Training camp storylines for the seven Canadian NHL teams

Elliotte Friedman joined Tim and Sid to talk about the Canadian NHL teams and their projections heading into the season, with the Maple Leafs’ fan base pinning their highest hopes on the team.

Last weekend, we got a glimpse of some players who will (mostly) be making pushes for NHL roster spots in one, two, or three years at NHL rookie camp tournaments. Most of them, however, will go back to the AHL, junior, or elsewhere this spring.

Next up for hockey fans: pro training camps.

By the end of this week all 31 teams will have opened their camps and the pre-season will officially be underway. Each of the seven Canadian teams will open with at least one question about an open roster spot or where a certain player will fit into a lineup. There are some new faces, too, and we’ll be interested to see them in their new colours and how they play in the exhibition games.

Here are some storylines to keep an eye on through training camp for the seven Canadian squads:

MONTREAL CANADIENS: THE BIG CENTRE QUESTION

The centre question has followed the Habs all summer and especially after they acquired Jonathan Drouin from the Tampa Bay Lightning. Montreal’s best trade chip was Mikhail Sergachev who projects to be a top-pair blueliner in the NHL for years to come and the thought that was when they moved him, they’d be getting back a No. 1 centre to fill a hole in the lineup.

Drouin isn’t exactly that — although he could be. The 22-year-old played centre for a year in junior after teammate Nathan MacKinnon moved on, and Drouin put up 108 points. As a pro, however, he has been a winger.

Whenever he’s been asked about potentially playing down the middle, Drouin has said he’d be happy with the switch.

“I’m not nervous about playing centre,” he told the CBC over the summer. “I played there in junior for a full year. Before obviously going to play with Nate (MacKinnon) in Halifax I was a centreman and it definitely doesn’t make me nervous if that’s the case.”

Drouin is most likely to become a centre again, but what’s curious is that the team drafted Alex Galchenyuk as a centre, but hasn’t used him as such. With a lack of depth at the position, fans often wonder why the team doesn’t go back to using the American in his natural position.

“Until further notice Alex will be playing wing,” Bergevin said earlier this week. “I’ve been here for six years, I’ve seen Alex every day, and at this time centreman is a tough position. It’s demanding. I’m sure as we speak today Alex is not able to play that position every day. And I don’t need 10 more tries, I know he’s not.”

This week head coach Claude Julien also shot down the idea that Galchenyuk would be a centre to open the season, but at points over the summer Julien seemed to leave the door open for Galchenyuk to return there.

At this point, we shouldn’t expect Galchenyuk to play centre out of the gate, but if the team struggles, if Drouin doesn’t produce there or when injuries hit, he’s still a candidate to fill in. And because of that, will we see Julien expose him down the middle, even for a little, in the pre-season?

The focus has been on Drouin/Galchenyuk at centre and the Habs lack secure depth beyond that. Tomas Plekanec no longer looks like a top-six player. Phillip Danault had a nice 40-point season in his first full year as an NHLer so maybe there’s more to come there, but it’s far from certain. Torrey Mitchell is a likely fourth-liner.

OTTAWA SENATORS: NO ERIK KARLSSON AND A POTENTIAL CALDER CANDIDATE

The season hasn’t started and the Senators already look like they’ll be without their best player as Erik Karlsson continues to recover from an operation that repaired torn tendons in his left foot. There is no timetable for his return.

This means rookie Thomas Chabot will take up even more spotlight than he figured to already. He, of course, wouldn’t be able to completely fill the shoes of a yearly Norris Trophy favourite, but Chabot and his offensive upside promises to be the No. 1 storyline to watch at Sens camp.

Chabot had a great showing at the prospects tournament in Toronto last weekend and that heightened hopes of what he’ll be able to do in the NHL right away.

“We know Chabot’s a good player, we know at some point he’s going to get to the NHL. But at the same time I don’t think it’s fair to him that we keep throwing all these high, high, high expectations at him,” Belleville Senators head coach Kurt Kleinendorst said at the prospects tournament. “He’s going to get there. It’s just a matter of when he gets there. This year it might be. And if it’s next year he’ll probably play in the NHL for a long time when that day comes.”

If there is some question about Chabot’s NHL readiness it centres on his defensive game. The MVP of last year’s world junior championship, Chabot has stood out among his peers, but playing reliable minutes at the NHL level is a different animal. He’ll battle through much quicker and stronger competition, and we can expect head coach and defensive systems specialist Guy Boucher to focus in on that part of the rookie’s game.

“It’s just a matter of how he does without the puck. We know how he is with the puck, that’s a non-issue,” Kleinendorst told NHL.com. “It’s about how he’s going to handle NHLers without the puck.”

Chabot did stick with the Senators out of camp last season, but only got into one game: an Oct. 18 contest against Arizona. He went minus-2 with just 7:09 of ice time as the seventh defenceman.

