It's the best time of year!
As teams get ready to open training camp this weekend, we asked bloggers around the NHL to take a look at notable camp battles for their respective teams. Yesterday, we featured the Eastern Conference. Today, we continue with the West…
Anaheim Ducks – By Earl Sleek, Battle of California
Assuming Teemu Selanne signs for another year, the top end of Anaheim’s roster will be theoretically set. The top-six forwards, Jonas Hiller and Dan Ellis in net, and most of the blue-liners will be returning from last season, subbing in Kurtis Foster for Andy Sutton.
The bottom-six forwards should be more interesting; newcomer Andrew Cogliano, Brandon MacMillan and George Parros seem generally assured of roster spots. Beyond that, it’s kind of an open mix.
Matt Beleskey, Dan Sexton, Nick Bonino and Kyle Palmieri each had stints in Anaheim last season; they’ll each be motivated to try to fill a vacant spot. Mark Bell, Andrew Gordon and J.F. Jacques signed depth contracts; they’ll try to play their way on the team.
But it really may be an opportunity for youngsters Emerson Etem and Devante Smith-Pelly, the two kids selected after Cam Fowler in the 2010 Entry Draft. It’s highly unlikely that both youngsters make the Ducks, but I think there’s a decent possibility that one of them could work his way into the lineup. That’s the training camp battle I’ll be watching, at least – can one of them take advantage of the openings and force his way on the squad?
Of course, the most crucial training camp battles are probably “Jonas Hiller vs. his brain” and “Teemu Selanne vs. his knee”. Should either of those battles go south, we’ll quickly get to see what GM Bob Murray’s contingency plans are.
Calgary Flames – By Kent Wilson, Flames Nation
The Flames will have two main training camp battles this year: on the back-end and down the middle.
Calgary has a whole host of defenders battling for the 6/7 spot on the blueline. Brett Carson and Brendan Mikkelson were waiver claims that were retained over the summer. They'll likely duel with rookie T.J. Brodie, who briefly made the team out of camp last year, as well as high scoring AHL veterans Clay Wilson and Derek Smith. Towering youngster Chris Breen also has an outside chance of making the jump.
As for the center position, the Flames will be looking to see which of their various pivots should be centering the top line with Jarome Iginla and Alex Tanguay. Olli Jokinen, Mikael Backlund, Brendan Morrison, Matt Stajan and converted winger David Moss are all in the mix. Moss and Backlund are the favorites to take the role right now based on how things ended up at the end of the regular season last year, but no one is a sure lock.
Chicago Blackhawks – By Tab Bamford, Committed Indians
For the first time in 20 years, the Chicago Blackhawks will enter a season with a competent, known starting goalie and a solid backup. The question is, who will be the backup?
When the Blackhawks acquired prospect Alexander Salak from Florida with Michael Frolik during the 2010-11 season, he jumped to the top of the organization’s prospect rankings between the pipes. When GM Stan Bowman handed him a two-year, one-way deal early in the summer, it appeared the second roster spot was his. He posted a 1.97 goals-against average with a .926 save percentage in the Swedish Elite League last year.
But in an under-the-radar move to promote competition during training camp, Bowman invited veteran Ray Emery to Chicago. Emery, 27, came back from injury to make a major impact on the Anaheim Ducks’ postseason run at the end of the season. With a .926 save percentage and winning seven of his nine starts, Emery was outstanding in Jonas Hiller’s absence.
Corey Crawford has the top spot on the depth chart locked down, but Salak and Emery will have to fight to be in Chicago when the regular season begins.
Colorado Avalanche – By Ryan Boulding, The Avalanche Guild
The biggest battle going on at training camp for the Colorado Avalanche will be for a starting spot on the blue-line come opening night. As it sits now, the Avalanche have roughly 18 guys competing for a mere seven spots and the last one picked is a hollow victory as they are likely the odd man out. Those expected to make the roster, regardless of play during camp, are Erik Johnson, Ryan O’Byrne, Jan Hejda and Kyle Quincey.
From there you have guys like Shane O’Brien and Ryan Wilson as potential locks. With the talent coming through the system, it is likely that Matt Hunwick will really have to impress if he expects to crack the opening six. He’ll have stiff competition from Stefan Elliott, Tyson Barrie, Cameron Gaunce, and Duncan Siemens as well. Elliott has received nothing but praise since last year’s preseason and was largely expected to be on the team before Colorado acquired a handful of defenseman as free agents.
With 81 points in 71 games as a defenseman in the WHL last season, Elliott could be the surprise player to earn a spot due to his undeniable talent and hard work during camp and preseason.
