Here are some of the Hurricanes prospects, all on expiring contracts, who will be under the most pressure to make a big impression in this short season:
Gragnani has the benefit of 58 games’ NHL experience, but his lack of defensive ability has cost him a budding career. His cannon of a shot won’t be enough to break him into a roster that already includes Justin Faulk, Joe Corvo and Harrison; he also needs to show that he can play his game while also playing an acceptable level of defense.
At one point he was seen as a future solution to the Hurricanes’ dearth of right-handed, offensive-minded defensemen. But with the emergence of Faulk and Jamie McBain, as well as the re-re-acquisition of Corvo, Sangs has been pushed out of the picture. If he can show Canes brass that he can be an offensive specialist at the NHL level, he could make Jim Rutherford comfortable enough to trade McBain for help in other areas.
Now that Alex Semin is in the fold, Boychuk is only the second-biggest enigma in the Hurricanes organization. Brilliant in the AHL but hopeless in his NHL appearances, Boychuk has enough experience that we should start to see him tap into his potential. He’ll likely get a shot, too, if he can grab a wide-open spot at wing during camp. If not, it’s time to cut bait with this project.
Dalpe is in much the same boat as Boychuk, having swung and missed at his opportunity to stick with the Canes last season. But his season was derailed by injury and never got back on track. This season, it’s time so see what he can really do. Another fish-or-cut-bait project.
Nash was acquired from the Edmonton Oilers with precisely this situation in mind. Brandon Sutter is no longer around to keep a stranglehold on the third-line center spot. The Hurricanes have Jeremy Welsh, a hot-shot new acquisition, but Welsh has received mixed reviews in Charlotte. In the short-term, Nash has an opportunity to jump in and take that spot so that Rutherford doesn’t have to pursue a trade or UFA signing. If he doesn’t do that, he needn’t worry about the long-term.
It might already be too late for Samson, but he may get one last shot at redemption if the Hurricanes struggle with injuries. If the expected happens and his dark horse doesn’t carry him to an NHL roster spot, it’s safe to say he will finish his career in a minor league… somewhere.