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Five position battles that have emerged in the early season

Be it a competition in the crease or a battle between two wingers for time on the top line, there are several sets of teammates throughout the league who are fighting among themselves to earn more minutes.

At the beginning of the 2018-19 campaign, David Rittich was the second-in-command in the Calgary Flames’ crease behind incumbent Mike Smith. But the signs of an impending takeover were clear early on.

Through four games, despite one shutout, Smith struggled. Through eight games and about three weeks of the campaign, his trouble hadn’t cleared up. And it was about that time the calls started to come. While he had only made four appearances, Rittich had played well when called upon. He had not a single outing with a single-game save percentage below .923. Smith, on the other hand, had only one outing – albeit a 43-save shutout – that was better. And come the end of October, with Smith boasting a winning record but an ugly .871 SP through 10 games and Rittich possessing a .939 SP in six appearances of his own, the change was made.

Over the next handful of games, Rittich got the nod. He proceeded to rattle off victories in five consecutive appearances, helped the Flames earn points in six of seven and it became clear that he was starting to pull away in the crease competition. By the time the season ended, Rittich had appeared in more games, started 42 to Smith’s 40 and though he lost the starting gig come the post-season, Rittich had made clear that he was the clear-cut go-to guy. The Flames let Smith walk in the off-season, and the crease was Rittich’s to lose entering the current campaign.

But the friendly crease competition between Rittich and Smith wasn’t the only notable position battle we watched take shape in the early part of last season. Max Domi proved himself to be the second-line center with the Montreal Canadiens. Elias Pettersson rose from promising rookie to top-six fixture with the Vancouver Canucks. And even late-blooming defenseman Erik Gustafsson stood out early and managed to unseat all but Duncan Keith in terms of minutes on the Chicago Blackhawks blueline.

As we inch further into the current campaign, though, what ice-time and position battles are we starting to see emerge around the league? Here’s a look at five worth watching:

Darcy Kuemper vs. Antti Raanta – Arizona Coyotes
Some might not even call this a battle anymore given Kuemper’s early performance, which has been excellent, but Raanta isn’t letting his crease counterpart pull away. Though the former has pieced together a 3-2-0 record in five starts, including a .949 SP and 1.62 goals-against average, Raanta has kept pace with a .926 SP and 2.43 GAA of his own. And given Raanta has this season and next left on his deal at $4.25-million per season, the second year of which comes when the first year of Kuemper’s two-year, $9-million extension kicks in, chances are the Coyotes will be willing to ride the hot hand all season.

One interesting note about the Arizona goaltending battle is that Raanta is actually ahead of Kuemper in a couple of interesting underlying numbers. At 5-on-5, Raanta has a .978 SP, better than Kuemper’s .947, and Raanta also has a goals-saved above average of 1.73 per 60 minutes, which puts him ahead of Kuemper’s .79 mark. It’s still early days, but this might be the best crease competition we see all season.

Victor Olofsson vs. Jeff Skinner – Buffalo Sabres
Based on ice time and reputation, one might assume Skinner is skating with the big guns. If you’ve paid any attention to the Sabres this season, though, you would know that the projected long-time pairing of Skinner and Jack Eichel has been split to start the season. In Skinner's presumed place by the Buffalo captain’s side? Rookie winger Olofsson. That has been coach Ralph Krueger’s favored formation for the top line to the extent that Skinner has actually only skated 10 minutes at 5-on-5 alongside Eichel. Olfosson, meanwhile, has been glued to Eichel’s side for 114 minutes.

If ever the Sabres need a change or an attacking boost, though, we might see one of the top-line winger roles handed to Skinner. For all the good Olofsson has done on the top unit – he has a pair of assists – most of the damage he's done has been with the man advantage. Skinner, meanwhile, has all five of his goals at evens strength. That might be reason for a promotion to top-line duty at some point, particularly if or when Buffalo needs to load up.

Anthony Cirelli vs. Tyler Johnson – Tampa Bay Lightning
If one were to place a number next to each Lightning line based solely upon the players with which the two Bolts pivots have played this season, chances are Johnson's unit with Ondrej Palat and Yanni Gourde would be called the second line and the Cirelli group with Alex Killorn and Mathieu Joseph would be called the third. The funny thing about that, though, is that Cirelli has taken a bite out of the ice time of those around him, not the least of which has been Johnson. In fact, Cirelli has seen more ice time than Johnson in seven of eight games this season, including all but one game since Brayden Point’s return.

At some point, the salary cap is going to force the Bolts to make changes. And as Cirelli begins to cannibalize the ice time of Johnson and some of the other middle-six forwards, it’s becoming pretty clear that the likes of Johnson, Palat and Gourde could be among those on the chopping block.

Patrik Laine vs. Kyle Connor – Winnipeg Jets
Even if it was taken slightly out of context, Laine’s off-season comment about playing with the best players had some truth to it. What scorer doesn’t want to be on the top line and which winger wouldn’t want to skate alongside Mark Scheifele and Blake Wheeler? For the past couple of campaigns, that has been Kyle Connor’s spot, though, meaning that despite some sojourns on the top line, Laine has been relegated to life on the second line in recent campaigns. But that hasn’t been the case for the bulk of this season. Not one bit. The Jets sniper has skated all but 40 of his 5-on-5 minutes with No. 55 as his pivot through the first 10 games of the season.

Does that hold now that Bryan Little has returned from injury? For the time being, it appears that way, particularly as Laine was on the top unit in Sunday's outing against the Oilers and Connor hasn’t spent much time at all with Scheifele and Wheeler. It will be interesting to see what happens when coach Paul Maurice feels the need to put his lines in the blender, though. Laine wants the coveted top-line spot and you can rest assured that Connor would love it, too. It might be worth mentioning Nikolaj Ehlers as the potential third wheel of the group, as well. He performed well in his audition up top.

Braden Holtby vs. Ilya Samsonov – Washington Capitals
Holtby is being given the benefit of the doubt right now. Not once has he sat in back-to-back games and he’s been given the nod in consecutive games despite some performances that have left something to be desired. Base statistics alone suggest that it might be time to start giving Samsonov the reins more often than he’s gotten them in the early part of the season, though. In his four games, the up-and-coming keeper has a 3-1-0 record, .933 SP and 1.84 GAA, numbers that are better than Holtby’s .878 SP and 3.70 GAA. And even underlying numbers lean in favor of Samsonov. Small sample and all that, but he has a .951 SP at 5-on-5, which is head-and-shoulders above Holtby’s .879 SP thus far.

Not only is this an intriguing battle to watch because it has some of that teacher-versus-student, veteran-versus-rookie feel, it also comes as Holtby is set to head towards free agency. He’s already lost the trust of the Capitals coaching staff once, starting Washington’s Stanley Cup run on the bench in favor of Philipp Grubauer before a trade sent him to the Colorado Avalanche later that summer. Losing that faith again could mean we’ve seen the end of Holtby with the Capitals.

(All advanced statistics via NaturalStatTrick)

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