Columbus Blue Jackets – By Matt Wagner, The Cannon
In Columbus, after the addition of Jeff Carter and Vinny Prospal, the team’s top-six is fairly established. From there, the team has several options.
If head coach Scott Arniel should decide to use a third scoring line rather than a checking line and /or “energy line”, it would appear to open the door for highly touted prospect Ryan Johansen. It could potentially allow for a complimentary winger like Cam Atkinson or Tomas Kubalik (last season’s top scorer in Springfield), and most likely rounding out the line with returning sophomore Matt Calvert.
That would also narrow down the use of the fourth line to a dedicated checking unit, most likely featuring journeyman Derek MacKenzie, veteran center Samuel Pahlsson, and forcing agitating wingers Derek Dorsett and Jared Boll into competition for the remaining roster spot. In previous seasons, Dorsett has grown from a “pure” agitator into a player who can be trusted against tougher opponents and taking part in the penalty kill, but he still shows a tendency to take poorly timed penalties. Boll’s pugilistic abilities have distracted a surprisingly soft scoring touch, but his defensive play is frequently lacking.
Dallas Stars – By Brandon Worley, Defending Big D
Heading into training camp, the Dallas Stars seem to already have the NHL roster set. With Joe Nieuwendyk bringing in six free agents, it’s going to be tough for some of these youngsters to crack the roster – although there are a few that will be given the chance.
Expect defensemen Brenden Dillon and Philip Larsen to push hard for the seventh defenseman spot, which will be tough going due to the signings of Adam Pardy and Sheldon Souray. It’s tough to think of this, but if there is one player that either young player could knock off – that would be Marc Fistric.
Tyler Beskorowany and Richard Bachman will both get an opportunity to claim the backup goaltender position, although that would mean Andrew Raycroft would likely be traded or placed on waivers.
Tomas Vincour, Colton Sceviour and Travis Morin will get a shot at perhaps just one forward position this season – although all three will be on the list for first call-ups.
Detroit Red Wings – By George Malik, Kukla’s Korner
The Detroit Red Wings have offered former phenom Fabian Brunnstrom and checking forward Ryan Johnson pro tryout contracts, but from an organizational perspective, they're no-loss propositions. If either player fails to impress the Red Wings' coaches or management, there are 29 other NHL teams and several European pro teams that will be watching their performances. If they complicate the personnel equation for the Wings, great. If not, well, here's hoping they're more Brent Sopel circa 2009 (signs with the Blackhawks, wins a Cup the next year) than Brent Sopel circa 2011 (see: KHL?).
The Red Wings do, however, have a training camp battle which pits a player looking for redemption against a top prospect who may or may not be the Wings' resident Mr. Overlooked. When the Wings signed Mike Commodore to a one-year, $1 million contract to provide a little grit and round out the team's top-six, he placed Jakub Kindl in a precarious position.
The Wings' highest-drafted player since Martin Lapointe was supposed to develop into a smooth-skating, puck-moving defenseman of the top pair variety, but Kindl never managed to reproduce his production from his days with the Kitchener Rangers in the AHL, and instead, he developed into a player who could post 30 points, but be counted upon to finish with a nasty plus-minus rating. As he took his first slow-but-steady steps toward NHL employment last season, questions remained and remain unanswered about the fact that Kindl may stand at 6-foot-3 and 200 pounds, but he displays almost no physical flair to his game.
The Wings seem to believe that Kindl, who spent the summer training in Detroit, may still develop into a steady 20-to-35-point-producer whose skating and positional play will negate any concerns about his grit. But the majority of Wings fans seem to have all but written Kindl off, instead suggesting that it's Brendan Smith who deserves a spot on the team; and that even when taking the retirement of Brian Rafalski into account, the team needs Commodore provide the stay-at-home grit that Andreas Lilja once provided until Smith's ready for prime time.
Kindl's going to have something to say about that, but Commodore obviously didn't sign with the Wings to watch games from the press box, either… so it's on the blue-line where the Wings may have their most spirited training camp battle.
Edmonton Oilers – By Jonathan Willis, Oilers Nation
The Oilers have several positional battles to consider entering training camp, but the most obvious and important is on the blue-line. With veterans occupying six of the seven available positions, just one spot remains for one of two rookie defenders.
Taylor Chorney was the Oilers' second round pick in the 2005 Draft and had a distinguished college career before turning professional in 2008-09. He's now a veteran of 200 games at the AHL/NHL level and made real strides last season. Under-sized, Chorney offers strong puck movement and an improving two-way game, and perhaps more importantly he must clear waivers to be assigned to the minors this season.
