I might need to update this once a lineup is finalized because who is in and who is out is the driver for what is most interesting for the Canes preseason finale vs. Pittsburgh.
The backdrop for this game is an interesting one. The Canes come into the preseason finale with 3 consecutive wins over 2014-15 playoff teams. Wins/losses are not the most important thing in preseason, but for teams that struggled the previous season, I think it is more important than most people thing because of the need to build confidence and expectations. And while there are clearly things to continue working on, the team’s play has been good in those games. But at the same time Peters made comments after Wednesday’s win to the effect of working quickly toward an NHL roster. More than anything I interpreted that to be an indirect comment on the volume of mistakes by a very young blue line in that game. So sure enough, tonight’s roster seems (waiting on final word) like it will be very much like, if not an exact match for, the opening night roster assuming Ron Hainsey returns from injury and no one else goes on the shelf.
I was prepared today to write a great story about 2 players getting their 1 chance to light the ice on fire and steal a roster spot that was not supposed to be theirs. 28-year old rookie journeyman had played his way to this 1 game. And playing with a full cage throughout preseason, Brock McGinn’s heart, soul and sandpaper style of play had carried him all the way to the final cut. But best guess is that neither of these players will be on the ice tonight which seemingly seals their fate for a trip back to Charlotte very soon.
Instead of a final tryout, it looks like Bill Peters will use tonight as a final preparation.
Things are reasonably set on defense:
I think Peters wants to go: Hainsey/Faulk, Liles/Wisniewski, Hanifin/Murphy or Jordan.
He had Hanifin/Jordan together early on Wednesday before Hanifin had to be parachuted into the top pair with Faulk when Slavin struggled early. My hunch is that with Hainsey still dinged up but likely to be back for opening night, that Peters takes another long look at Hanifin/Murphy. I think that is what he and also Ron Francis would like to see to start the season. And past wishing and hoping, things have also lined up on the ice (which is obviously important). The duo was very good together in a full game last weekend. If they play well again tonight, I think they officially become the third pairing and push Michal Jordan to the #7 slot and/or first injury fill in. To make that work for tonight, I would expect Jordan to play with Faulk. That is not because he is auditioning for a first line slot. Rather, it is because it leaves the second and third pairs intact to gain ice time together.
At forward, things look the same as Wednesday except Nestrasil stepping into Malone’s place. We have Versteeg/EStaal/Lindholm, Gerbe/JStaal/Nash, Skinner/Rask/Terry, Nestrasil/McClement/Nordstrom. As I alluded to above, the most significant thing is what is not there which is Brock McGinn and Derek Ryan who would have topped my “what I’m watching” list as 2 players trying to make such a big enough impression to change the depth chart and steal a roster spot.
I am torn on the lines. On one hand, I like the idea of going with something, and this set did score 3 goals and net a win on Wednesday. On the other hand, I am not a fan of them. I have written about this all week with the most recent post this morning. You can find that HERE.
With that, here is what I am watching for tonight:
1) The power play. The penalty kill has picked up right where it left off from last season so far. I think that is significant and a huge credit to assistant coach Steve Smith because there has been a pretty significant changeover in personnel since the trade deadline. The power play did score a 5-on-3 goal on Wednesday but still has not found a rhythm. On a team who struggled to score last season, it is important to get this working.
2) Top guns. I am in broken record mode saying that if I was coaching the Canes and responsible for building forward lines, I would put getting Eric Staal and Jeff Skinner going as the top priorities and then piece together the other lines with whatever is left. Eric Staal had his best game of the preseason on Wednesday and seemed to click in his first game back at center and with new line mates Kris Versteeg and Elias Lindholm. Jeff Skinner took a step backward, not so much in his play but in terms of what he was given. After scoring 2 goals (plus another in the 3-on-3 exhibition) last Saturday, he had very few chances on Wednesday on a line with Victor Rask and Chris Terry. To be clear, I thought Jeff Skinner played a sound game defensively and was aggressive on the forecheck, so I would rate his personal play as solid. But he just did not find/receive/create much for scoring opportunities. Can Bill Peters spread the playmaking talent and find combinations in such a way that Skinner and EStaal both get some help finding enough scoring chances?
3) Chris Terry. As currently constructed, Chris Terry finds himself in a role that could be key to making the broader puzzle come together. I am on record as really liking Victor Rask. I am also on record as saying that as of the tail end of the 2014-15 season, Rask’s offensive/playmaking part of his game had not matured as fast as his defense. Can Chris Terry help create offense for his 2 line mates? This was part of his game in the AHL, but in making sure he gets the defensive details and play without the puck right, Terry has not really hit full power in the NHL offensively yet. I think for this line to work for Jeff Skinner long term, I think it takes either Terry bringing more of his heady offensive play from the AHL or Victor Rask reaching a higher level offensively.
4) Cam Ward. He is 1 for 2 in terms of solid starts. With a good start tonight, his first start is all but forgotten and the team enters the season with 2 goalies trending toward ready.
5) Hanifin/Murphy. If in fact we see this pairing, this is the thing I am most excited to watch tonight. They were very good last weekend and present the potential to have an incredibly young third pairing that is incredibly good at skating, dangerous offensively and just plain fun to watch. If I could pick 1 thing to have work heading into the regular season, so I get to watch it next week, I think this would be it. In addition to just being fun, this is probably a real good landing place for both players. It gets them a regular role and ice time but in a slot where they can be shielded a bit depending on level of play and game situation. It would also be easier to manage Hanifin’s minutes in his first NHL season from this position.
Last tune up before real hockey!