Training camps are almost always competitive at every level, but the NHL lockout has added a new level of intrigue in Charlotte.
Even with the news that Jeff Skinner won't be joining the team as of yet, there will still be 35 players for the first on-ice session at Extreme Ice Center on Saturday. The depth of the group, which includes a handful of players who would likely be on Carolina's roster if not for the labor stoppage, will cause a battle for playing time and jobs at the AHL level, with many capable players likely to fall victim to the numbers game.
What follows is a position-by-position preview of the next few weeks. Camp officially ends on Oct. 11, when the team departs to play its first regular-season game in Houston two nights later.
No other position saw more twists and turns throughout the offseason than in goal. What began with Mike Murphy choosing to play in Russia continued with Frederik Andersen re-entering the draft and Carolina's Brian Boucher suffering an injury that will keep him out for the season's first few months.
That left John Muse, who played admirably but sparingly for Charlotte last season, as the clear No. 1 for quite some time, with undrafted college graduate Rob Madore coming in to back up. However, as with other positions, the lockouts added depth in the form of Justin Peters, who was expected to start the season as Cam Ward's backup with the Hurricanes, and Dan Ellis, who joined the Checkers on a tryout contract last week.
If last season's depth chart were to be restored, it would be Peters, the AHL's goalie of the month last November who played well when recalled to Carolina, carrying the bulk of the load in Charlotte. Before regaining that job, he'll face competition from Muse, who did everything asked of him last season, including winning the ECHL's playoff MVP trophy as he led Florida to a Kelly Cup, and Ellis, the most experienced of the group.
WHAT TO WATCH
The performance of Ellis, who missed most of the second half of last season due to a groin injury and hernia surgery while serving as the backup in Anaheim, will go a long way in determining how things shake out. If he's healthy, he's more than capable of contending for the starting job and, potentially, the backup role with Carolina should the lockout conclude. If not, it will likely be Peters and Muse on the opening night roster.
Though the Checkers were able to rely on a solid corps of defensemen last season, they often had trouble finding the right balance. Those worries may be over.
Other than Bobby Sanguinetti, who scored 44 points in his final 44 games over a superb second half, the team didn't have many other options when it came to moving the puck effectively up ice. With the additions of Justin Faulk, who made the NHL's All-Rookie team at the age of 19 last season, and Marc-Andre Gragnani, who was named the league's best defenseman during his last AHL campaign two seasons ago, they now have three of the league's elite.
While Faulk doesn't have a large sample size to draw from, he should only improve upon the six points he scored in 12 AHL games and the 22 he scored in 66 NHL games last season. His performance with Team USA at the World Championship (eight points in eight games) is further evidence of that. Meanwhile, Gragnani, now 25 and entering his sixth pro season, has 206 points in 283 career AHL games, including a 60-in-63 performance with Portland in 2010-11 that resulted in his Eddie Shore award.
If those three represent the offensive component of the Checkers' blue line (though their two-way games shouldn't be understated), there will be no shortage of more defensive types to balance things out. Brett Bellemore, Michal Jordan, Justin Krueger and Rasmus Rissanen all filled that role last season, with Joe Sova joining the mix following a trade with New Jersey. Adding rookies Austin Levi (third round pick in 2010), Tommi Kiviso (seventh-round pick in 2009) and Beau Schmitz (free agent signing) into the mix will result in a battle for depth spots as camp progresses.
WHAT TO WATCH
The additions of Faulk and Gragnani, who will almost certainly play key roles, will result in at least one returning player taking a diminished role or perhaps exiting the lineup entirely. Competition will be intense, with coach Jeff Daniels on course for some tough decisions involving his veteran players as camp progresses.
Even without Skinner, the lockout will still result in a few intriguing names to complement a large group of returning players.
Headlining that group are center Jeremy Welsh, an undrafted rookie from Union College who had an excellent chance of earning a starting spot in Carolina, and winger Tim Wallace, a hard-nosed AHL veteran who seemed to be on the cusp of a full-time role in the NHL at age 28. While Welsh's age (24) and stature (6-foot-3, 200 pounds) could help him overcome his lack of pro experience, Wallace is a proven player at the AHL level, having scored at nearly a point-per-game clip with Bridgeport prior to heading for the NHL for good in December of last season. He's also been known to add a physical element, having racked up 307 penalty minutes over the course of his 328 career AHL games.
The rest of the team's forward group will look familiar, with mainstays Zach Boychuk, Zac Dalpe, Riley Nash, Jerome Samson and Chris Terry all hoping to atone for bouts of inconsistency last season. Most of their supporting cast will remain intact, including the leadership of captain Brett Sutter and alternate captain Nicolas Blanchard.
WHAT TO WATCH
In addition to battles for depth spots and readiness of Welsh, it may be worth keeping an eye on who won't be with the team at first. Though the Hurricanes chose to not expose Drayson Bowman to waivers and were thus unable to assign him to Charlotte with the rest of the team, he could still sign an AHL contract with the club at any time, which would add another offensive threat in the top six. It doesn't appear that Skinner will join the team any time soon, but that door will remain open as well.
Center Victor Rask, a 19-year-old center chosen by Carolina in the second round of the 2011 draft, is arguably the organization's top offensive prospect still playing at the amateur level. While he'll face an uphill battle to unseat more experienced players and may be better served playing a key role back with his junior team in Calgary, he'll have a chance to show he's ahead of the curve.