As a summer of surprises around the NHL rolls on, the Carolina Hurricanes have begun to quietly fill out their roster.
All of the Hurricanes' restricted free agents heading into the offseason have been signed. In addition, 15 players have been inked to one-way contracts for the upcoming season. However, with nearly $12 million left in cap space, Carolina has plenty of room to fill the remaining holes in their depth chart.
Many of the new-look Hurricanes players are also younger than those who were starting in their places last season. Carolina has moved up from the second-oldest team in summer 2009 to the seventh-youngest team in the NHL today. Additionally, only four contract holders for the 'Canes are above the age of 30 (Erik Cole, Sergei Samsanov, Tom Kostopoulos, and Joe Corvo).
This plethora of prospects translates into a number of position battles as the youngsters fight for their NHL jobs during training camp, which begins September 17th. While that date is nearly two months off, competitions like these are already objects of speculation on the teams that already have determined much of their depth chart.
Position Battle No. 1: Third- and Fourth-Line Center
The first battle to watch for is for the third- and fourth-line center positions. Unless Carolina decides to fill their third-line gap with a free agent such as Kyle Wellwood, Eric Belanger, Dominic Moore, or Brendan Morrison, two prospects could begin the year in Raleigh.
However, the candidates for those two slots are not lacking. Newly-acquired Riley Nash (from Edmonton) and Jon Matsumoto (from Philadelphia), both of whom were traded to Carolina during the draft, will join Zac Dalpe and Patrick Dwyer to fight for those two positions.
Seventh overall draft pick Jeff Skinner may also join the mix if he decides to leave the Kitchener Rangers of the OHL this offseason, which could add yet another interesting twist.
All four current candidates have very good chances at making the team, but all four also promote radically different resumes.
Riley Nash, who was 21st overall by the Oilers in the 2007 NHL Draft, held out at Cornell University without an entry level contract for three seasons, resulting in a loss of patience by youth-lacking Edmonton. Ironically, following his trade to Carolina in late June, Nash signed a three-year deal with the 'Canes earlier this week.
The Canadian's time at the collegiate level wasn't without its benefits, though; Nash logged 102 points in 102 games with the Big Red, and is now making the jump to the NHL comfortably.
Unfortunately, Carolina's other "new kid in town" may have an even better shot at earning a roster spot. Jon Matsumoto, who signed a two-year deal with Carolina July 1st, already has three seasons under his belt with the Phantoms, the Flyer's AHL affiliate.
Matsumoto improved on his 20 goals and 24 assists in 2008-2009 with 29 goals and 34 assists last year. He added 10 of those goals on the power play and four more while shorthanded, giving Matsumoto a special teams aspect not seen in any of his "opponents."
Another great candidate to beat out the others for a roster spot is Patrick Dwyer, the only of the four to have any NHL experience.
Although Dwyer is significantly older than the other three at age 27, he has made a respectable 71 NHL appearances with the Hurricanes, including 58 last season. Dwyer put up seven goals, two of which were game winners, and five assists in those 58 games to go along with just six penalty minutes.
Dwyer made a good impression with the Hurricanes' staff last season, and may be the most confident going into training camp. Some of that poise may have to do with the fact that the fourth player in consideration, Zac Dalpe, isn't very likely to make the team.
Dalpe was recently signed to an entry-level deal, but is coming to Carolina directly from his sophomore year at Ohio State University.
While these four prospects are undoubtedly not "opponents," their fight for two bottom-six forward roster spots over the rest of the summer may be worth keeping an eye on, especially if Skinner joins them soon.
Position Battle No. 2: Fourth Line Left/Right Wing
Erik Cole, Sergei Samsanov, Tom Kostopoulos, Jussi Jokinen, Tuomo Ruutu, and Chad LaRose are all definite bets to fill out the top three lines on the left and right sides. Jiri Tlusty, who had six points in 20 games after being acquired from Toronto last Christmas, is also nearly assured due to his new one-way contract.