Like Chorney, Jeff Petry was a second round pick (in 2006) and enjoyed a distinguished college career. Last season was his first at the professional level, and he impressed with a well-rounded game that featured both smart positional play and offensive upside. Petry played top-four minutes late in the season for the Oilers, but may be demoted without clearing waivers and was briefly sent down in favour of Chorney toward the end of 2010-11. Petry's superior play last season means he should win the day.
Los Angeles Kings – By John Hoven, Mayor’s Manor
When GM Dean Lombardi took over the Los Angeles Kings in 2006, he said he wanted to build from the net out. With starter Jonathan Quick and backup Jonathan Bernier set in net, mission accomplished.
Out at the blue-line, the team hasn't been this deep since their Stanley Cup final appearance in 1993. A solid top-five, already featuring Drew Doughty and Jack Johnson, became arguably the best collective D-core in the Western Conference after the addition of Alec Martinez last season. Again, check this one off the list.
Up front, the Kings top-six are set. Bolstered by the additions of Mike Richards and Simon Gagne, they again may be as deep as any team in the West. Jarret Stoll, Kyle Clifford, Ethan Moreau and Trevor Lewis will take up two of the remaining six spots, with enforcer Kevin Westgarth also seeing action in at least half the games.
Thus, the only real competition in training camp will be for those two right wing slots. Rookies Brandon Kozun and Tyler Toffoli should create a strong push and will make it hard on incumbent Brad Richardson.
Lombardi and team certainly have some tough choices before heading to Europe for a season opening two-game jaunt.
Minnesota Wild – By J.S. Landry, Hockey Wilderness
The training camp should be quite interesting in Minnesota. The main focus will be to form a respectable defensive corps, which currently consists of Marek Zidlicky, Nick Schultz, Greg Zanon and three more, which are anyone's guess between Mike Lundin, Jared Spurgeon, Marco Scandella, Clayton Stoner, Jordan Hendry, Justin Falk, Tyler Cuma and Nate Prosser.
Spurgeon wasn't even on the radar last year and turned out to be a wonderful surprise in his 53-game stint with the Wild. Maybe the Wild luck out and get another off-the-radar surprise? One thing's certain: The competition will be fierce as there are many roster spots to win and a bunch of players with a realistic chance to fill one of those spots.
Chances are, based on past performances, the last three D-men will be Spurgeon, Stoner and Lundin, with Scandella as seventh d-man, but that would make a d-corps made up of two offensive D-men (Zidlicky and Spurgeon, who can be considered a two-way d-man) and four stay-at-home D-men (Stoner, Schultz, Zanon, Lundin). While there's nothing wrong with that, since the Wild need to play very solid in their own zone, maybe coach Mike Yeo will be looking to put Scandella in to have more breakout options for his new guns. I'm not the coach of course, but those should be the seven whose names will pop up on the blue-line the most – if the sophomore slump bug stays away. Spurgeon and Stoner could easily fall, Hendry, Cuma and Falk could easily rise. It'll certainly be an entertaining battle and I wouldn't be surprised to see a billion call-ups being made during the season.
The other notable battle will be the one for fourth-line ice time, playing with Eric Nystrom (probably). It should be a battle waged between Casey Wellman, Cody Almond, Jeff Taffe, Brad Staubitz and Colton Gillies. Gillies is basically penciled in as the line's center, but he will need a strong camp and not think he just makes the team by default. He's grown quite a bit as a player since playing 45 games directly after being drafted in 2007 and being sent back to Houston.
Other than that, Yeo penciled in his top line as Devin Setoguchi, Mikko Koivu and Dany Heatley for now, but could easily change during the preseason. The other option would be to switch Setoguchi with Pierre-Marc Bouchard to distribute scoring a bit more evenly, but training camp should make Yeo decide if changes need to be made.
Nashville Predators – By Jeremy Gover, Section 303
The most intriguing battle in Predators camp this season is easily on the defensive side of the puck. Obviously Shea Weber and Ryan Suter are the top pairing and Jon Blum and Kevin Klein make up the second unit. But Nashville Predators GM David Poile has said that the third defensive pairing will be "all new kids." The four prospects vying for the opening night roster are Ryan Ellis, Mattias Ekholm, Teemu Laakso and Roman Josi.
Ellis is one of the most highly decorated junior players ever, Ekholm won the Elitserien Rookie of the Year in what's generally considered the second best league in the world, Josi is one of the top Swiss prospects and Laakso has paid his dues in the system. The Preds did sign some veteran help this summer to challenge the rookies, however, so don't be surprised if former New York Islanders blue-liner Jack Hillen steals an opening night roster spot.
