At the end of a casual conversation a couple of weeks back, I asked an executive with a non-playoff team how many jobs were in play for the coming season.
"Are you kidding? All 23," he said. "Every job on this team is there to be won."
Well, no. They're not. While that may be what they tell the boys to make sure that everyone is paying attention, the truth is that most teams will head into camp with virtually every role already written in ink instead of pencil, with maybe one or two full-time jobs available to be won. So with rosters settling into shape and training camps just over the horizon, we'll take a look at the few spots that are up for grabs and which players have the best chance to land them.
First up, the Central Division.
Third pair defense: Facing a salary cap crunch, it's almost inevitable that Stan Bowman will move a veteran defender (Johnny Oduya?) to create the space needs. That would open a roster spot for a youngster like heavy hitting Stephen Johns or puck mover Adam Clendening. Both fill apparent needs—the Hawks lack physical presence on the blueline once you get past Brent Seabrook, and Clendening has the shot and the smarts to boost a struggling power play. Look for his two years of AHL experience to give him the edge if the job opens up.
Fourth line center: Marc-Andre Cliche is the incumbent, but he was a possession black hole last season. Jesse Winchester wasn't much better with the Florida Panthers, but he'll be given a chance to prove that he can be an upgrade at the position.
Dark horses: Joey Hishon, a 2010 first rounder, is an easy guy to root for—his story of perseverance in the wake of devastating concussions is custom-made for a Masterton Trophy nomination—but the undersized center isn't going to knock Matt Duchene or Nathan MacKinnon out of a job. He'll need a remarkable camp to work his way into the forward mix. Stefan Elliott might get a look at D if the team is unable to come to terms with RFA Tyson Barrie.
Fourth line right wing: Colton Sceviour made the most of his first legitimate NHL chance last season, scoring eight goals and 12 points in 26 games while displaying a pleasing 200-foot commitment. He looks like the favorite to nail down this spot, but Patrick Eaves will also contend. He doesn't offer the same offensive upside (just two goals in 30 games last season with Detroit), but his veteran savvy and his Red Wings experience might make him a better fit with potential linemates Vernon Fiddler and Shawn Horcoff. Rich Peverley will also be in the mix in the unlikely event that he returns to action this fall after his cardiac arrest incident and heart surgery last season.
Third pair right defenseman: Kevin Connauton would appear to have the edge after playing 36 games with the big club last season, but coach Lindy Ruff's refusal to use him more consistently suggests he's not convinced that the former Canuck can be trusted. He's a good bet to break camp with the Stars, but he might be confinedto the seventh-man role again. The club would love to see 2011 first rounder Jamie Oleksiak finally step up, and he'll get a long look, but Calder Cup hero Patrik Nemeth might be the safer choice to fill the role. Problem is, he's another lefty—a quantity this blueline has in abundance.
Backup goaltender: The Stars signed Tampa Bay castoff Anders Lindback on July 1 to spell Kari Lehtonen between the pipes, then doubled down by inking Finnish star Jussi Rynnas. Lindback struggled mightily with the Bolts last season, but Dallas goalie coach Mike Valley is one of the best at smoothing out the rough edges. Rynnas dominated the Finnish league last season (1.51 GAA and .939 save percentage), but has to prove that he's not the same player who flopped in his first NHL shot with the Maple Leafs. Neither is a sure thing, so this is wide open.
Dark horse: Brett Ritchie: He's got size (6-3, 220) and he's a proven goal scorer (41goals during his last season in juniors; 22 in his pro debut last year with AHL Texas). Problem is, Ritchie's a right wing and best suited for a top-nine role that doesn't exist right now.
Fourth line left wing: Jason Zucker has the speed and tenacity that makes him a natural fit for the role, but he's failed to lock down a spot despite several opportunities during the last three seasons. Fortunately for Zucker, the rookies who are pushing for spots (Brett Bulmer, Zack Phillips) are right-handed, which should buy him some more time to prove himself.
Third pair right defense: The Wild would like to see 2012 first rounder Mat Dumba assert himself in camp, but he's no sure thing. Christian Folin, the big college free agency prize of the summer, could get the first look. Veteran Justin Falk is likely on board as the seventh defenseman.
Goaltender: Contract talks are at an impasse with Darcy Kuemper, and Josh Harding and Niklas Backstrom are looking to come back in top form from the medical issues that sidelined them last season. The Wild have a wealth of options, but they don't have a clear cut No. 1 goaltender heading into camp. This competition is wide open.
Dark horse: The Wild signed top Finnish forward Michael Keränen as a free agent in June. Problem is, there doesn't seem to be a place for him. He plays a skill game that's ill-suited for a bottom-six role, and has to return to Finland if he doesn't crack the NHL roster. A trade might be an option if he excels in camp.
Third line right wing: Top prospect Filip Forsberg will get every chance to earn this spot out of camp. He was tentative at times in his NHL debut last season, but the production was there (1-4-5 in eight games), suggesting that he can handle more responsibility. He's reportedly added some muscle mass over the summer, which should help him win some of those board battles he was losing last season and increase his durability.
Third-line center: The Preds will give another top prospect every chance to shine here. Calle Jarnkrok found quick chemistry with Gabriel Bourque after arriving from Detroit at the trade deadline, but he's almost comically undersized, making it fair to question whether he's up to the job full-time just yet. If not, free agent Derek Roy could fill in for as long as needed.
St. Louis Blues
None: With several new additions to the roster, camp will be more about defining roles than winning jobs. The team will have 13 forwards on one-way deals when RFA Jaden Schwartz signs, along with Vladimir Tarasenko, so the challenge for coach Ken Hitchcock will be in fitting all the pieces together rather than filling holes. Rookie Jori Lehtera is all but a lock for the third-line center role, with Joakim Lindstrom and Peter Mueller looking for spot duty.
Dark horse: Dmitrij Jaskin is NHL-ready after another solid season with AHL Chicago, but while he's ideally suited for a top-six role, the logjam up front means his best chance might come in a depth role where he can provide value with his hard, grinding game. Even that opportunity might be tough to come by considering this team's depth.
Third-line left wing: Another disappointing summer in Winnipeg would quickly be forgotten if 2014 first rounder Nikolaj Ehlers managed to assert his claim on this spot. The electrifying winger isn't much bigger than the average middle schooler, but his speed and scoring touch (49 goals in 63 games with Halifax of the QMJHL) make him an intriguing fit for the team's other key acquisition: free-agent center Mathieu Perreault. If Ehlers' durability isn't quite up to the challenge, look for Atlanta Thrashers legacy Carl Klingberg to finally get a chance to prove himself at this level. The lefty is better playing his off-wing, but after four years of toiling in the minors he could handle the transition to the left side. If both flop—or if the Jets really are looking to tank it for a better shot at winning the Connor McDavid lottery—free agent T.J. Galiardi (4 goals in 62 games with Calgary) could slide in.
Third-pair defense: The Jets are covered here with veterans Adam Pardy and Grant Clitsome, but they'd really like to see 2013 first rounder Josh Morrissey force his way into this job. The team expects him to mature into a top-four/first power play role down the line, but for now some protected depth minutes and exposure on the second power play unit could be ideal for his development (think Torey Krug/Ryan Ellis-type usage).
Dark horse: After leading the Calder Cup runner-up St. John's Ice Caps with nine goals last spring, Eric O'Dell might get the chance to displace veteran Jim Slater for the fourth-line center role. There's not a lot of upside to O'Dell's game, but he's earned his shot.