It was a long summer, but now we are in the heart of training camp and preseason action.
The Carolina Hurricanes are off to a fast start in preseason, thanks in large part to the play of their young, developing players.
It looks like the opening night roster is almost set in stone, which is a big change from recent years where young players were constantly knocking on the door and pushing for spots, sometimes even in the top half of the lineup.
Even though things are different this year, there are still spots to claim. The two-week road trip to kick off the regular season will undoubtedly test this young Hurricanes roster, and they may need to have a nearly full 23-man roster in order to get through it in good shape.
Thankfully, general manager Ron Francis has given this organization a lot of depth over the past few seasons, and in turn, the Charlotte Checkers will have one of their most talented rosters in recent memory.
So, let’s look at some players who can fill depth roles on the Hurricanes to kick off the season and just might stick around for the long haul.
Phil Di Giuseppe (LW/RW)
After the additions of Bryan Bickell, Lee Stempniak and Viktor Stalberg, Di Giuseppe has been largely cast out by most people despite having an impressive rookie year in Carolina.
Di Giuseppe skated in 41 games for the Hurricanes last season, seeing a lot of time alongside the dynamic duo of Jeff Skinner and Victor Rask. He finished with 17 points and an even plus/minus in the NHL last season.
Although he didn’t post spectacular possession numbers, he ranked behind only Brett Pesce in on-ice save percentage in 2015-16.
Head coach Bill Peters praised Di Giuseppe for his pace on the ice and his ability to drive the net and open up room for Skinner and Rask.
While it is quite unlikely that he’ll be able to get back in Carolina’s top-six to start this season, his style of play can compliment the bottom-six.
On the bottom line, in particular, there isn’t much to be afraid of in regards to scoring threats. As it looks now, the fourth line will be comprised of Bickell, Jay McClement and Stalberg.
The only player on that line that really poses a scoring threat is Stalberg, and that hangs primarily on his skating ability. McClement is at a point in his career where he cannot be relied on for any type of point production and while Bickell has been productive at times in the past, we have to remember that this is a player that the Canes were forced to take in the Teravainen deal due to cap reasons.
It certainly wouldn’t be foolish to think that Di Giuseppe could beat out a guy like Bickell and claim a spot on the fourth line and add some more skill there. And if not, he’s a guy who can come in off of being a healthy scratch and potentially contribute offense in the top-nine.
Brock McGinn (LW)
A fast start led to a slow finish for McGinn last season with the Hurricanes.
The 2012 second-rounder netted his first NHL goal just 55 seconds into his debut. He added an assist to the boxscore as well on that October night in Detroit to cap off an incredible first game in a Hurricanes uniform.
Unfortunately, that magic went away quickly. He skated in 20 more games for Carolina last season, tallying just two points, both of which were goals, and seeing his plus/minus drop to minus-14.
While McGinn’s first year in the NHL wasn’t great, he was able to go on some absurd tears with Charlotte in the American league, ultimately completing his AHL season with 19 goals and 35 points in 48 games.
McGinn is very much in the same boat as Di Giuseppe. He’s not a player that will be able to crack a spot in the top-nine, but he can compete for a spot on the fourth line because of his grit and tenacity.
Despite his high goal production last year in Charlotte, it’s tough to envision him becoming much of an offensive threat on a fourth line including McClement and Stalberg, so that may drop him below a guy like Di Giuseppe on the list of players who could make the big team. However, McGinn can still contribute, even when he isn’t scoring goals, which makes him a valuable asset for the Canes going forward.
Sergey Tolchinsky (LW)
Likely more of a longshot than Di Giuseppe and McGinn, Sergey Tolchinsky’s skill alone puts him in the running to potentially grab a forward spot out of camp.
It was another big performance in Traverse City and training camp for the Russian forward, who kicked off the tournament in Michigan with a highlight reel goal.
Tolchinsky made his NHL debut last season, playing in two games at the tail end of the season for the Hurricanes and picking up his first point, an assist on Justin Faulk’s goal in Eric Staal’s return to Raleigh with the Rangers.
The problem with this player is that, outside of his ability to dazzle in the offensive zone, he doesn’t contribute much more. Being just 5’8”, 170 lbs., he isn’t a physical threat and can tend to get bodied around a bit in the defensive zone.
Another thing that doesn’t necessarily bode in Tolchinsky’s favor is his relative invisibility in Carolina’s opening preseason game in Washington, where he failed to generate much offense at all at 5-on-5 on a line with Jordan Staal and Joakim Nordstrom. That line was the club’s worst line in terms of corsi.
A strong finish is needed, but if Tolchinsky can use his offense to overwhelm the Hurricanes, he could be a good option if one of Carolina’s skilled forwards underperforms or gets injured early on.
Patrick Brown (C)
Patrick Brown may have been the Hurricanes’ best forward on Monday night in D.C., and if he can carry that through the rest of the preseason, it will be tough for Carolina to send him down.
Brown has had a couple short NHL stints over the past few seasons, but last year rendered the best results as he was able to net his first NHL goal and assist and achieve a plus-four rating in seven games.
If he can bring grit and defensive responsibility to the table and contribute sporadically on offense, he may have a chance to give Jay McClement a run for his money on the fourth line.
Haydn Fleury (D)
We press on to the blueliners in the form of 2014 seventh overall draft pick Haydn Fleury.
Fresh off of a big final season with the Red Deer Rebels in the Western Hockey League, Fleury was given the captaincy for the Traverse City prospect tournament in mid-September. Unfortunately, an injury in game one of the tourney kept him off the ice until training camp.
This is a player who has steadily improved year-by-year in terms of his game and physical maturity, and if it wasn’t for Carolina’s loaded blue line, we would likely be talking about Fleury as a guy who could break in as an everyday NHLer.
Things didn’t work out that way, and it’s likely to his benefit. Physically, he is ready for the NHL game, but he still has a little bit of maturing to do with his game before he is a guy who can play a full season in the big leagues.
That being considered, the Hurricanes may carry upwards of eight defensemen on the opening road trip. Assuming Matt Tennyson stays up as the seventh defenseman, that would open up a spot for Fleury, or another player we’ll talk about later, to claim. He’d likely only draw into one or two games, but if he was to play well, then maybe his cup of coffee could turn into something more.
Roland McKeown (D)
Another player who is coming off of his last year of junior eligibility, McKeown falls in Fleury’s camp as a player who is looking to bounce right into the NHL as a rookie.
After Fleury’s injury at Traverse City, McKeown stepped in and served as the captain through the rest of the tournament.
Leadership is a quality of McKeown that has been highly praised in the past. He served as the captain of the Ontario Hockey League’s Kingston Frontenacs for two seasons. He capped off his junior career with 42 points in 59 regular season games and then an impressive 12 points in nine playoff games.
He stood out to me with his defensive gap control and his ability to disrupt zone entries in Carolina’s preseason opener in Washington on Monday.
Another thing that works in his favor is the fact that he is a right-handed shot. While Murphy and Tennyson, a pair of righties, are also in the running for the sixth defenseman spot, if one or both of them fail to meet expectations, McKeown just might benefit from also being right-handed. Bill Peters has expressed in the past that he prefers rolling with three lefties and three righties on the blue line.
McKeown skated with Group A in Thursday’s training camp practice, a group comprised of NHL regulars and players who pose a threat of making the team out of camp.