This particular camp hasn’t come with a clear promise of open roster spots and chances for players to do so, though, as always, the potential is certainly there. More experienced players will also be in the running for scoring roles, gritty depth jobs and defensive help, but any up-and-comer who outperforms them is unlikely to be turned away.
Take the offensive job, for instance. Depending on how NHL veterans fall into certain positions and gel with one another, a prime spot could be up for the taking. To start camp, it was Zac Dalpe, who has spent most of the last three seasons in Charlotte, manning the wing on the team’s second line with Jordan Staal and Tuomo Ruutu.
“I like playing with Jordan, but you’ve just got to listen to what coach (Kirk) Muller says,” said Dalpe. “It doesn’t matter what line you’re on, it’s about what you do on that line.”
While a good indicator of where the Hurricanes view Dalpe to start camp, he knows not to take it too seriously. After all, as General Manager Jim Rutherford noted earlier this summer, Dalpe has played in the Hurricanes’ first regular-season game in each of the last three seasons before joining the Checkers.
“This is my fourth camp and I know the lay of the land and how it works,” said Dalpe. “You can’t take a day off, because you have guys gunning for your spot that might have a good day and then it might change how they think about you.”
Though he might not have started on a sure-fire NHL line like Dalpe, Zach Boychuk, who played for three different organizations last year and didn’t re-sign until close to the last minute this summer, may have found a way to re-enter the conversation based on his play in camp. The former first-round pick, now entering his fifth professional season, scored two goals and just missed an empty-net bid for a hat trick in Saturday’s intrasquad scrimmage.
“Last year didn’t go the way I wanted because I wanted to be a full-time NHL player and I went to a couple of different teams and wasn’t able to prove that,” said Boychuk, who saw some shifts with Eric Staal during the scrimmage. “Now I want to prove some people wrong.
“I scored a couple of goals and feel good about it, but you’ve got to keep building on it.”
The battle for depth jobs is also at the forefront, particularly with the Hurricanes stressing a desire to become a tougher team to play against moving forward. Of Checkers alumni, Brett Sutter and Nicolas Blanchard, two experienced AHL players and captains on last season’s team, are best equipped to rise to that challenge.
Blanchard, who got his first taste of NHL action towards the end of his sixth professional campaign last season, has already made his presence known via a fight with defenseman Mike Komisarek in the camp’s first scrimmage on Friday.
“It was funny - Komi and I were battling in front of the net, pushing and shoving and all of the sudden the gloves were off,” said Blanchard. “We talked after that and we were both happy about it because that’s how you show (coaches and management) that you’re prepared.
“Mike is a good veteran, he knows I’m trying to make the team and he respects that. I think he probably knows how it is from when he was a young guy.”
Still, Blanchard acknowledged the difficulty in showcasing his strength and ability to provide toughness in a fourth-line role while making sure everyone stays healthy. Though the watchful eyes of coaches and management, a group of about 15 people seated in PNC Arena’s east end, would surely appreciate a big hit, they might be considerably less impressed if it came at the cost of an injury to Eric Staal. Brendan Woods, a rookie who made his pro debut with Charlotte last season, also fought on Friday after taking out first-line forward Jiri Tlusty with a hit that sidelined him for at least the next day and possibly longer. Riley Nash and Brody Sutter are also among those who have missed practice with various ailments.
“I’m playing like it’s the season,” said Blanchard. “I’ll play physical on every guy, but I’m going to hit the right way and make sure they’re good, legal hits.”
For some, this camp is about a fresh start. After an unusual few months toward the end of last season when he attempted to jump right into the playoff push after taking several months away from the game, goalie Mike Murphy, who is expected to form half of Charlotte’s goaltending tandem along with Justin Peters, seemed much more at ease with his usual routine.
“When I came back from Russia my weight was way down, I wasn’t planning to play again that year and I wasn’t really prepared,” said Murphy, who spent the first month of last season playing for Spartak Moscow of the KHL. ““I’ve had time to regroup, get my head right and I’m feeling confident out there.”
Whatever the situation, players will be trying to make the most of opportunities to show that they’ve progressed and are ready to take the next step or take on increased roles. Early results have been encouraging but will have to continue through the team’s four-games-in-four-nights exhibition schedule that begins Wednesday.
Due in part to the competition at hand and the tight cluster of games, it’s likely that a large number of players will get to play, with the first assignments to Charlotte not coming until later.
“So far everyone is pushing the limit and making it tough, but the real test will be the exhibition games to see who can keep it up,” said Muller.