That still leaves one spot open, though. While prospects such as Jared Staal, Nick Dodge, and Chris Terry may hope to be included, the race for that slot could probably be narrowed down to Zach Boychuk, 20, Jerome Samson, 22, Drayson Bowman, 21, and Oskar Osala, 22.
Boychuk would seem to be the front runner. He made a significant impact at the NHL level last season with nine points and a solid plus-one rating in 31 games. The former 14th overall pick also put up 41 points in 60 combined regular and postseason games with the Albany River Rats.
Samson may be close on Boychuk's heels, though, as his 78 points were among the best in the AHL last season and earned him a seven-game NHL stint to boot.
Those two could be challenged by Drayson Bowman, who scored his first (and second, for that matter) ever NHL goals in the 'Canes second-to-last game in the same season as his first ever AHL goal (actually, his first 17 AHL goals).
Osala, who was acquired from the Washington Capitals at the trade deadline in a deal that sent Joe Corvo to the 'Caps, could very well make the team, too. An impressive 24 goals went beside his name last season at the AHL level, and Osala was deservedly recalled for his third career NHL game on March 10th.
Those four youngsters could make Carolina's second positional battle even more competitive than their first. But the options don't stop with the offense; Carolina's defense is not quite set yet, either.
Position Battle No. 3: Third Defense Pairing
Albeit having added Joe Corvo and Anton Babchuk to their core of Tim Gleason and Joni Pitkanen on the blue line, the third defensive pairing still has a few questions surrounding it. One-way contract holder Jay Harrison may have the inside track, but prospect standout Jamie McBain, recently re-signed Brett Carson, and former Ranger Bobby Sanguinetti have their reasons to believe as well.
With injury troubles striking Carolina's defense last season, 28-year-old Jay Harrison transformed from an injury replacement to a regular. He improved his career high for games played in a single season from eight to 38. Harrison wasn't particularly impressive in those 38 starts, however, posting just one goal, 50 painful penalty minutes, and a minus-eight rating.
Jamie McBain, 21, didn't see NHL ice until March, but made the most of his opportunity. I rated him the Hurricanes' best rookie at the end of the season, and he deserved it. McBain had three goals, including a last-second overtime winner in Pittsburgh, seven assists, and a team-best plus-six rating in just 14 games!
Brett Carson didn't receive a qualifying offer back on June 30th, but he was re-signed as a UFA just days ago by the Hurricanes to a two-way contract. The 24-year-old was fairly consistent in his 54 games played last season, recording 12 points, a plus-five rating, and some clutch defensive plays.
Last but not least (excuse the cliché) is 22-year-old Bobby Sanguinetti. After coming from the Rangers for a 2010 seventh-round choice and Washington's 2011 second-round pick, Sanguinetti could be ready to make the starting lineup.
The defenseman had 38 points in 61 games with the Hartford Wolf Pack of the AHL in '09-'10, and played well enough to earn his first NHL stint with New York.
In the end, it will come down to how each player performs in training camp before anyone will know which players we'll see in red and white on opening night in Finland, and which players will be staying for a while with the Hurricanes' new AHL affiliate, Charlotte.
One thing we do know now is that all three positional battles are certainly going to be worth watching. While I personally would bet, albeit hesitantly, on seeing Dwyer, Matsumoto, Boychuk, Harrison, and McBain beat out the competition and leave Nash, Dalpe, Samson, Bowman, and Sanguinetti in the minor leagues, it's almost impossible to know who will fill out the bottom lines of the Hurricanes' roster for the moment.
We'll just have to wait until the long-awaited NHL preseason comes around before anything is on paper. In the meantime, there are quite a few situations to speculate about.
Mark Jones is currently Bleacher Report's featured columnist and community leader for the NHL's Carolina Hurricanes . In his 21 months so far with the site, he has written over 215 articles and received over 175,000 total reads.
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