NHL players have already started informal workouts in preparation for the upcoming season and training camps are almost upon us. We'll soon find out where coaches want to fit players into their lineups, who is still nursing injuries and what battles will occur for positioning. Here are some potentially interesting competitions that could take place when camps open, starting with some clubs in the Western Conference.
The Blackhawks will be looking for a second-line center prior to the start of the 2013-14 campaign. They tried Dave Bolland in that role last year, but injuries got in the way and he was traded to Toronto shortly after helping Chicago win the Stanley Cup. Michal Handzus held the role for most of the season, but it's unlikely he'll get that opportunity again because he is an aging center with limited offensive abilities. Andrew Shaw has shown he can play regularly at the NHL level. However, he is probably better suited to occupy the middle on the third line, where he can play a two-way role and continue to agitate the competition without worrying about putting up points. The Hawks want to experiment with Brandon Saad at center. He put up 10 goals and 27 points in 46 games last season as a rookie while playing left wing on the top line alongside Jonathan Toews and Marian Hossa. Camp and some pre-season action should provide the team with a good sense of how comfortable he is at a new position. Another intriguing candidate to potentially play between Patrick Kane and Patrick Sharp is AHL scoring machine Brandon Pirri, who led the league with 75 points in 76 games last season. Chicago feels he is ready for a larger role and an impressive showing at camp could land him an important roster spot.
There's a good chance the Ducks will shuffle their lines throughout the 2013-14 campaign because coach Bruce Boudreau tends to favor pairings at forward rather than trios. Still, there is plenty of mystery surrounding the identity of the lucky winger who will skate on the club's top line with star players Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry. Jakob Silfverberg, whom Anaheim acquired as part of the Bobby Ryan to Ottawa trade, will certainly get a look this year on the first unit. He is capable of playing on the left side and recorded 19 points in 48 games during his rookie campaign with an offensively-challenged Senators squad. Kyle Palmieri generated similar numbers (10 goals and 11 assists in 42 games) last year and spent some time with Getzlaf and Perry. He played well in that first-line role even though he feels more comfortable as a right winger. Emerson Etem could be line for a top-six position as well this year and has played with Anaheim's top guns before, as well. The Ducks added to the logjam up front when they signed Dustin Penner to a one-year, $2 million deal last month. General manager Bob Murray isn't sure if the chemistry Penner had with Getzlaf and Perry still exists, but he admits the combination is worth exploring this season.
Dallas will face some questions regarding their top-six group entering the 2013-14 campaign. Who will they play alongside Tyler Seguin and Jamie Benn on the top line? Who will center the second line? And where does Valeri Nichushkin fit if he sticks with the team out of training camp? Let's start with who could play with Seguin and Benn. Erik Cole is the most logical choice to me even though he struggled mightily last season. He notched 35 goals and 61 points in 82 games with the Montreal Canadiens in 2011-12, so he still has the talent to be a contributor and won't have the lockout as a distraction this year. He appears to be a good fit because he possesses the speed to keep up with Seguin and he has the size to help Benn battle in the corners to recover the puck. If Cole cannot regain his past form then another veteran winger, Ray Whitney, could be an option. However, he might be better served to provide depth to the second unit and he should get his share of playing time with Seguin and Benn on the Stars' power play. Rich Peverley can be used on the wing or at center. If he plays on the wing then he could be used anywhere in the team's top-nine group, but I figure he'll skate on the second or third line. Alex Chaisson displayed great chemistry with Whitney last year during his seven-game stint with the big club at the end of the 2013 season. He will probably get a look on the second line as a result. Cody Eakin may have the edge on Shawn Horcoff to be Dallas' second-line center, but he can also play on the wing. Peverley could also end up occupying this role if Eakin isn't ready. Nichushkin, who was the Stars’ first pick and 10th overall in the 2013 draft, might end up getting lost in the shuffle. He will be competing for a roster spot and the Stars feel he is physically ready for the NHL. Nichushkin has the talent to challenge for a top-six spot, but he might have to settle for a third-line job to start the year.
The Wild have some very talented players in the pipeline and some of them are expected to step into key roles this season. Charlie Coyle and Mikael Granlund are being pegged as potential number two centers for Minnesota entering training camp after Matt Cullen was permitted to sign with Nashville as an unrestricted free agent. Coyle registered 14 points in 37 games last year, while Granlund had eight points in 27 NHL appearances. Their presence in the top-six would allow Kyle Brodziak to slide comfortably into a third-line role and they will have a better chance to develop into the productive players they are expected to be. Minnesota also has the option of putting Coyle back on the wing of the top line alongside Zach Parise and Mikko Koivu. Other candidates for the first unit could include Jason Pominville and Dany Heatley, who are more seasoned scorers. The Wild will also try out Nino Niederreiter for a top-six spot after acquiring him from the New York Islanders at the NHL Entry Draft this past June.
The Calgary Flames currently have a clouded picture in the crease, but that situation should become clearer as training camp draws closer. According to reports out of Finland, Miikka Kiprusoff has already decided to retire, but nothing has been officially announced yet so he's still technically in the mix for the Flames. Assuming he doesn't return, Calgary will have an open competition among their goaltenders for roster spots at training camp. Karri Ramo, who is returning to North America after performing well in the KHL for the past four seasons, is probably the favorite to earn the team's starting job. Behind him is last year's backup Joey MacDonald, Swiss League keeper Reto Berra, as well as prospects Laurent Brossoit and Joni Ortio. When the dust settles, Ramo and MacDonald will probably be the Flames' goalies, but the team's crease battle will be an interesting story heading into camp.
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