If Karlsson ends up being out until November, there is a real chance for Chabot to make the opening-night lineup and then play his way into more minutes after the regular season hits. But he’s not going to be handed top-line minutes right away and still needs a good showing in the pre-season.

CALGARY FLAMES: HOW DOES SAM BENNETT LOOK?

The Flames and Bennett avoided the worst-case scenario: the 21-year-old RFA sitting out camp without a contract. They agreed on a two-year deal worth $1.95 million against the cap, which is clearly a “show-me” contract as Bennett heads into a crucial season in his development.

Bennett tumbled all the way to a measly 26 points last season and though he showed flashes of first-line potential, he mostly fit in as a third-liner. That’s not what you want from a fourth-overall pick and his third season will go a long way toward determining where, exactly, he fits into the lineup going forward.

Ideally, Bennett becomes a winger on the top line and has a breakthrough season along the lines of William Nylander, who was picked four spots after Bennett. Playing with two more experienced and better players than himself could help lift Bennett by providing him more offensive opportunities and helping his confidence.

The other possibility is Bennett ends up on the third line as a centre and if his production lacks again, his future with the organization could come into question. With the Flames chasing Cups now, could it move Bennett for someone who fits the lineup better?

When the exhibition games get rolling, keep an eye on who Bennett is playing with, which position he’s playing and, of course, how he looks and what kind of numbers he puts up in the games. Who knows, if Bennett has an uninspiring camp, the Flames may find new-found interest in Jaromir Jagr and sign him before October.

Secondary storyline: Travis Hamonic is expected to play with T.J. Brodie on the second pair, so we’ll see how long it takes for them to find chemistry. Mark Giordano and Dougie Hamilton should continue as the team’s top pair, but it’s worth noting that when Hamilton initially arrived in Calgary and was paired with Giordano, he had to be moved away from him before they finally fit together.

EDMONTON OILERS: WHAT DO THOSE TOP TWO LINES LOOK LIKE?

When Leon Draisaitl and Connor McDavid play together the Oilers have a nearly unstoppable duo of speed, power and offensive explosiveness. But with Draisaitl signing a mammoth eight-year deal with an $8.5-million cap hit, he’s getting paid more like a key centre than support winger.

In an interview with Oilers Now host Bob Stauffer, Edmonton head coach Todd McLellan said the team would at least open camp with the two players splitting up over the first two lines.

“Everything seems to centre around Leon and/or Connor playing centre ice or the wing,” McLellan said. “You’ll see Leon in two positions this year. You’ll see him on the wing at some point and you’ll see him playing centre. We’ll likely open camp with him at centre.”

With Draisaitl at centre, it opens up some interesting lineup possibilities on the wings. Ryan Strome, who was acquired in the Jordan Eberle trade, is a natural centre but likely finds his way to the right wing and if it’s alongside McDavid on the top unit, it would help unlock some of Strome’s offence that never matured with the Islanders. The 24-year-old had a 50-point season in 2014-15 and if Pat Maroon can approach that with McDavid, it’s logical to think Strome could put up a career year of his own.

Drake Caggiula would remain in the picture as a potential second-line winger, but another player to watch closely at camp is Jesse Puljujarvi. The 19-year-old fourth-overall pick in 2016 didn’t stick with the Oilers past 28 games last season, but was pretty good in the AHL with 28 points in 39 games. It makes the most sense for him to stick with the team as a second-liner so if he doesn’t plug in there the chances of him staying could fall. Although he may also find a home on the third line with countryman Jussi Jokinen to helps him ease in.

Then there’s the question of Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, who will likely start as the third-line centre. But he, too, has the potential to move to the wing on one of the top two lines. His $6-million cap hit is a lot for a third-liner, but if he plays alongside one of Edmonton’s two super centres that could help boost his production to a level that we finally see him break out from those back-to-back 56-point seasons he had in 2013-14 and 2014-15.

Secondary storyline: With Andrej Sekera out until at least November, there is an opportunity on the second defence unit with Kris Russell. That battle looks to be between Matthew Benning and Darnell Nurse.

With Nurse entering a contract year, the Oilers might want to try him in a bigger-minute role, but at the same time they wouldn’t want to rush him into something he’s not ready for. Benning, at least, would keep a righty-lefty split since Nurse shoots the same way as Russell.

TORONTO MAPLE LEAFS: WHO ARE THE DEFENCEMEN?

The Maple Leafs come into 2017-18 with far fewer uncertainties than last year and are one of the most optimistic teams — they’re trending up and most believe they’ll build on last year’s playoff appearance.

But there are question marks on defence regarding who the six or seven guys will be to crack the roster out of camp. The top three are certain: Morgan Rielly, Nikita Zaitsev and Jake Gardiner, but there are many moving parts after that.

