The beginning of training camp is always a whirlwind of viewing activity. With AHL players, prospects and NHL players all in tow, the initial group is 40+ players. There is a random mix of fresh faces ranging from recently drafted prospects to players acquired over the course of the summer. And the early practices are mostly a fast-paced run through various drills focused on individual components of Bill Peters’ system.
Just like everyone else, I enter training camp wide-eyed watching new experienced players like Lee Stempniak, Teuvo Teravainen, Bryan Bickell and Viktor Stalberg and also with an eye for the rookies/prospects with Sebastian Aho’s much-anticipated arrival topping the list. In addition to just taking in the sights and sounds after another long summer, I also enter with a short checklist of early reads.
Here is the draft version of that list in bullet form (not in any particular order):
1) D pairings
At least to start, who plays with whom?
2) Nicolas Roy
Can he match NHL pace? That, at least theoretically, is his achilles heel/limiting factor. He is coming off a strong 2015-16 juniors season and primed to be a dark horse, but only if he can meet the pace. Does he look like Victor Rask using smarts, positioning and good reads to compensate for lack of raw speed? Or does he look like he still needs to improve in terms of mobility to one day play in the NHL?
The Hurricanes do have 2 alternate captains back in Jordan Staal and Justin Faulk, but it will be different without Eric Staal as the team’s leader. Maybe more interesting than Jordan Staal and Justin Faulk will be who else steps up. Jeff Skinner was the most noticeably different after Eric Staal’s departure. Is he ready to become more of a leader? Does gray beard Ron Hainsey help fill the gap? Do any of the young defensemen prove to be vocal types after settling in after their rookie seasons?
4) The goalies
To be honest, I think there is very little in preseason that offers a read on goalies to start the regular season. They inevitably show signs of rest and signs of ready in preseason games, and it is a wild guess if they are ready to enter the regular season. That said, in my Daily Cup of Joe post on September 7, I noted a better start in net as 1 of 3 keys for the Hurricanes to start better in 2016-17 and think the position is critical to the season in total. Because of the importance that I place on netminding in the bigger picture, I cannot help but try to look for some signs that Lack will start the season with his feet under him, and Ward will pick up where he left off with his strong second half of the 2015-16 season.
5) Chemistry between Jeff Skinner and Lee Stempniak
Victor Rask and Jeff Skinner have logged significant ice time together, and though I would not consider Rask to be the stereotypical pure playmaking center for a top scoring line, he reads well off of Skinner’s play. The key to making what looks like an undermanned first scoring line on paper is how well whirling dervish Jeff Skinner and veteran Lee Stempniak complement each other. If those 2 players make each other better then I start to get excited about the prospects of a scoring boost.
6) Jordan Staal
When he is playing well, a key component is how effortlessly he eats up ice through the neutral zone seemingly without working that hard. He was the Hurricanest best player when the team was good in 2015-16. He needs to find that gear again for the 2016-17 season and anchor the team’s best defensive line for the team to push up from 86 points in the 2015-16 campaign.
7) Sebastian Aho
His name is more regularly coming up in the same sentence as Calder. Hopes and expectations for him are incredibly high following his strong 2015-16 season both in the Finland and professional tournaments, but there is still a transition to the smaller rinks and the NHL game. Near the beginning of the offseason, I wrote about the need to balance patience and optimism with Aho. He will be a late arrival after the World Cup tourney wraps up. How quickly does Aho look comfortable and ready for the NHL game?
8) Julien Gauthier
He is a bit in the same boat as Nicolas Roy. With his #21 overall selection in the 2016 NHL draft, Gauthier projects to be an NHL player at some point. Logic would suggest that waiting another year or 2 and bumping back the 3 inexpensive entry-level contract years would be wise. But at the same time, the Canes lineup could desperately use a scoring power forward. As with Roy, I am looking to get an early read on his ability to play at NHL speed. If Gauthier passes that test, step 2 to playing his way into the NHL mix for the 2016-17 season requires showing signs that he can score at a pace higher than the forwards already slotted for the NHL roster.
9) Ryan Murphy
I wrote about Murphy shortly after he re-signed with the Hurricanes this summer. Murphy is suddenly young but not that young at 23 years old. With another batch of young defensemen now within NHL reach in Charlotte, Murphy’s window of opportunity to seize the opportunity and carve out an NHL role is closing. In scrimmages and preseason games, I will be watching closely to see if he can find the right balance of playing his game carrying/rushing the puck but also being sound positionally and defensively.
10) Haydn Fleury
Last season, the Hurricanes had 3 rookie defensemen rise up ahead of schedule and claim regular NHL roles. Fleury would be the front runner to make a run at doing the same during the 2016-17 season especially if Ryan Murphy falters. The biggest read on Fleury will be seeing how he holds up defensively in preseason games against NHL competition.
What else will you be watching most closely at the start of training camp?