Cullen: Training Camp Battles

Scott Cullen
9/28/2010 5:03:21 PM
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With the regular season little more than a week away, here's a rundown of some of the more notable position battles throughout the NHL, with injuries, rookies challenging for jobs and what kind of fantasy fallout there might be:

If the Ducks are serious about playing Bobby Ryan at centre, then there is a plum position available at left wing on the top line alongside Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry.  Right now, it looks like Matt Beleskey could get the first shot.  He played with the due at times last year as a rookie, on his way to 11 goals and 18 points in 60 games.

Dan Sexon, Jason Blake or the return of Ryan to the wing could challenge for that prime left wing spot as well.

On defense, rookie Cam Fowler is challenging for a spot and while it seems like a rush to put an 18-year-old into the lineup after he was the 12th pick in the draft, the Panthers did it last year with No. 14 pick Dmitri Kulikov and it might seem like less of a stretch had Fowler been selected in the top five picks, as had been projected before the draft.

With veteran Toni Lydman still sidelined, that might increase the likelihood of Fowler sticking around.

Even if he does stick, it is likely too early to expect significant production out of Fowler.

The eighth overall pick in last summer's draft, Alexander Burmistrov has a chance to stick with the Thrashers.  With Nik Antropov recovering from off-season hip surgery, the Thrashers could use the Russian teenager's creativity.

There are others that look like they could earn jobs, including Nigel Dawes and Swedish rookie Fredrik Pettersson, who scored 20 goals in the Swedish Elite League last season, but neither is productive enough to generate fantasy buzz just yet.

While Marc Savard is out indefinitely as he tries to recover from post-concussion symptoms, David Krejci is set between Nathan Horton and Milan Lucic on the Bruins' top line. 

Krejci is a fine playmaker in his own right, having put up 51 assists and 73 points two years ago, so he could help Horton to a big goal-scoring campaign.

Rookie Tyler Seguin is set to start on the wing with Patrice Bergeron and Mark Recchi.

While the Sabres have a lot of familiar names up front, and rookie Tyler Ennis figures to be one of the more productive rookies, there are a couple more young forwards competing for spots and they bring decidedly different skills to the game.

Nathan Gerbe is a 5-foot-5 dynamo who has 94 points in 101 AHL games (and six points in 20 NHL games) over the last two seasons, though he may have to secure a scoring role if he's really going to be effective. 

19-year-old Zack Kassian goes 6-foot-3, 220 pounds and the 2009 first-rounder had 217 penalty minutes in 99 OHL games over the last two seasons.  Kassian's muscle might fit in a fourth-line role with the Sabres, but if he makes the team in that kind of minimal role, he's not going ro produce enough to create fantasy interest.

Veteran centres Daymond Langkow (neck) and Matt Stajan (shoulder) aren't going to be ready to start the season, which could present an opening for Mikael Backlund to produce in his rookie season. 

Backlund had one goal and ten points in 23 games with the Flames last year and a chance to play with Rene Bourque and Niklas Hagman on the second line would at least give him a chance to prove he can play an offensive role while the Flames wait for Stajan to return.

Carolina has a lot of openings for which their prospects can compete.

After scoring 70 goals in the OHL (regular season and playoffs) last season, Jeff Skinner seems likely to start the year with the Hurricanes and should get a chance in a scoring role right out of the gate, perhaps on Jussi Jokinen's wing.

Drayson Bowman, Zach Boychyuk, Zac Dalpe and Jiri Tlusty are among those trying to establish an NHL identity, while Patrick O'Sullivan is showing well on his tryout deal and seems likely to secure a spot.

After their summer roster purge, the Blackhawks have quite a few openings up for grabs too.  Jack Skille looks like he's a good bet to make the roster, though not necessarily in a scoring role. 

There's a good battle among other young forwards Viktor Stalberg, Jeremy Morin and Igor Makarov with the upside being a possible spot on a line with Patrick Kane and Patrick Sharp.

Stalberg had 33 points in 39 AHL games last year, in addition to nine goals and 14 points in 40 games with the Toronto Maple Leafs.  He has an offensive side to his game with good size and speed.

Morin, 19, is five years younger than Stalberg, but scored 47 goals in 58 OHL games last season and has impressed in camp.  There's no need to rush him, though, so if he's not ready to score right away, he can be groomed in the AHL.

Makarov was a second-round pick in 2006 and has talent, but managed just nine points in 51 KHL games last season.

2008 first-rounder Kyle Beach is also making a bid for an NHL job after scoring 52 goals and racking up 186 penalty minutes in the WHL last year.  Beach is an agitator with some skill, so if he finds his way onto a scoring line, his fantasy upside is significant.   
Now that Peter Mueller is out indefinitely, recovering from his latest concussion, there will be an opportunity on Colorado's second line and 2005- second-rounder Ryan Stoa will get shot at filling the role.  Stoa is big, powerful and scored 23 goals in 54 AHL games last season. 

If Stoa's not ready for an offensive role in the NHL, then David Jones (10 goals in 23 games last season) and Brandon Yip (11 goals in 32 games) would seem next in line.

