There will be lots of intriguing battles taking place at NHL training camps this year, with some carrying a lot of fantasy significance (the battle to be Sidney Crosby’s winger) and others not so much (the battle to be the seventh defenseman in Toronto). Many of these little game-within-a-game duels will not be solved in training camp (Antti Niemi vs. Antero Niittymaki in San Jose), but here are some in the Eastern Conference worth watching.
And check out last week’s Western Conference training camp battles, too.
At stake: A handful of players are vying for the attention of coach Paul Maurice. Training camp will determine who gets top-six ice time alongside Eric Staal, Tuomo Ruutu, Jussi Jokinen and Erik Cole.
The Players: Sergei Samsonov, Patrick O’Sullivan, Jeff Skinner, Jiri Tlusty and Drayson Bowman.
The Lowdown: Assuming either Zach Boychuk or Brandon Sutter gets the No. 2 center job, things are wide open on the wings. Samsonov is not the player he was a few years ago and looks like the odd man out. Bowman would benefit from another year of seasoning in the American League. Skinner has the backing of GM Jim Rutherford, while O’Sullivan is trying to salvage his career and avoid going the way of Samsonov. Tlusty is a young, enigmatic prospect who has yet to come close to reaching his potential at the NHL level and is running out of time to start showing something.
The Fallout: Since Staal’s wingers are by no means set in stone, don’t be surprised if the winner of this battle shocks the hockey world with 60 points or more. Before you scoff at that statement, I want you to consider where you had Jokinen pegged in terms of points one year ago (he finished with 65).
Long Island Iced Team
At stake: Once again, a top-six spot. Or two.
The Players: Blake Comeau, Nino Niederreiter, Trent Hunter, P.A. Parenteau, Josh Bailey, Frans Nielsen, Rob Schremp.
The Lowdown: First of all, the center position needs to be solved. Bailey spent time on the wing in the second half last campaign, as did Schremp. The latter is more comfortable at center, but Bailey is a nice fit on the wing. How things shake out between those two will determine if Nielsen gets to be the No. 2 pivot. On the wing, Hunter has likely left behind his top-six days for good. Comeau had 20 points in his last 18 games last year and would obviously be a shoo-in for a top-six role if he can continue such production. Niederreiter has a shot at making the team and if he does it won’t be in a checking capacity. Parenteau is a career minor-leaguer who has nothing left to prove at the AHL level. Just like Matt Moulson a year ago, Parenteau hopes to make his mark at the NHL level.
The Fallout: A 50-point season is in store for the winner here. More, if John Tavares blossoms like Steven Stamkos did last year.
At stake: The pivot for Marian Gaborik and Alexander Frolov.
The Players: Brandon Dubinsky, Derek Stepan, Chris Drury, Artem Anisimov.
The Lowdown: Dubinsky has had mild success playing with Gaborik and we all know how well he did with Jaromir Jagr as a rookie (40 points). But Dubinsky’s success has been inconsistent and he is now getting a look as a winger. Drury’s top-six days seem to be behind him. Anisimov’s style of game makes him a nice fit for that line, but the sophomore doesn’t seem to be quite ready for the role. Stepan enjoyed a strong development camp and has continued that success in the main camp. He has great setup instincts, which goes perfect with Gaborik the sniper.
The Fallout: The winner is in line for 60 points in 2010-11, although if Stepan earns the job his upside for this year is even higher.
The Pittsburgh Here-We-Go-Again
At Stake: As usual, a plum spot beside Sidney Crosby or Evgeni Malkin.
The Players: Eric Tangradi, Dustin Jeffrey, Brett Sterling, Max Talbot, Pascal Dupuis.
The Lowdown: Chris Kunitz has one spot sewn up and Jordan Staal (when he returns from his foot injury at the end of October) has another. That leaves two spots for one of the above five, with Dupuis getting a spot by default if the others fail to earn it. The Penguins seem to be set on keeping Jeffrey as a pivot at this point, so he is a long shot. Sterling is also a long shot, but he scores goals and has the hands to keep up with Sid and Geno. But will he get a fair shake? The Pens would love Tangradi to take a job, as he is the team’s golden boy in terms of prospects, but he has yet to seize the opportunity. Talbot is another default answer and will sub in on one of the big lines whenever the regular winger struggles.
The Fallout: So far, other than Petr Sykora (who had 63), no winger has hit 55 points with the Big 2. But then again, Crosby and Malkin’s best production was 216 combined points in 2008-09. There will come a year when they combine for 250 points and that’s when they’ll bring a 50-point winger up into the 70-point stratosphere. It’s this possibility that makes fantasy owners drool and as such this camp battle will be closely watched.
At Stake: The luxury of playing on a line with Vincent Lecavalier and Simon Gagne.
The Players: Ted Purcell, Sean Bergenheim, Ryan Malone, Carter Ashton, Brett Connolly.
The Lowdown: It is looking as though coach Guy Boucher wants Malone to anchor the third line, with Bergenheim possibly there as well. Ashton made a strong impression in camp a year ago, but that was under a different regime and his impact this time around isn’t quite so significant; he needs more seasoning. This will come down to a two-horse battle between Purcell and Connolly.
The Fallout: Not a lot of 18-year-olds make the jump from junior to the NHL in their draft year, but Connolly has the chance to earn a nine-game trial. If he impresses, look for a Calder-type season. Purcell, on the other hand, needs this spot now. If he fails to make an impact as a top-sixer this season he will have a minor league career.
At Stake: The second-line center job.
The Players: Tomas Fleischmann, Mathieu Perreault, Marcus Johansson.
The Lowdown: The Caps have been trying to keep Alexander Semin on the second line, but they lack a high-end talent up the middle. Fleischmann is starting to emerge as a potential 70-point player, but has been a winger for most of his NHL career. Coach Bruce Boudreau is now trying him up the middle with Semin and Brooks Laich, which makes for a pretty solid No. 2 line. Perreault made waves last season during a recall and that will make it difficult for the team to send him back down; he is an overachiever who should not be counted out. The rookie Johansson was the best forward in development camp and will also get a look.
The Fallout: While Fleischmann will likely get 65 points whether he plays wing or center, the job is significant for the other two. If Johansson fails to win the job, he’ll be in the AHL this season. If Perreault fails to win it, he’ll be on the third line and will see 30 points instead of 55 or more.
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