Several months ago, Victor Rask’s future with the Carolina Hurricanes was unclear. After, reportedly, nearly getting traded to the Montreal Canadiens at the draft, it seemed like he was on his way out of Raleigh.
Though, as summer ended and the anticipation for training camp ramped up, the Swede’s future became clearer, and all signs pointed toward what could have been a huge bounce-back year for the 25-year-old center.
Then, Rask cut his fingers in a kitchen mishap.
For a team like the Hurricanes, one with a recent history filled with trouble down the middle of the ice, an injury like the one Rask suffered could end up be a big blow, but it could also be a big break for a player lower on the depth chart.
Enter Lucas Wallmark.
Last year was big for the 2014 fourth-round pick. He dominated the American Hockey League, finishing the year with 38 assists and 55 points in 48 regular season games. His play earned him another cup of coffee in Raleigh, where he managed just one point, his first NHL goal, in 11 games.
A vast majority of his even-strength ice came in between Jeff Skinner and a rotating door of Phil Di Giuseppe and Lee Stempniak. Two of those players are gone and the other will be fighting for an everyday role in Carolina’s lineup this season.
That, coupled with a new-look bench and front office gives Wallmark a blank slate, more or less. Now, what he does with that is entirely up to him.
For Wallmark, the opportunity in front of him is very similar to the opportunity Rask got in 2014 after Jordan Staal broke his leg during the preseason and missed half of the season. Rask took advantage of that opportunity, had an impressive rookie season, and rode that to a long-term extension.
While it’s unlikely that Wallmark will experience that same level of success, he does have an opportunity to not only get consistent action, but potentially even earn a permanent spot in an NHL lineup, even beyond Rask’s return from injury.
Right now, the center situation is tricky for the Hurricanes. Jordan Staal is a lock in the middle of the ice, be that as a first, second, or third-line center. Things get interesting from there.
Rod Brind’Amour and company have some decisions to make with their young group of players, and that starts with Sebastian Aho.
Aho has played on the wing for a vast majority of his first two NHL seasons, but his future had been determined to be at center, at least by the Ron Francis and Bill Peters regime. The new figure heads have not been so quick to make that happen, though.
Perhaps Rask’s injury will speed up that process for the coaching staff. Aho’s intentions have been very clear - he wants to play center in the NHL, like he did very successfully in international play during the offseason.
So, if you write Staal and Aho (not necessarily in that order) in as your top-two centers, that leaves two more slots.
Obviously, Martin Necas is the favorite to claim a middle-six center spot. The Czech will have to earn everything he gets this season, but I have a hard time imagining him not making the NHL team.
There’s been talk about whether or not Necas is ready to play in the middle, but he is a bigger, stronger, and better than he was a season ago - and he made the team out of camp last year as a center.
That leaves a fourth-line spot. And, as of right now, Wallmark is the favorite to claim it. If he does play in that role, it should add a new dimension to the fourth-line for the Hurricanes. While the 23-year-old is a very competent two-way player, his AHL numbers suggest that he is more than that. If he can provide an offensive spark to the fourth-line, it makes this team that much more dangerous.
Before he can be that kind of player, though, he has to take advantage of an opportunity he has been waiting and preparing for. He has proven that he’s ready to take the next step in his career, but is he truly good enough to be an everyday NHLer?
We’re about to find out.