As seasons go by, the competition only seems to get tougher for the young forwards in the Carolina Hurricanes organization.
A handful of offseason signings by the Checkers’ parent club has left what will most likely be just two spots open for the likes of Drayson Bowman, Zach Boychuk, Zac Dalpe and Jerome Samson – deserving forwards who spent most of last season producing points in Charlotte. Though circumstances dictate a tough few weeks of camp as players in that group look to distance themselves from one another, it won’t be anything new.
Though Dalpe, who spent his first two post-draft seasons playing at Ohio State, is only in his second NHL training camp, this is camp No. 5 for Bowman and Samson. Boychuk, taken with the Canes’ first-round pick in 2008, is entering his fourth camp. All of that time has been spent jockeying for position in the organizational depth chart, which leads to an interesting dynamic for those that normally call themselves teammates and friends in Charlotte.
“On the ice you fight and you battle against each other, but off the ice we’re very close,” said Boychuk.
“We’re friends, but when the puck drops (at camp) it all goes away,” said Bowman.
Each player in that group seemingly built momentum last year that went beyond the enjoyment of offensively productive seasons with the Checkers. For example, Bowman spoke of confidence gained during the Hurricanes’ oh-so-close run to the playoffs last season, which he said should help him deal with stretches when he may not be at his best.
“As much as you hate to admit it, it might be part of the maturing process,” he said.
For his part, Boychuk pointed to how discovering a physical element helped all aspects of his game after a slow start to last season.
“There was a stretch at the beginning of the year where I was trying to play more of a skilled game and didn’t have that extra edge,” he said. “Then I just started hitting guys and that really helped my intensity – I skated faster and got to pucks faster. I’ve learned that, and now I know that right at the start of camp, which should really help me.”
Those improvements aside, based on offseason comments by Hurricanes General Manager Jim Rutherford and his spot on the big team’s third line to start camp, it would appear that Dalpe has the inside track. The second-year forward earned AHL All-Rookie honors last season while scoring his first three NHL goals in 15 games with Carolina.
Though aware that expectations of him are higher now than at this time last season when he made the team out of training camp, Dalpe suggested his approach would not change.
“It’s flattering for (Rutherford) to say that, but I try not to focus on it,” he said. “That’s for my friends and family to get excited about.
“I have to show I deserve to be here and continue to work hard for it.”
Along those lines, Hurricanes coach Paul Maurice said that such hustle would be necessary for any player trying to make the team, including Dalpe.
“I’m looking for someone to take it where you don't make a decision,” he said. “I’m going to be sour if we have to make a decision based on what we think might happen two or three months down the road."
“It’s not just training camp for these guys – this is their time to have an NHL career. Barring putting pucks in the net, because we know all of them are capable of that - I'm looking for someone to try like Chad LaRose whether they score like (Jeff) Skinner or (Eric) Staal."
For a handful of players, the numbers game is such that improvement and a good showing may not be enough. In that regard, their loss will be the Checkers’ gain, with players who could likely make a handful of other rosters around the NHL continuing to ply their trade with the Checkers, where they’ll look to build on already-impressive numbers from last season.
When that occurs, it will be time to make peace with one another once again after the rigors of a hard-fought camp.
“What we really all want is to play here together, eventually,” said Boychuk. “We’ve been in the AHL together and played pretty well the last few years, so it’s good that we’ve all got an opportunity.”