The beginning of hockey training camp has seemingly a million things to be sorted from its start to drop of the puck on opening night. Who makes the roster? Who plays with whom in terms of lines and pairings? Which prospects look good despite heading to the AHL and are positioned to be the 1st injury call-up? Who plays on the power play and penalty kill? Etc.
So for me, the early days of training camp are about watching for 2 things. First is watching to see where the coach/management’s heads are in terms of likely roster potentials and especially line combinations. Second is getting an early read on the comfort level and quality of play in game situations (scrimmages and preseason games) for players trying to take a step up from a lower level the previous season.
So with that and a focus on the forwards, here is my list of “What I’m watching” out of the gate and through the 1st 3-6 days of training camp:
1) Eric and? Jordan Staal. What does Peters do with Eric and Jordan Staal in line scrimmages and preseason games? Things are obviously subject to change (repeat that for any and all comments from here out), but this would provide a 1st indication on whether Peters’ prefers to leave together on a top line like most of 2014-15 once Jordan was healthy or if he is instead considering splitting them to balance the top 9.
2) Right wing. Where do Kris Versteeg and Elias Lindholm fit and do they (especially Versteeg since he is new) show signs of playmaking chemistry with any of the Canes forwards (pretty much all of them) who underperformed in terms of goal scoring in 2014-15? I keep harping that the Canes need more pure playmaking to get at least 1 of Jeff Skinner and Eric Staal more good scoring chances, so they do not have to create everything themselves.
3) Derek Ryan. That gets me to my next point…I am looking for an early read on if/how much Derek Ryan looks ready to play in the NHL. Especially before the Versteeg addition, Ryan was arguably the player with the purest playmaking skill set. But he did it in a bigger rink against lesser competition in Europe. The question is whether he can quickly translate his game to the NHL level. If he can, even with Versteeg added, I think there could be room for him. If he looks like he needs time to adapt, to Charlotte he goes.
4) Zach Boychuk. Does Zach Boychuk look assertive and ready to seize a spot? Last training camp he made significant progress with rounding out his 2-way game, enough so that he spent much of the 1st half of the season at the NHL level before finishing it in Charlotte. Of the players who are not mostly guaranteed roster spots, he has the most experience at the NHL level. I will be anxiously watching to see if he can take another small stride with his 2-way game but more importantly if he was this time able to pack the offensive upside that was left in Charlotte last season. Put another way, is he a minor league offensive forward struggling to transform into a good checking line forward (plays to weakness)? Or is he an offensive forward finally ready to play that game at the NHL level but with enough defensive improvement over the past few years (plays to strength)?
5) Sergey Tolchinsky. Can Sergey Tolchinsky defy the odds? I wrote about his chances to make the NHL recently. You can find that blog HERE. In short, the mathematical odds are against a player like him making the jump straight from juniors to the NHL. I pointed out the HUGE numbers that McGinn had in juniors in 2013-14 that led to big expectations last summer. But it was clear right out of the gate that he was not NHL ready. The odds are that the same thing will happen to Tolchinsky. But he (right now not projecting to the future) has NHL level scorer/playmaker’s hands. He also has an incredible creative flair that you cannot teach. And with that, I do not know how any Canes fan could go into training camp not at least a little curious to see how he looks.
So what do I look for to see if he is ready early? 2 things:
1-Does he look competent retreating up the ice playing defense and also in the defensive zone? He does not need to do the impossible and outmuscle players in front of the net or lead the team in winning 1-on-1 battles in the corners. But he does need to show that the speed at which he reads the game offensively also happens defensively such that he is positionally sound and able to sort out responsibilities correctly on defense.
2-This might sound strange, but I think an equal factor is reading whether he can translate his game to the NHL speed. He is not shy about playing with the puck on his stick. That is a general characteristic of all great playmakers. They have the patience to wait for something to develop and the creativity to figure out where/how to skate or set up defenders to make passing or shooting lanes that are not there initially. But things close quickly in the NHL. You generally need to make a move and then quickly use whatever you create (shot or pass) for the best you have and take it. The play where you skate down through the faceoff circle and then just loop back around when you do not have anything does not work so well in the NHL where the other guys skate about as well as you do.
So I want to see if Tolchinsky can create quickly and know when to capitalize and quickly make plays versus making too many decisions to overhold the puck waiting for something better that is not coming.
6) Brock McGinn. Did a year in the AHL get Brock McGinn ready? At least relative to what fans wanted, he was a disappointment last training camp. With spots open and McGinn coming off a huge last season in Canadian juniors, the table seemed to set for him to make the NHL team. It was clear early that he just was not ready for the NHL pace yet. And I think he was also trying to figure out how his roughshod style translated the NHL where his 185-pound frame really is not perfectly built for that game. He started slow in Charlotte and then played better as the season wore on, so I am curious to see if he looks to have taken a step up from this time last year.
At a simple level, I am looking to see how much he is around the puck. In theory, he should play a Nathan Gerbe-esque pesky style of puck hounding hockey but with a bit more hitting and a bit more finishing skill. To play that brand of hockey, McGinn must be both mentally and physically quick to read plays right to get head starts and then follow it with the wheels to get there.
7) Phillip DiGiuseppe. As a mostly unknown last summer, he showed some flashes of offense. He actuall reminds a bit of Chris Terry as a skilled lefty with a 50/50 split on playmaking versus scoring except younger and possibly a step quicker. With a full AHL season under his belt, could he take the next step up and be a dark horse for a roster spot this fall?
8) Positions. The Canes exited 2014-15 with 1C=Jordan Staal; 2C=Victor Rask; 3C=Riley Nash; 4C=Jay McClement. But there are multiple other options for centers including Eric Staal, Elias Lindholm, and Andrej Nestrasil as the most obvious. I will also be curious to see where Peters 1st auditions Derek Ryan who was a center in Europe but could maybe slot as a right wing too.
If my math is right, at forward I named 5 prospects vying for spots and 3 positional situations that I will be watching.
What will you be watching for the forward group for the front part of training camp?