The Blue Jackets have experimented with a young guns line that includes Nikita Filatov, Derick Brassard and Jakub Voracek

If that line sticks together, it does appear that someone is going to end up on the outside looking in at a top-six role, since Kristian Huselius, Antoine Vermette, R.J. Umberger and Rick Nash are the club's top four returning scorers.

The Stars are looking for a winger to join Mike Ribeiro and Brenden Morrow and, having released Jonathan Cheechoo from his tryout, the options are less than thrilling. 

Adam Burish and Fabian Brunnstrom seem likely to get a chance, while sophomore Jamie Benn may ultimately be a better option since he happens to be the best player of the three -- it's just a matter of whether the Stars decide they can go without Benn on another line.

Detroit has most of their significant spots spoken for, with Zetterberg-Datsyuk-Holmstrom together followed by Bertuzzi-Filppula-Franzen and Cleary-Modano-Hudler. Someone like Mattias Ritola could make the jump from Grand Rapids. 

The most intriguing might be Slovakian winger Tomas Tatar, but the 2009 second-rounder isn't even 20 yet, and the Wings aren't prone to rushing their prospects.

The youth movement in Edmonton is generating some excitement, but it's not just the rookies to watch; sometimes it bears watching who they're skating with too.

Veteran center Shawn Horcoff could be rejuvenated, coming off a 36-point season in 2009-2010, as he's been centering rookies Taylor Hall and Jordan Eberle in the preseason. 

It makes sense, as Horcoff (before last year's minus-29) has established his two-way credentials and his responsible game will make the game easier for his offensively-inclined wingers.

Rookie winger Magnus Paajarvi, who scored a hat trick in his first preseason contest, has spent some time with Andrew Cogliano, another Oiler looking to bounce back from a down year in 2009-2010.

Up front, there aren't a lot of things set beyond the top line of David Booth, Stephen Weiss and Michael Frolik, so take your chances if you like newcomers Michael Grabner, Steve Bernier or even a veteran holdover like Cory Stillman.

Perhaps the most interesting player to watch in his battle to stick with the Panthers is No. 3 overall pick Erik Gudbranson, an 18-year-old who could stick like Kulikov did last year.

Scott Parse, who had 24 points in 59 games as a rookie, has been getting a look in a second-line role, but the Kings will likely give 2009 first-rounder Brayden Schenn a chance to centre the second line, which could move Jarret Stoll to the wing if Schenn is going to provide more offense.

The Kings' crease is awfully crowded as Jonathan Bernier is surely ready for an NHL job and might even be ready to supplant Jonathan Quick as the No. 1.  Should Bernier stick, Erik Ersberg looks like the odd man out.

Pierre-Marc Bouchard, who missed all but one game last season due to a concussion, has returned to practice, but it's too soon to suggest that he's going to be ready to play right off the bat. 

With Matt Cullen, Guillaume Latendresse and Martin Havlat one one line, the Wild need someone to fill a spot on the No. 1 line with Mikko Koivu and Andrew Brunette, at least until Bouchard is ready.  Antti Miettinen, Chuck Kobasew and rookie Casey Wellman could all get a look there.

Minnesota also needs a backup goaltender, after Josh Harding suffered a season-ending knee injury.

The centrepiece of the Jaroslav Halak deal, Lars Eller is getting a chance alongside veterans Brian Gionta and Scott Gomez, a good opportunity for Eller, a forward who uses his size and led his AHL team in Peoria with 57 points in 70 games last season.

With top defenceman Andrei Markov out of the lineup, likely through October, as he recovers from a torn ACL suffered in the playoffs, P.K. Subban will be counted on to play in the spotlight role he handled when Markov got hurt in the spring.

Colin Wilson had 15 points in 35 games with the Predators as a rookie last year, but is getting a turn on the wing with Matthew Lombardi and Martin Erat, which could be an opportunity to put up some good offensive numbers.

Sergei Kostitsyn, looking for a fresh start now that he's out of Montreal, is also challenging for a role while Cal O'Reilly is trying to stick after tearing up the AHL (253 points in 260 games) for the last four seasons.

It's hard to know how the Devils' lines are going to shake out until they make the necessary moves to get under the salary cap. 

Rookie Jacob Josefson, a 2009 first-rounder who scored 20 points in the Swedish Elite League last year, has a shot at the third-line centre job if the Devils find a taker for Dainius Zubrus or Jamie Langenbrunner, a couple of veterans with significant enough salaries that the Devils might move them.

Depending on how the back end shakes out (ie. will Bryce Salvador be moved?), Matt Corrente and teenager Alexander Urbom could squeeze into more significant roles as well.

Injuries are decimating the Isles' lineup before the season even gets started.  Mark Streit's injury prompted the signing of veteran Mike Mottau, but Mottau isn't going to be able to entirely make up for the loss of Streit, the team's third-leading scorer last season with 49 points.

Last year's second-leading scorer, Kyle Okposo, is also out for an extended period following shoulder surgery.  The Isles already needed young forward like Josh Bailey and Blake Comeau to play prominent offensive roles this year, but with Okposo out, perhaps Rob Schremp, P.A. Parenteau or first-rounder Nino Niederreiter will get a chance to play a more significant role.