Phoenix Coyotes – By Aaron Wood, AZ Vibe
The Phoenix Coyotes training camp looks like a complete and utter mess if you have already buy into the hype that the loss of goaltender Ilya Bryzgalov to the Philadelphia Flyers is too great. The Coyotes have good depth at the goaltending position with a potential three-way dogfight (Mike Smith, Jason LaBarbera and Curtis McElhinney) for the top two goaltending positions.
Defensively, the roster is pretty much set for the season with some good depth going to the AHL Portland Pirates.
With roughly eight forward spots set (not counting Kyle Turris, who is still without a contract for the season), there are around four-to-six open roster spots up for grabs. It’s unclear if Coyotes GM Don Maloney is done looking to trade before the start of camp (or the season) so keep an eye out for that.
This is a make or break season for many players such as Kyle Turris, Mikkel Boedker, Viktor Tikhonov and Brett MacLean. This is the second season where they are supposed to step up and claim their spot on the Coyotes roster. Whether they step up and stay on the Coyotes roster for good is what to watch for. This is their time to shine.
San Jose Sharks – By Ivan Makarov, Fear the Fin
The biggest battle for training camp in San Jose will be for spots on the two bottom lines. With the departure of Scott Nichol, Ben Eager, Kyle Wellwood, Jamal Mayers and Devin Setoguchi (who played on the third line for portions of the last season), there are spots open for those who manage to impress the coaching staff in the camp.
The names to look for are James Sheppard, Jamie McGinn, Benn Ferreiro, Andrew Desjardins, Brandon Mashinter, Frazer McLaren and Tommy Wingels (assuming Michael Handzus and Torrey Mitchell are locks for the third line). In my mind McLaren is the one with an edge in the group, as he's the best fighter on the team, having already fought with many heavyweights in the league. The Sharks are also a team that gives a chance to those who rise above their peers. It won't surprise anyone to see another prospect who is not on anyone's radar right now become a permanent player for the Sharks' main roster. It happens every year (Joe Pavelski, Ryane Clowe, Torrey Mitchell, Jason Demers and Justin Braun, just to name a few).
The other battle to watch will be in goal. While Antti Niemi is likely a No. 1 on the roster, Todd McLellan recently mentioned he felt he overplayed him last season. If Antero Niittymaki has a good camp, he may challenge Niemi for that spot.
St. Louis Blues – By David Rogers, Frozen Notes
For the most part, the St. Louis roster is all set and finalized with only a few key battles to examine. The most intriguing is at the backup goaltender position between Brian Elliott and Ben Bishop. Bishop served time as the St. Louis netminder last season while Elliott is looking to resurrect his career with a new club.
Moving up the ice, training camp will determine whether Nikita Nikitin or Ian Cole will serve as the club's seventh defenseman, with the other six already set.
At forward, thanks to several acquisitions (Langenbrunner, Arnott, Nichol), the Blues are prepared to move on while David Perron recovers and should see their offense improve with their added depth. Ryan Reaves will look to compete for a final spot on the roster which should be an intriguing story to follow as he is the last remaining "enforcer" by definition left on the team now that Cam Janssen has joined New Jersey.
Vancouver Canucks – By Tinfoil Tuque, Canucks Army
The Canucks have some pretty interesting battles going into camp.
There are a few temporary spots on the second line as both Ryan Kesler and Mason Raymond will be out of the lineup to start the season. But those spots will be relinquished once they both return. (Kesler will likely return after only a few games, while Raymond is likely out until mid-November.) There are some permanent spots on the fourth line. But when the fourth line only gets 6-8 minutes per game, it’s not really an important battle.
The really important battle is on defense. Kevin Bieksa, Dan Hamhuis and Alex Edler are set as the top 3 blue-liners, but after that it’s anybody’s guess on who fills those spots. Keith Ballard needs to bounce back and return to form, Sami Salo needs to stay healthy, Chris Tanev looks to make the permanent leap to the NHL, Aaron Rome and Andrew Alberts aim to stay out of the press box, and young players like Alexander Sulzer, Ryan Parent and Yann Sauve make a push for the big leagues. The Canucks blue-line was rocked with injuries last year, so it’s possible that ALL of these players will play in the top-six this year.
However, the roster on opening night will be the key battle for the Canucks, to show us who the coaches and management feel are the top defencemen in the organization.
Photos credit: Getty Images
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