NHL jobs report: what's up for grabs in the Metropolitan Division
This is the second of our four-part series looking at the jobs that will be in play when NHL training camps open next month.
Second-line center: There are six million reasons why the 'Canes would like to see Jordan Staal prove himself the best choice for the second-line gig, but coming off a 15-goal, 40-point season, maybe it's time to reassess how he's utilized. Elias Lindholm was excellent in his rookie season, putting up 21 points in 58 games as he made a smooth transition to the NHL. He's slated for another season on the wing, but could push Staal for the higher profile role. He plays a similar two-way game, but is more creative offensively and has displayed promising chemistry with Jeff Skinner. If he can show he's improved on his dreadful performance in the circle last year (just 46.3%), the job should be his.
Second-pair right defense: Ryan Murphy would seem to have a significant edge—he's one of just two righthanded D the team employs—but his inability to make the job his own last season raises questions about what he'll bring to the task this year. He'll get his chance to contribute on the first power play--a unit in need of a revamp after finishing 28th last year--but he could be pushed for time at even strength by veteran Tim Gleason. Sliding the veteran alongside Ron Hainsey would make for a big, nasty shutdown pairing.
Columbus Blue Jackets
Fourth-line left wing: It wasn't that long ago that a player with Simon Hjalmarsson's European resume would arrive in Columbus already penciled in for a top-six job. Now? He'll be in a dogfight for a depth role. Scoring 27 goals in Sweden makes him an intriguing option, but with a two-way deal and an adjustment to make to the North American surface the 25-year-old will be in tough against 2013 first rounders Alexander Wennberg, Marko Dano and Kerby Rychel, all of who come with intriguing skill sets and lustrous pedigrees. Rychel's hard-nosed game might be the most natural fit for that position, although veteran Jared Boll could provide similar minutes if the rookies fail to impress.
Third-pair left defense: Tim Erixon has struggled his entire career to meet the expectation set for him during his draft season. Now entering his fourth season as a pro, it's time for the 2009 first rounder to establish himself as a full-time NHLer in the spot vacated by Nikita Nikitin. If he falters look for the steady Dalton Prout to provide safe, if unspectacular, minutes in the role.
New Jersey Devils
Fourth-line center: The Devils will roll out Travis Zajac, Patrik Elias and Adam Henrique to center their first three lines, but the checking line gig is up for grabs. Veteran Stephen Gionta is affordable and experienced, but the team may want to see former first rounder Jacob Josefson find some consistency in his game and grab the role. Both are on one-way deals and are dirt cheap (under $900,000) so failing to grab this spot should mean the loser sticks around as the 13th forward, but the two-year deal he signed this summer suggests Josefson has the edge. There's also a chance that Lou Lamoriello moves a veteran forward (Michael Ryder or Damien Brunner?), to create an opportunity for prospects Reid Boucher and Stefan Matteau.
Third-pair defense: With veterans Mark Fayne and Anton Volchenkov moving on, Adam Larsson and Jon Merrill will have every chance to (finally) grab full-time roles with the Devils. If one of them falters, veteran Peter Harrold can hold down the fort. Damon Severson would also be in the mix for a depth job.
Backup goalie: The signing of former Devil Scott Clemmensen suggests he would be first in line to support Cory Schneider, but the organization might have other ideas. Keith Kinkaid, a 25-year-old with no starting potential could fill the backup role, with Clemmensen assigned to Albany to mentor the promising Scott Wedgewood.
New York Islanders
First line left wing: With veterans Matt Moulson and Thomas Vanek out of the picture, look for 2010 first rounder Brock Nelson to step into the breech. The natural center posted decent numbers (14-12-26 in 72 games) as a rookie while primarily playing a depth role, but has the size (6-3, 196) and seek-and-destroy style to do much more damage if given the chance to play alongside John Tavares and Kyle Okposo. Another rookie, the 6-2, 225 Anders Lee, is also in the mix after going 9-5-14 in 22 games last season, but unless his skating has improved dramatically over the summer, he's probably better served by additional time in the minors.
Third-pair left defense: Matt Donovan showed potential to emerge as a possession force during his rookie season (a 53.8 Corsi rating) but he'll be in tough to hold onto his job. T.J. Brennan absolutely tore up the AHL last season (25 goals and 72 points in 76 games with the Toronto Marlies) and his veteran, puck-moving presence and one-way deal (Donovan is on a two-way) give him a clear edge. Top prospect Griffin Reinhart would benefit from time in the minors, but a solid camp could earn him the chance to live up to the hype of his lottery-pick selection.
