Well, after a very long wait the big day is finally here and the NHL season is ready to get underway starting at 3 p.m. Saturday. Today was the last day of training camp and teams had until 5 p.m. to finalize their rosters for opening night. We've spent the last week or so going over which players might make the roster and the final 23 are now set in stone.
After the jump, we'll look at which players made the team, go over the lines being used in camp and how the coaching staff could utilize each unit.
These are the lines that Muller has been using in training camp and yes, you are reading it right that both Zach Boychuk and Zac Dalpe will be playing in the top-six. That's something Carolina fans haven't seen in a long time. Boychuk has earned his shot, though. After working so hard in Charlotte during the lockout and showing up ready to play in training camp, it had to be hard for Muller not to give him a chance in the top-six to help alleviate the loss of Tuomo Ruutu. My thought is that Boychuk, Eric Staal and Alexander Semin could make a great scoring line if they get a bit of a zone start push. Semin and Staal have both succeeded in those situations before and are competent enough to hold their own against somewhat difficult competition. Boychuk is the big question-mark here as he has been able to drive the play forward in only soft minutes in a small sample size. He's an unproven player but he's done very well for himself in the AHL this year and getting to play alongside terrific linemates could help, too.
Zac Dalpe will also be in the top-six to begin the year, as he along with Jeff Skinner will be flanking Jordan Staal's line. I'm a little interested to see how Muller uses this line because these are three completely different players. On one hand, you have Jordan Staal, who is a beast at being able to moving the play forward while playing some of the toughest assignments on the team. That factor alone should help out the Hurricanes tremendously, but Skinner and Dalpe have never been exposed to tough minutes before. Skinner has performed well territorially over his career, but he was playing soft minutes while doing so and Dalpe is largely unproven and has played fourth line minutes for most of his career.
If Muller wishes to utilize Staal the same way he was in Pittsburgh, then Skinner and Dalpe are going to play tougher minutes than they ever had before. I feel that both are capable enough to control the territorial game at even strength but can they do it against other team's top lines? The fact that they will have Staal as their center instead of someone like Jussi Jokinen will help them out but it's still a reasonable concern. On the other hand, Muller could shelter this line which could lead to a career year for Staal but possibly at the expense of some of the players in the bottom-six. This line has yet to be used in an actual game situation, so we'll see how things turn out.
Centering the third line is Jussi Jokinen, which might sound like a step down for the usual top-sixer, but bumping him down could prove to be a very wise move. A big issue for the Hurricanes last season was scoring depth, as they weren't getting much from their third line aside from Brandon Sutter. Jokinen can give you at least 40 points in an 82 game season, is very good at faceoffs and is still an effective playmaker. Put him on the third line alongside Tlusty and LaRose and you have yourself a third line that can provide plenty of secondary scoring. This is going to be a much different third line from year's past because it will probably be more sheltered and offensive-oriented than Brandon Sutter's line was last season. Jokinen and LaRose have also proven themselves capable of being able to push the play forward in the past, so this unit could also work out well as a checking line. Tlusty may also do well on this unit since he isn't going to be asked to face opposing team's top lines like he was for most of last season. I'm a little worried about how he will play without Staal centering his line, though.
The fourth line could either be great or awful depending on who plays. If the fourth line is Bowman-Brent-Dywer, then I'd expect them to be strictly a defensive unit that will play a similar role to what Sutter's line with Nodl & Dwyer did last year. The difference is that they probably won't be matched up against opposing team's top lines as much since Brent probably isn't the right guy for that job and Bowman is still pretty inexperienced. Still, I think those three would make a solid checking line that can play 10 minutes a game without being a liability, unlike Carolina's fourth line last year.
This completely changes if Kevin Westgarth plays instead of Bowman or Dwyer. Westgarth plays maybe five minutes a game and doesn't serve much of a purpose other than inflicting pain and is pretty abysmal when it comes to driving the play forward. That will probably have a negative effect on the rest of the fourth line, especially if he is in the lineup over Dwyer, who is the Hurricanes best defensive forward. Jeremy Welsh is also on the final roster and his ability to play in the NHL is unknown at this point. He certainly has the size and strength to make a good checking line center, though if the team wishes to play him over Brent.