Rookie centre Derek Stepan had 54 points in 42 games as a sophomore at Wisconsin last season and the 2008 second-rounder is pushing for an NHL job this year, even getting time in camp with Alexander Frolov and Marian Gaborik on the Rangers' top line.  Obviously, if Stepan could stick in that spot, there would be a real opportunity to put up points.

Now that Wade Redden has been waived to Hartford, it also appears that Matt Gilroy, Ryan McDonagh and Pavel Valentenko will be among the young blueliners competing for a spot.

After a strong finish last season, Danish winger Peter Regin could open the season with Mike Fisher and Alex Kovalev, but he's battling Nick Foligno for that spot.  Foligno has been charging hard, scoring in the preseason (four goals in three games) even when playing with linemates that aren't noted offesnive performers.

The Sens also have youngsters Jared Cowen and Patrick Wiercioch trying to stick on defense, bids that may have a little more life as long as Filip Kuba is out of the lineup with a broken ankle.

Centres Kyle Wellwood and Kyle Turris (not to mention young wingers like Mikkel Boedker and Viktor Tikhonov) are challenging for jobs with the Coyotes and have offensive upside that they could be point producers in the right situation.

On defense, 2009 first-rounder Oliver Ekman-Larsson could move quickly into a prominent role.  He's been paired with Adrian Aucoin in camp and, after scoring 27 points in 42 Swedish First Division games last year, Ekman-Larsson could be an impact player right away.

With news that goaltender Michael Leighton is out for a month due to back trouble, the Flyers are left with an unappealing situation in net (or even less appealing than it was in the first place). 

Veteran Brian Boucher seems like the best bet to handle the No. 1 job, to be backed-up by 22-year-old Sergei Bobrovsky, who had a .922 save percentage in the KHL over the last two years.   Johan Backlund is another option and could be the starter, if he recovers quickly enough from off-season hip surgery.

Veteran winger Bill Guerin has also been in camp with the Flyers and would certainly provide another proven scoring option to already deep crop of Flyers forwards.

Promising power forward Eric Tangradi has been getting a good look in camp, playing with newcomer Mike Comrie and Evgeni Malkin.  Tangradi only had 39 points in 65 AHL games last year, but if the 21-year-old is up to the job of playing a top-six forward role, then it could be a fine opportunity to put up points.

With Jordan Staal sidelined by a foot injury, Mark Letestu also looks like he's getting a chance to stick.  Letestu may not be in a scoring role, but with 116 points in 136 AHL games over the last two years, he knows what to do in the offensive zone.

Up front, the top six forwards seem set, in some combination, unless Logan Couture can work his way in there.  Couture had 53 points in 42 AHL games, along with nine points in 25 games with the Sharks, last year, so he's certainly worthy of consideration in a scoring role.

Second-year blueliner Jason Demers may have the inside track to be the No. 2 power play defenceman, behind Dan Boyle, which would likely mean more ice time and a more productive season.

Defenceman Nikita Nikitin has impressed in Blues camp, but maybe not enough to come in ahead of Alex Pietrangelo.  Pietrangelo should have a chance to play a prominent role with the Blues, including power play time, right away because of his puck skills and could be one of the top newcomers (he's not eligible for the Calder) in the league this season.

The Lightning's top six forwards are settled, so the battles come further down the depth chart with veteran Eric Perrin competing with prospects like Marc Pouliot, Dana Tyrell and Johan Harju.  Veteran Adam Hall spent all of last year in the AHL but may be able to secure a job with the Lightning.

A poor preseason leaves 2009 first-rounder Nazem Kadri on the outside looking in, or so it appears.  If Kadri does end up in the AHL, that's good news for Mikhail Grabovski, who had 35 points in 59 games last year, but could certainly be a 50-point scorer if healthy.

It looks like Nikolai Kulemin, Clarke MacArthur, Phil Kessel and Kris Versteg will have winger roles in the top six.  Luca Caputi has played well in the preseason and could challenge for a spot.

While Alex Burrows works his way back from shoulder surgery, Cody Hodgson is getting a good opportunity to get back on track after 2009-2010 was virtually a lost season.  Hodgson is skating on the second line with Ryan Kesler and Mason Raymond and if he can produce points in that role, the Canucks should be able to find room for their 2008 first-rounder.

The Capitals' defense is expected to be improved based on the play of two rookies, John Carlson and Karl Alzner.  Carlson is capable of having more offensive impact, but both should be involved in significant roles after they were groomed in the AHL for much of last season.

One of the most intriguing goaltender battles this season is going to be in Washington, where Semyon Varlamov might have the early edge, but Michal Neuvirth is gaining on him.  Varlamov hasn't been able to stay healthy enough to handle a starter's workload, playing 26 games last season

2009 first-round pick Marcus Johansson is pushing for a job up front, after 20 points in 42 Swedish Elite League games last year, but it could be touch-and-go if he cracks the opening night lineup.

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