New York Rangers
Third-line center: The departure of Brad Richards creates a hole in the middle that rookie J.T. Miller will be asked to fill. Despite getting a few kicks at the can last season, he's no sure thing after Alain Vigneault ripped his on and off-ice commitment last season. Did Miller take that kick in the pants the right way? If so, he has the size (6-1, 205) and hockey smarts to contribute in a depth role. If he's not up to the challenge, free agent Matthew Lombardi could provide some offense (a Swiss league-leading 50 points with Geneve Servette last season) and play the up-tempo game that Vigneault needs. The veteran is slated for a fourth-line role now, so if he has to move up it would create an opportunity for KHL-returnee Chris Bourque and veteran banger Tanner Glass to battle for the fourth-line left wing gig. Both players signed as free agents with New York over the summer.
Fourth-line right wing: Earlier this week, Jesper Fast was first in line to replace departed free agent Brian Boyle. Undersized but speedy with a strong two-way commitment, this spot would allow him to prove himself with regular NHL minutes and build toward more offensive responsibility. But with Wednesday's signing of top college free agent Kevin Hayes, the competition is wide open. The Boston College grad brings an entirely different approach to the game. He'd rather go through an opponent than around him, and that brand of physical intimidation is in short supply in New York. His all-around game might not be up to the challenge just yet, but Hayes' presence will make training camp a whole lot more interesting.
Fourth-line center: Scott Laughton has broken camp with the Flyers each of the past two seasons, but hasn't done enough when the games counted to stick. After scoring 40 goals and 87 points in 54 games and impressing with his overall development last season in the OHL, this might be the year he lasts more than nine games. If that's the case, Vincent Lecavalier either moves to the wing (perhaps replacing Jason Akeson on the second line or sliding to the left of Laughton) or he heads to the trade block. Pierre-Edouard Bellemare is also in the mix.
First-pair left defense: With Kimmo Timonen's health in question (blood clots), the Flyers will have to look within the find a replacement. Andrew MacDonald can handle the workload on the power play and in the offensive zone, but struggles mightily away from the puck. He may split the workload with Nicklas Grossman, who shines in the defensive end, but struggles with consistency. Michael Del Zotto will be given a chance to assume some depth minutes, but he could be pushed to the sidelines by promising rookie Robert Hagg. The 2013 second rounder brings NHL-ready skating and puck distribution skills, but might need to be protected in his own zone. And if all else fails, veteran Nick Schultz is on standby. Shayne Gostisbehere is a long shot.
Top-six right wing: Pascal Dupuis is fine...when he's healthy. Beau Bennett hints at his potential...when he's healthy. Both players are going to make the team, but it's possible one could lose his top-six role to rookie Kasperi Kapanen, the flashy first rounder who made waves at the team's dev camp. He's more of a playmaker than a finisher, but his world-class offensive instincts would allow him to adjust his game to the needs of either Sidney Crosby or Evgeni Malkin. The only question is whether his undersized frame is up to the pounding he'd take.
Third-pair defense: Pittsburgh's top-four seems set (Paul Martin, Christian Ehrhoff, Kris Letang and Olli Maatta). After that, it's wide open. Veteran Rob Scuderi would seem to have a leg up on the right side job, but he was a possession black hole last season and could be pushed by Robert Bortuzzo. Where it really gets interesting is on the left, where rookies Simon Despres, Scott Harrington, Brian Dumoulin and Philip Samuelsson could slide in. Depres has both more experience and surprisingly good possession numbers on his side (52 percent Corsi last season, second-best on the blueline), making him the favorite.
Second-line right wing: Incumbent Troy Brouwer deserves his minutes after posting career bests in goals (25) and points (43) last season, so there's a chance the veteran could be moved to the top line to provide a complementary banging presence alongside Nick Backstrom and Alex Ovechkin. That could open a top-six spot for promising sophomore Tom Wilson, the player that incoming coach Barry Trotz described as the one he was most excited to work with. His start could be delayed after undergoing surgery on his fibula last month, but he'll be worth the wait. His raw tools hint at an athletic asset unlike any the Caps have ever employed. If they want to put him in a prominent role, this is it.
Second-line left wing: The buzz is building around Andre Burakovsky. The 2013 first rounder followed up a brilliant OHL debut season (87 points in 57 games) with a sensational dev camp performance that left observers wondering how the Caps could keep him down on the farm. A speedy and creative offensive presence, he gives Trotz a different kind of weapon than Joel Ward or Brooks Laich but he'll have to demonstrate two-way responsibility just to make the club, let alone push the vets down the depth chart.
Fourth-line left wing: This one's wide open. It could be Aaron Volpatti or Michael Latta or perhaps a late free-agent acquisition like Paul Bissonnette or Daniel Carcillo. Best guess? With so many kids sliding in up front, look for the Caps to go with the nuclear option here.
Update: I'm of a mind that Evgeny Kuznetsov has the second-line center job locked up, but our buddies over at Japer's Rink took me to task, suggesting it might be a little more wide open. They see Burakovsky, Laich, Marcus Johansson or Eric Fehr as contenders if the wunderkind falters. We'll see...