Updates at 5pm after seeing lineup (Thanks Boogabob for posting line combinations!) are in italics/bold.
After a quick burst of three games in three days followed by a couple days off (one altogether and the other with practices), the Hurricanes are back at it in preseason action in Washington, D.C. on Saturday night.
Chuck Kaiton’s radio call for the game should be available on WRALSportsFan.com app and online. I have not had time to see if the Capitals are broadcasting the game such that there could be a video stream available.
I am tied up Saturday afternoon, and as of writing this have not seen a lineup posted, so my preview makes a few assumptions on players who will be in the lineup and in what role. I will try to loop back around at about 6pm to provide a short update and/or changes based on the lineup.
Regardless of viewing (or maybe just listening) options, here is a quick list of ‘what I’m watching’ for Friday night:
1) Early hop from Justin Faulk
With a bunch of moving parts this time of year, the fact that Justin Faulk did not play in any of the first three preseason games did not seem to catch the attention of the local beat reporters. I had too busy of a week to read/listen to everything, but I have not seen report of an injury or other explanation. There are still four preseason games remaining, but it still seems odd and at least worth asking about.
Assuming he makes his preseason debut on Saturday, I will be watching Faulk closely in September and early October for a few reasons. First is that despite having another huge (and huge is not exaggerated hyperbole) season offensively in 2016-17, I rated him as sub-par defensively for the season. The second pairing needs to be better defensively in 2017-18 and as an elder statesman and leader, Faulk needs to be a significant part of that. The second reason for my attention is that he has historically been a slow starter.
My primary watch point on Faulk especially early in the season is a simple one. I am looking for 2-3 step quickness in a couple areas. First is when he gets the puck behind the end line in the defensive zone and needs to move the puck forward, is he getting his feet moving quickly such that he is making passes from at least a third of the way through the defensive zone and doing so with forward momentum such that if a passing lane is not there he can skate further? Or is he too often making passes from a stand still from deep in his own end. The latter has been a recipe for some of the bad turnovers that have plagued Faulk during down times. Without the puck I will be looking for the same 2-3-stride quickness getting to loose pucks, closing gaps and taking away time and space defensively. Playing even good positional defense passively is a recipe for problems as a top 4 defenseman against elite scoring forwards who use the time and space to generate offense.
As expected, Faulk makes his first preseason appearance. Washington should ice a decent number of NHLers at home, and playing with Slavin obviously gives him an NHL partner. It will be good to get a first read on him especially in terms of quickness/jump to cover small chunks of ice quickly.
2) Martin Necas at right wing
2017 draftee Martin Necas continues to be one of the most interesting stories of training camp. He has registered only a lone assist on the score sheet, but in two games of action he has looked dynamic at times and already exhibits quickness and skating good enough to play at hockey’s top level.
I have a half-written article that looks at the somewhat complex set of circumstances that could play into whether he stays at the NHL level for the 2017-18, but one way to minimize the whole pros and cons angle is to just play lights out hockey and make it impossible for Coach Bill Peters to cut him. I would not say that he has reached that level yet, but I think he has suggested that it might be possible.
Right now, I think a prerequisite for Necas making the team would either have to be an injury (maybe multiple even) at the center position or a move to right wing. Lo and behold, with Lee Stempniak still dinged up and out of the lineup, on Friday Necas practiced on the right side of Jeff Skinner and Derek Ryan on what is suddenly the team’s most loaded line in terms of raw offensive talent.
Needless to say, Necas auditioning at right win on a scoring line easily makes the list of things to watch in Saturday night’s game.
Per the lineup, Necas will remain at center and play with two skilled wings in Janne Kuokkanen and Aleksi Saarela. All three players theoretically could offer more of the dynamic offense/goal scoring that the team needs, though all are projected farther out in the future. On Saturday, they get a chance together to make a statement that their time is now.
3) Late chances to make an impression
After suffering a concussion in the Traverse City finale and watching the start of training camp from behind the bench in street clothes, Nicolas Roy returned to the ice on Friday and did not have on a yellow no-contact jersey which suggests he is cleared for action. Best guess is that he will see action in one of the couple games. Valentin has been practicing all week but just shed his yell no-contact jersey on Friday. He too could see preseason action on Saturday night.
If either of these players draw into the lineup on Saturday, they are worth watching. For Roy, my primary watch point is his mobility especially in transition. I am on record as thinking that he is likely a year or two away from NHL action, but at the same time I was incredibly impressed with his play in Traverse City. In terms of development in all areas of the game, I think Roy’s game is the most advanced of the group of players moving up from juniors, so if he can combine some combination of Victor Rask’s near flawless positioning and decision-making and looks maybe a step quicker than my initial impression, he is interesting. With Marcus Kruger in the mix and Derek Ryan playing lights out, there is no room at the inn at the center position, but Roy figures to be another entry in a crowded field competing to be the #5 center ready and on call in Charlotte in the event of an injury. Lucas Wallmark was good on Wednesday, and Janne Kuokkanen has also had a great summer so far.
For Zykov, he is another to watch for pace especially in transition. He had a noticeably strong debut of only one game before being injured. Zykov brings an interesting mix creating chaos and scoring in/around the crease with enough offensive ability that he is more than a big body.
Depending on the lineup, the game is also a big one for any other players currently slated for the AHL to make an impression and stick around deeper into training camp when final decisions are made.
After most of a week wearing a yellow no-contact jersey, Valentin Zykov will get his chance. In addition, Julien Gauthier will see more preseason NHL ice time. Lucas Wallmark offers them a capable center to boot. It is a ‘make an impression’ game for all three, especially Zykov and Gauthier.
4) Cam Ward
For multiple years running, the Hurricanes goalies have exited preseason playing reasonably well only to struggle out of the gate in the regular season. Because of that, I do not put much stock in feeling good or bad about goalies based on preseason action. That said, it would be nice to see Cam Ward demonstrate that he is on the path to being ready for opening day. With Scott Darling expected to start Monday and then likely to play at least one of the final two preseason games, Ward might only have one more preseason start ahead of him after Saturday.
Ward will in fact get the start and is expected to play the entire game. As I said above, I have mostly given up hope that preseason carries over into regular season for goalies. That said, playing well always beats the opposite, so here is hoping that Ward shows that one of the two goalies is ready with Darling now slated for next week.
If you are inclined, check back just prior to game time. I hope to revisit this preview early evening likely armed with a lineup.