With Chad LaRose back at practice and ready to play in Friday’s opener, the Carolina Hurricanes opted to, according to Canes writer Michael Smith, reassign Riley Nash to Charlotte, setting the team's 23-man roster for the start of the 2011-12 campaign. And while it’s not surprising that teenagers Ryan Murphy and Justin Faulk made the cut, it is eyebrow-raising that the team will carry nine defensemen to start the season.
The last time I can recall a team starting the season with nine healthy defensemen on the roster is the 2009-10 Tampa Bay Lightning, a team that opted to scratch three blueliners — Lukas Krajicek, David Hale and Matt Smaby — in order to play No. 2 overall pick Victor Hedman. That is a pretty recent example, but it's also one made by a team that, at that time, was run more like a fantasy hockey squad than an actual NHL team.
Veterans Joni Pitkanen, Tim Gleason and Tomas Kaberle won't lose a spot, and Bryan Allen has had a solid preseason and been a steadying influence for the Canes' young d-men. That leaves Faulk, Murphy, Jamie McBain, Jay Harrison and Derek Joslin to fill two — or maybe three, if the Canes decide to dress seven defensemen — spots.
Joslin seems like an obvious choice to start in the press box as he is a little behind due to a preseason illness. But after that the decisions become very difficult, especially if coach Paul Maurice is set on playing just six rearguards. McBain would seem safe — you certainly don't want to risk shattering his confidence by scratching him — but that would mean there are five accounted for and that either Faulk or Murphy (or someone totally unexpected) would be sitting. Harrison seems like the best bet for the second spot on the scratched list, but can the team afford to go without a defense-first player with only Gleason and Allen filling that role among those assured a spot?
The other option, of course, would be to alternate Murphy and Faulk and give each a chance to make their mark. But if you were going to do that, why not start Faulk in Charlotte and tell him he will be recalled once Murphy is reassigned to Kitchener. If Murphy somehow carved himself a full-time spot, then GM Jim Rutherford could explore moving out a defenseman to make room for Faulk's return to Raleigh.
And right now, that might be Rutherford's best move: finding a way to make room for two players that deserve a look at the NHL level. Even if Murphy is reassigned before he reaches the 10-game mark, triggering the beginning of his entry-level contract, the team would still have eight defensemen it feels can play in the NHL.
The Hurricanes were faced with a difficult decision and opted to not make it, keeping nine d-men. Now another decision — perhaps an even harder one — will need to be made before Friday night.