The Hurricanes could potentially have four very solid lines if all goes according to plan and they have room to change things around a little bit if they wish to do so, which is something that was lacking in year's past. The defense has more concerns, though.
Yes, Joe Corvo and Tim Gleason are going to start the season on the same pairing although that could potentially change if Corvo struggles to play the type of minutes Gleason commands. I restate this often, but Gleason plays one of the biggest roles on the team as a shutdown defenseman and might struggle without Bryan Allen, who complimented him well. The Hurricanes don't really have another shutdown defenseman to pair with Gleason, so they will just have to make do with what they have and they are going with Corvo to start the year. These two have played together before, so I understand the logic, I just have my doubts about Corvo's ability to handle top-pairing minutes after being a healthy scratch in the playoffs for the Bruins. Maybe it'll work out but I'll remains skeptical for now.
It wouldn't surprise me if Justin Faulk eventually becomes Gleason's defense partner in due time because the 20-year-old handled himself quite well against other team's top lines last year. My guess is that the coaching staff knows he is capable of playing big minutes but doesn't want to completely throw him into the wolves just yet, so using him with Pitkanen in a top-four role makes sense. They'll play over 20 minutes a night but won't command as much of a workload as he would if he played alongside Gleason. Faulk is more defensively sound than McBain, so I think this pairing could work out well and possibly take some burden off of Gleason to do all the heavy-lifting.
The third pairing might be able to thrive if they are given sheltered minutes, which they likely will. Harrison started last season on the third pairing before getting promoted to the top-four and he did very well in that role. I thought the team was going to keep him with Justin Faulk because of the chemistry they had last year but it seems that they have different plans for him. Harrison is actually coming off a career offensive season and should be able to play the same role that Jaroslav Spacek did on the third pairing with Jamie McBain last year.
McBain might start the season from the press box again because the coaching staff was pretty impressed with Sanguinetti in camp and there is no place for McBain in the lineup. I don't expect him to stay there, though since he could probably outplay one of Corvo, Harrison or Sanguinetti before the end of the year and become a regular in this defense again. This is the year that a lot are expecting him to make the jump into the top-four but he actually has to get into the lineup for that to happen. It might depend on how Sanguinetti, Harrison and Corvo perform because one bad game could lead to a healthy scratch for them and an opportunity for McBain. Either way, the Canes third pair looks like they can be a pretty effective offensive unit that can thrive in sheltered minutes like they are supposed to.
The question is how many games will Ellis start and will this team rely on Cam Ward to start almost every game in a shortened year? My hope is that they give Ellis a few starts to give Ward a rest, provided Ellis gives the Canes a few quality starts when he gets his chance. The thing with Carolina's back-up goaltenders the last few years is that if they play poorly in their first few starts, there's a good chance they won't get a chance to play again for at least a month while Ward is forced to start every game. I'm hoping that changes this year even if Ellis has a less-than-stellar outing in his Carolina debut.
Ward had a very up-and-down season last year as he had a couple stretches where he was awful in net and a few stretches where he was the only reason the Hurricanes were even in most of their games. Since this is a shortened year, Carolina fans better hope the Ward from January and February shows up for this year because that was when Ward was at his best last season and hot goaltending could be what puts some teams over the edge in a 48-game season.
How Cam Ward performs will also have a huge impact on where this team ends up in the standings but I'm hoping they have him play less of a role than he did in year's past. Muller has talked about how he wants this team to do a better job at preventing shots, which will help Ward a lot and make the Canes a stronger team at even strength. They should be able to give him more goal support with the upgrades to the forward corps, but making him face less shots will help him a lot more.
There are definitely some concerns on defense and I'm not sure if they have enough wingers capable of playing tough minutes but overall, I really like the make-up of this roster. Carolina has some good scoring depth with their top three lines and a fourth line that can also be useful if the right players are used. The defense is still pretty young and will take their lumps, but it certainly isn't the worst unit you could ask for. This looks like a better team than last season and they have enough talent to contend in the Southeast Division.