Kirk Muller has a puzzle to solve.
The signing of winger Alexander Semin and acquisition of center Jordan Staal have filled the Carolina Hurricanes' pool of forwards to the brim and created a complex conundrum on the 'Canes pre-training camp depth chart.
The additions of Semin and Staal have made Carolina arguably the Eastern Conference's most-improved team of the summer. Both top-six talents will arrive in Raleigh with 30-goal projections and lofty expectations.
However, they'll still have to compete with a number of other top-class scorers—veteran Hurricanes like Tuomo Ruutu, Jussi Jokinen, Chad LaRose and 2011-12 breakout Jiri Tlusty—to earn jobs alongside franchise cornerstones Eric Staal and Jeff Skinner on Carolina's first and second lines.
Entering September's training camp and preseason—provided that a new CBA is settled at some point before Sept. 15th—Muller will have to sort out a crowded offensive cast with far more talent than any in recent 'Canes history.
How his final solution to that enigma will look is still far from determined.
Here's how the puzzling layout stands, to the best of our knowledge, at the moment:
Alexander Semin - Jordan Staal - Eric Staal
Jussi Jokinen - Jeff Skinner - Tuomo Ruutu
Jiri Tlusty - Jeremy Welsh (RFA) - Chad LaRose
Patrick Dwyer - Tim Brent - Andreas Nodl
(Extras: Anthony Stewart, Tim Wallace)
From Muller's perspective, the clear-cut first priority has to be finding the best arrangement for the two Staal brothers. Both are traditional centers, but Muller expressed interest in finding a way they could play on the same line this fall.
As it so happens, Eric has played as a right winger occasionally in the past, including with gold-medal-winning Team Canada in the 2010 Winter Olympics, and he may find himself on the wing again in 2012-13.
Conversely, the two could also serve as arguably the NHL's best one-two center punch if separated. After all, Jordan did play a more defensive role with Pittsburgh up until his June trade, and may be better suited for a second-line workload.
Muller will need to work Jeff Skinner, who has played both center and wing in his first two professional seasons, in around the Staal Bros.
Skinner's production dipped from 63 points in 2010-11 to just 44 points last year after missing 18 games from a concussion, meaning he may play second fiddle to Eric and Jordan next autumn. Don't be surprised to see the 20-year-old's positional flexibility tested while the Staal siblings find their respective niches.
Bruising Tuomo Ruutu, actually the 'Canes third highest-paid player at $4.75 million annually, seems to have been forgotten among the offseason hullaboo—yet he's arguably the most well-rounded player on the team's roster.
Ruutu has led Carolina in hits three of the past four years—he fell four short of Tom Kostopoulos in 2009-10—while averaging 19 goals and 45 points a season. Moreover, the tough 6'0", 205-pound checker has made at least 71 appearances in all but one season since 2006 and taken on a fan-favorite role in the 'Canes scoring attack.
On the other hand, while his hands are certainly of second-line caliber, Ruutu's grit and defensive responsibility—two rather rare characteristics in the Hurricanes' flashy, Brandon Sutter-less offense—may drop him on the checking line come Opening Day.
With RFA Jeremy Welsh looking less likely to return to the 'Canes next season, could Jussi Jokinen make an eyebrow-raising role change to third-line center?
The shootout specialist and underrated passer has always been fairly reliable in his own end, but we would find it mildly surprising to see such rumors come to truth.
Jokinen isn't especially large or tough—his 41 hits ranked 17th on the squad last season—and he's formed good chemistry with both Skinner and Ruutu in recent years. Playing with the likes of Patrick Dwyer and Andreas Nodl on the third line wouldn't be quite the same.
Unheralded former first-round pick Jiri Tlusty, still only 24 years old, finally showed his true talents in 2011-12, tripling his previous career highs with 17 goals and 36 points in 79 games.
There's some doubt that he can repeat his astounding 12.5 shooting percentage again next season—especially considering he won't be playing with Eric Staal nearly as much this winter—but Tlusty has still emerged into a tremendous bargain at $1.6 million per year.
Whether he retains a top-six slot or returns to the third line is still up in air. The former Maple Leaf formed solid chemistry with Sutter and Dwyer on the checking line in 2010-11, and his 52-27 takeaway-giveaway ratio over the past two seasons is absolutely fantastic, but Muller may be reluctant to demote Tlusty again after such a promising 2011-12 campaign.
Lovable but inconsistent Chad LaRose may be the most confusing riddle in the 'Canes offense.
The 30-year-old late bloomer's offensive numbers are really not that bad—he set career highs in both goals (19) and points (32) last season despite playing just 67 games—but LaRose's minus-36 combined plus/minus rating over the last two years is among the worst in the league.
He's not quite good enough to be assured of a top-six position, but a checking line role could be an even bigger disaster. Nevertheless, there's no question that LaRose still deserves more than a seven-minutes-a-night workload.
Where does he fit in to the 'Canes depth chart? We're not really sure.
Prospects Drayson Bowman, Zac Dalpe and Zach Boychuk could further complicate the depth chart.
Bowman, 23, impressed with six goals, 13 points and a plus-two rating in 37 NHL appearances last year, blossoming after Muller's arrival in December and earning a new contract in July. Meanwhile, former top-45 overall draft picks Dalpe, 22, and Boychuk, 22, are loaded with offensive talent but extremely lacking in NHL track record.
However, a breakout season from any of the three could land them a full-time NHL job in a hurry.
And lastly, 24-year-old mystery Jeremy Welsh, who signed a one-day contract in April to guarantee his restricted freeagent status this summer, continues to dance around the shadows of the Hurricanes' lineup.
Despite not yet signing a new contract with Carolina, Welsh's 6'3" frame and compliment-laden coaching assessment would seemingly make him an enticing replacement for Pittsburgh-bound Brandon Sutter.
As the clock ticks toward the opening of training camp and the intrigue of the 'Canes offensive situation increases tenfold, answers may begin to emerge.
But, for now, the only thing populating Carolina's forward depth chart is a plethora of queries and questions.
Only Muller can resolve that endless jigsaw.
Mark Jones has been a Bleacher Report featured columnist since 2009. In that time, he has written more than 415 articles and received more than 685,000 reads.
Like the new article format? Send us feedback!