A friend of mine came up to me the other day and asked if I'm contractually obligated to discuss the collective bargaining agreement in every column. Only through the dog days of summer, buddy. Now, with training camps set to open across the league this weekend, we can get back to the fun stuff.
On my mind right now, and likely yours as well, is a simple question: Who among the hundreds of hopefuls will step up in camp and win himself an NHL job. That's something I'll be watching closely over the coming weeks. For now, here are some young players who bear watching.
Remember him? His bête noire, Ken Hitchcock, was sent packing, and a year in the KHL has likely given him plenty of borscht-fueled motivation to stay in the more comfortable confines of the NHL. The question now is whether he's matured enough to handle the ups and downs that come with learning to play in this league? Assistant coach Bob Boughner could be key to his development this fall.
Even with the acquisitions of veterans Kris Versteeg and Colby Armstrong over the summer, there aren't many jobs spoken for up front in Toronto. D'Amigo, who defected early from RPI, will get a long look thanks to his speed and work ethic. He might not have all the tools yet to work an NHL penalty kill, but who among those who manned last year's 30th ranked PK could say that he did? If given a chance to learn on the job, he could justify his presence as a third-line burner. He looks like he'll be a fan favorite. Mueller, a free-agent signing out of Germany, has the size (6-foot-4, 220 pounds) and skill (he represented Germany at the Olympics) that Brian Burke covets. At 22, Mueller already has five years of pro hockey under his belt, and could join D'Amigo on a high-testosterone third line.
The pressure is on Tyler Seguin, the second overall pick in this summer's draft, to make a splash in camp. But there's a real opportunity for a number rookies to shine as the Bruins try to refocus their offense. Caron, the team's 2009 first-round pick, has a chance to grab a spot on the third line if he shows the rambunctious energy and soft hands that convinced the B's to take him with the 25th overall pick. He impressed in a rookie game against the Isles on Wednesday, netting a hat trick created largely through a willingness to go to the net. "He knows how to get position [in front of the net] and hold his ground," a scout told me earlier this summer. That's a quality that could endear him to a Bruins staff looking to pump up a power play that ranked 23rd last season.
The big center, taken 13th overall by St. Louis in 2007, comes to town with a heavy weight on his shoulders. He can't replace the popular puck-stopper in the nets, but as the main piece obtained by the Habs in the Jaroslav Halak deal, he needs to make some kind of impact this season. The Canadiens should appreciate his willingness to drive the net and work the corners, but it's his playmaking that is his bread and butter. His 6-2, 198-pound frame should help him earn a job with a team that's desperate for size down the middle, but it'll be Eller's decision-making skills that will determine whether he needs to start looking for permanent housing in Montreal.
Cynics will suggest caution against reading too much into Derek Stepan's performance in Traverse City, so it's probably prudent not to discount Moore too much for the minus-five he put up in three games at the tournament. Still, after nearly making the Jackets out of camp last fall, expectations were high for the 2009 first-rounder who some saw as an instant solution to the team's needs for an offensive-minded blueliner. The perception now is that he'll have to be lights out in camp to stick with the Blue Jackets. But with a new coaching staff in town, it's tough to know exactly where he stands.
The organization's putative top prospect looks to be the biggest mystery at any camp. After missing all but 13 games last season with a series of back problems, he still wasn't healthy enough to join the team for any rookie activities over the summer. There's a chance he could make an appearance at the main camp, but it's no sure thing, even after spending the summer training for his return with fitness guru Gary Roberts, the former NHL star credited with prepping Steven Stamkos for his breakout season. With Kyle Wellwood gone, there's a job for the taking as third-line center. Only time will tell if Hodgson will be healthy enough to earn it.
The most hyped battle will be on the blueline, where Oliver Ekman-Larsson and Maxim Goncharov will contend to pick up some of the slack left by the departure of Zbynek Michalek. But with veterans like Ed Jovanovski, AdrianAucoin, Keith Yandle and Derek Morris soaking up the heavy minutes, the Coyotes' real need is up front. Turris, the third overall pick in 2008, spent all of last season in San Antonio, bulking up his Olive Oyl-esque frame and working on his two-way game. With Dave Tippett promising there will be an added emphasis on scoring, the gifted Turris is ideally situated to make an impression.
First-rounders Cam Fowler and Emerson Etem will get all the attention, but the Ducks aren't expecting much from either 2010 pick. Instead, it's up to Sbisa, acquired last summer in the Chris Pronger trade, to grab one of the jobs opened up by the retirement of Scott Niedermayer, the trade of JamesWisniewski and the unsettled state of Toni Lydman. Sbisa, who twice represented Switzerland last season, has NHL experience as well. That, along with his size and puck-moving ability, gives him a leg up for a full-time job, but he also made an impression with his physical play in rookie camp, demolishing Nick Petrecki of the Sharks with a clean hit. If he keeps that up, he'll be hard to cut.
Still stinging from the disappointing returns on the Fabian Brunnstrom signing, Stars fans are likely tamping down their expectations for this free-agent Swiss signing. Probably just as well, as the general consensus is that the 27-year-old defender, who captured the attention of scouts with his sturdy performance at the Winter Games, could be headed for a season in Austin with the Texas Stars. Me, I'm not so sure. Sure, the team re-signed young defender MattNiskanen on Thursday night, which makes for a crowd on the blueline, especially given that Jeff Woywitka is inexplicably on a one-way deal. But the presence of neither of those players ensures Blindenbacher a ticket to the AHL. Blindenbacher is a minute-eater (he chewed up an average of 22 per game in Vancouver) and he brings the one quality the Stars need most: offense. After leading Farjestads (Sweden) in defensive scoring, he's probably going to get a long look.
Caniacs believe they already have their future No. 1 defender after watching the former Wisconsin Badger score three goals and 10 points in 14 games last season. The enthusiasm is understandable, but now it's up to McBain to display his maturity. Some guys who come into the league late and experience some success return the next season with the sense that they have it all figured out. McBain still has a lot to learn, particularly about handling his responsibilities in his own end. It's a good bet he'll round out his game, but it's far from a sure thing that he'll do it by October. Watch out for a bumpy start.
The 6-0, 187-pound center broke the hearts of Badger Nation, leaving the University of Wisconsin after his sophomore year to sign a three-year deal with the Rangers. Based on his showing at the recent Traverse City prospects tournament, he might be ready to jump directly from college to the Big, White Way. He tied for the scoring lead at the eight-team event with Carolina first-rounder Jeff Skinner and dazzled scouts with his passing prowess.
Don't think that particular skill set isn't critical to his chances this season. The Blueshirts will basically hold a camp-long casting call to find someone capable of centering franchise forward Marian Gaborik, who somehow managed to match his career-best 42 goals last season without the help of a consistent presence down the middle. The smart money will ride on veteran Todd White, who was dealt to the Rangers last month. White centered Ilya Kovalchuk in Atlanta, so he's had some success feeding a thoroughbred. Still, Stepan is expected to get a long look. "He's one of those special players who knows what's going to happen before it does," one scout told SI.com. "