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Canes preseason storylines to watch

A few things worthy of keeping a close eye on in training camp.

NHL: Carolina Hurricanes at Minnesota Wild Brace Hemmelgarn-USA TODAY Sports

We’re just weeks away from the Carolina Hurricanes’ season getting underway, heading into a year where the team (once again) has Stanley Cup aspirations. With training camp now underway — as always — there’s numerous questions and storylines surrounding the group that will become clear as the preseason progresses.

Without further ado, let’s take a look at some of the biggest things to watch for on the road to opening night.

Third-Pair Battle

The battle for third pairing minutes has been extremely well discussed throughout the offseason, as the team has multiple options vying for two spots. When Calvin de Haan was signed to a PTO a couple weeks back, it looked as though the team would have five players competing for the 5/6 D spot, but unfortunately Jake Gardiner was the first domino to fall as he was unable to get back to full health. Effectively, the team now has 4 bodies competing for 3 spots — as the team is likely to keep seven defenders on the roster.

So, who’s in the mix?:

  • Jalen Chatfield
  • Dylan Coghlan
  • Ethan Bear
  • Calvin de Haan (PTO)

Overall, this should be a pretty epic battle. Bear is ready to prove his detractors wrong after an up-and-down first season in Raleigh which left fans divided on whether he’s a reliable option or not. Chatfield won the hearts of fans in his cameo appearances, thanks to his smooth skating ability, physicality and reliability — but he’s still largely unproven. Coghlan was quite obviously overshadowed by Max Pacioretty in the Vegas trade, but I’m excited to see what he’s got. I’m not overly familiar with his game, so he’ll be a guy I have my eyes on in the preseason. De Haan is a stable veteran with versatility and has played in this Canes system before, but might have to really stand out in order to earn a contract.

This position battle will surely be one of the most interesting storylines of camp. All four players have dynamic elements to their game, and each of them can make a strong case for their spot. As far as I’m concerned, the battle is wide open.

Is Martin Nečas ready to take the next step?

It started off as quite a wild offseason for Nečas, as trade rumours swirled amongst frustration from the fanbase. His talent is obvious, but inconsistencies have soured some on his long-term outlook and his ability to become a truly reliable top-six option on a nightly basis. Eventually, Carolina showed its faith in Nečas by giving him a two-year bridge contract, but a ton of questions remain about his future with the team, as well as his progression on the defensive side of the game.

When the Hurricanes acquired Pacioretty, it left me wondering where exactly Necas fit in the lineup. There wasn’t room for him in the top-six anymore, and he doesn’t really fit the mold of an effective winger for a Jordan Staal-driven line, nor as a fourth-line forward. There’s been some rumblings about a potential move to center — but it’s become evident that the Canes want Jesperi Kotkaniemi to be the 2C (whether he’s ready or not).

While the Pacioretty injury is a huge blow to the group as a whole, it’s kind of a “last chance at life” for Nečas in the organization. Unless he proves to be a worse option than Ondrej Kaše, he’ll likely start the season in the top-six alongside Kotkaniemi and Andrei Svechnikov on the team’s second line. It puts him in a fantastic position to succeed, but the biggest thing for him will be finding a level of consistency to his game. When he’s on, he can be one of the most dynamic players in hockey thanks to his lightning speed and ability to make plays at top pace. Otherwise, he can be rather anonymous at times and even a liability on the defensive side of the puck. It goes without saying that the upcoming season will be a massive year in his development path and potentially make-or-break for his future as a Cane.

Where do the newcomers fit?

Brent Burns will step right into Tony DeAngelo’s former spot on the right side of the top defensive pairing, alongside Jaccob Slavin. It’s also likely he’ll quarterback the top powerplay unit, and likely be an all-situations defender for the group. At age 37, the Canes would be wise to limit his minutes when possible in order to keep him fresh. Considering his experience and a strong defensive system with players like Slavin, Skjei and Pesce around him, I’m super optimistic about his ability to be both an effective player and an upgrade on TDA.

It’s still very early in camp and probably way too early to start reading into the line combinations, but interestingly, Paul Stastny has started camp flanking Jordan Staal and Jesper Fast — in the spot vacated by Nino Niederreiter. While Stastny doesn’t have the heaviness that Nino brought, he’s a fantastic veteran presence and a phenomenal creator for his line mates. He’s smart and patient, and he’s coming off a resurgent year where he scored 21 goals and 45 points in just 71 games. He’s a true pro who can play in all situations, and while he brings a different skillset than Nino, he can be an effective piece on the Canes’ third line.

The other newcomer to the forward group, Ondrej Kaše, has started on the fourth line. He’s a talented forward with strong puck skills and scoring ability, and he’s taking reps on the top powerplay unit early in camp. Throughout the year, I can see him moving up and down the lineup regularly. When the Canes need a goal, he’ll likely play more. When they’re defending a lead, he’ll likely play less. The big thing for Kaše will be staying healthy — if he can do so, he can be a very good secondary scorer for the group.

Is Jesperi Kotkaniemi ready to be the 2C?

This is a subject that, admittedly, I’m kind of all-over-the-place on. While I do believe that Kotkaniemi has the necessary tools and smarts to be a 2C in the NHL someday, I’m just not quite convinced he’s there yet, and even less convinced he’s a legit 2C option for a contending team. Time will tell, and his development will be a major focal point of the season.

For a bit of a different perspective, I asked Canes Country writer Andrew Schnittker for his current stance on Kotkaniemi. Sometimes I can be overly critical and I wanted to be sure that I wasn’t out of line here. Here’s what Andrew had to say:

“So this is, in my opinion, one of, if not the biggest questions the Hurricanes need to answer to see if they can maintain the level of last year’s regular season and get over the hump in the playoffs. Vincent Trocheck did a lot for this team, and Kotkaniemi seamlessly replacing him is a big ask. I think Kotkaniemi is a talented player and he can do it. He played pretty well last year before he got injured, and he played well when he had to play up in the lineup when Trocheck was injured. But that’s a small sample size, and he was mostly playing a fourth-line role last year.

Can he do it? Absolutely. And the Canes will be putting him in a position to succeed with two of Seth Jarvis, Teuvo Teravainen, Andrei Svechnikov or Martin Necas as his wingers (though the loss of Max Pacioretty until at least February hurts their options there a bit).

The good news is if Kotkaniemi is the 2C, he’ll have earned it, because the Canes added another proven option there in Paul Stastny. The Hurricanes made the long-term investment in Kotkaniemi to be their 2C of the future, and, if he can do it this year, it’s great news for the forward group the Canes are probably looking at another division title. It is fair to have misgivings about a player who hasn’t proven much in the role he’s being asked to step into, but I think the Canes are doing it right by putting him in a position to succeed and having a veteran fall-back option. He’s certainly going to have every opportunity to step up and be the guy at 2C.”

- Canes Country writer Andrew Schnittker

Overall, it’s hard to disagree with Andrew, especially if you’d prefer to lean to the side of optimism. If I wanted to play devil’s advocate, I could point to Kotkaniemi’s disappearing act in the playoffs last spring, as well as his lack of offensive production throughout his career — but honestly, he’s never really entrenched himself into a consistent top-six role so I think it’s unfair to judge him until we actually get to see him have a prolonged run in a 2C spot.

Where Andrew really hit the nail on the head, though, is with the sheer importance of Kotkaniemi being successful in that role. The team does have other options in Stastny and potentially even Nečas, but considering the eight-year deal the team gave Kotkaniemi and the importance of Stastny/Nečas in their current roles, the Hurricanes need KK to be the guy. Badly.