Connor Carrick figures to make the team as he played 67 regular season contests and all playoff games as a bottom-pair guy with strictly 5-on-5 responsibilities. That’s probably where he’ll wind up again and the fact he’s a right shot helps him fit in. Ron Hainsey, a left shot, will bring the possibility of second-pair minutes and he’s been largely healthy for the past five years. He played 56 games on Carolina’s young defence before the trade deadline last season and averaged 22:19 of ice. And now Roman Polak has a pro tryout deal, so there is depth at the position and spots to fight for.

The player to watch here, of course, is Travis Dermott. Over the summer, Leafs GM Lou Lamoriello hinted that Dermott is a guy the team was looking at as a candidate to make the jump to the NHL. His AHL coach Sheldon Keefe has spoken about his ability to skate and move the puck out of the defensive zone, and those are two attributes the Leafs will love. He’s been known to bring a degree of grit to the game too.

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Sportsnet Today with Ben Ennis
Rookie tourney productive, but Sheldon Keefe won't draw too much from it
Originally aired September 11 2017

Secondary storyline: Everyone in Leaf Land is excited to see what Patrick Marleau can do on his second NHL team. The speedy, two-way player figures to fit on the wing and should fit seamlessly into Mike Babcock’s system, as the two are familiar with each other from Team Canada.

Christina Marleau on Twitter

There’s a whole lot of Canadian pride here.

VANCOUVER: ALL ABOUT THE KIDS

So there may not be a ton of roster spots open to rookies in Vancouver this year, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. In a lot of these cases, it might be better for the player’s development to go to the AHL and work their way up. Some of them could get cups of coffee after injuries.

Still, it’s going to be interesting to see all of these guys in exhibition play. Jonathan Dahlen was acquired at the trade deadline and was a point-per-game player in Sweden last year (he missed rookie camp with mono so stay tuned). Jordan Subban, 22, has put up 32 points in back-to-back AHL seasons and has improved his defensive game — he will be in tough to claim a spot and needs a very strong camp.

Jake Virtanen went backwards from the NHL to the AHL in his development — the 21-year-old has talked about wanting to be a game-changer and needs to prove Canucks management was right picking him sixth overall. And Olli Juolevi, picked before Matthew Tkachuk, Clayton Keller, Alexander Nylander and Mikhail Sergachev in the 2016 draft, hopes to bounce back from a rookie tournament of mixed reviews.

It’s quite possible that none of those players make the opening-night roster, but most of them will represent the future of the Canucks.

One player in particular, though, could find his way on to the pro roster. Brock Boeser was a late-season addition from the NCAA in 2016-17 and put up five points in nine games, which has us wondering if he could be a Calder candidate in the right lineup situation. The late-summer signing of Thomas Vanek led some to believe Boeser would start in the AHL, but that’s not a foregone conclusion. He could still earn a top-six job.

Secondary storyline: How much of a problem will the goaltending be? In Jacob Markstrom and Anders Nilsson, the Canucks really have two backup-calibre goalies who they’re paying a combined $6.16 million. Part of the reason the Canucks signed veterans like Vanek and Sam Gagner is to maybe not make the playoffs, but guard against sinking into a culture of losing and surround the kids with experience. Some of this could be undone with frustrating goaltending that undermines any other effort. We’ll get a first look at the duo in exhibition games and if they stumble there, it could get ugly over 82 games.

WINNIPEG JETS: KYLE CONNOR THE CALDER CANDIDATE?

For the most part, this lineup is set for October. There will be some battles for bottom-six roles, but the real spotlight will be on the opening for a spot at wing on the second line.

That spot could be Kyle Connor’s to lose.

If Connor doesn’t win that spot Mathieu Perreault would be the one to slide in there, but while he’s a strong-skating veteran who you can count on for 40 points, the upside with Connor is astronomically higher.

The Jets need the 20-year-old to have a strong camp so they can feel good about putting him with Bryan Little and Blake Wheeler — this would move Perreault to the third line and give that unit a bit more offensive punch. Connor is very quick and has been a top scorer at just about every level.

Connor did make the Jets out of camp last season, but was sent down after an unproductive 20 games. But in the AHL he found his touch at the professional level, scoring 25 goals in just 52 games.

If the 17th-overall pick from 2015 can give the Jets 20-25 goals over a full season, he will be just the X-factor they need. Paul Maurice, signed to an extension last week, gets lots of deserved flak for not being able to get his teams to the playoffs, but management and ownership like the job he’s done developing the likes of Mark Scheifele, Jacob Trouba and Nik Ehlers. Connor could be next in line.

Secondary storyline: Above all else the Jets needed to improve their goaltending in the summer. They didn’t make a huge splash, but brought in Steve Mason for the next two years to bridge the gap until one of Connor Hellebuyck or Eric Comrie are hopefully ready for a lead role.

Mason has been one of the better 5-on-5 NHL goalies over the past five years, but the troubling stat here is his .908 save percentage from last season, his lowest since 2011-12. With fans set to be disappointed by anything short of a playoff berth, no matter ownership’s commitment to the long term, they just can’t be in a situation where goaltending loses them too many games in a tough division again. First step: Mason needs to show strong in the pre-season.