This is the third entry in our four-part series examining the roster spots that will be up for grabs when NHL training camps open next month.
Third-line/fourth-line right wing:
The cap-strapped B's need some cheap labor to fill two depth roles on the wings. Problem is, their most NHL-ready prospects (Ryan Spooner
and Alex Khokhlachev) are both natural centers. One, possibly Spooner, could move over but that's hardly ideal. David Pastrnak, Boston's 2014 first rounder, turned heads last month at the team's development camp and will get a long look, but he's probably better served spending another season in Europe adding muscle. That means the B's may have to settle for a couple of hard bodies with limited scoring upside like Justin Florek
or Matt Lindblad
, or a player with better hands but questionable skating ability in Matt Fraser
to fill in. Look for Fraser and Pastrnak to emerge from camp, with Florek getting the recall after Pastrnak plays his nine games.
Third-line center: The Sabres want to handle top prospect Sam Reinhart with kid gloves, but if he shows he's ready for a full-time role, they'll gladly give it to him. The maturity of his game, which relies so heavily on hockey sense and positioning, might allow for a smoother transition than one experienced by a skill player like Mikhail Grigorenko, who'll also have a chance to win the gig in his third pro camp. Zemgus Girgensons, currently penciled in at No. 2, could also slide down into this spot if the team decides one of the other kids gives them a more offensive profile on the second line.
Fourth-line center: It's a toss-up between veteran Cody McCormick, who returns to the Sabres after a stint with the Wild, and Brian Flynn, who was one of Buffalo's more effective centers last season at the dot ... with a dismal 47.8 winning percentage.
Second and third-pair defense: With three of their top-four defenseman from 2013-14 out of the picture, Buffalo is holding a job fair to fill positions on theback end. Look for 2013 first rounders Rasmus Ristolainen and Nikita Zadorov to get long looks, though only the Finn is likely to win a job in camp. Mike Weber, Andrei Meszaros and Andre Benoit will compete with rookie Jake McCabe to man the left side on the bottom two pairs. Mark Pysyk should grab the right-side job on the third pair, but Chad Ruhwedel should give him a run.
Starting goalie: This competition is wide open, and with Jhonas Enroth and Michal Neuvirth each entering the final year of their current deals, there's a lot at stake. The battle won't end with camp, but whichever goalie emerges with the starting job has it to lose. That right there should make for a terrific fight.
Detroit Red Wings
Second-line center: Stephen Weiss
likely gets a mulligan for his injury-ravaged first season in Detroit, but should the Wings really expect him to make much of his second chance? He's reportedly healthy, but the team can't afford to set the bar low. If he struggles, Riley Sheahan
will have to prove that his rookie season success was no fluke.
Third-line right wing: If Daniel Alfredsson signs on for one more year, it's his gig. He was a consistent contributor last season and, despite edging closer to age 42, they believe he can deliver at a 50-point pace again. On the off chance he chooses to retire instead, keep an eye on highly touted scorer Anthony Mantha. The organization's top prospect would become the first teenager to crack the Wings' lineup in 15 years if he makes the club. If Alfie returns, Mantha could stick as the team's fourth-line RW if he can unseat veterans Drew Miller and/or Daniel Cleary. Teemu Pulkkinen also has a chance to earn a spot in the bottom six, but he'll be in tough to knock off those vets and Mike Babcock favorite Luke Glendening.
Third-line center: Does a five-year, $27.5 million contract guarantee Dave Bolland this spot in the lineup? Probably ... but it's not as sure a thing as his salary suggests. Brandon Pirri played well in the role last season and while he can't match Bolland's two-way game he brings offensive upside to a team that finished 29th in the league after averaging just 2.29 goals per game. Pirri's a better fit here than on a more defensive-minded fourth line, a role Bolland could handle ... even if that did make him the best paid depth center in the league.
Fourth-line right wing: Free-agent Shawn Thornton will grab at least a share of this gig, with Jimmy Hayes and possibly Vince Trocheck, a natural center, competing for minutes.
Third-pair defense: It's not so much a question of whether Aaron Ekblad, the top pick in the 2014 draft, makes the team. It's how long he stays. Skating with veteran Willie Mitchell might buy him the wiggle room he needs to make some mistakes without hurting the team or his own confidence. Another former first rounder, 2009 pick Dylan Olsen, is another option on his left side. After playing 44 games last season it's time for him to take on a more consistent role, but if he or Ekblad stumble, Alex Petrovic, Colby Robak or Jonathan Racine could step up.
Third-line right wing:
With P-A Parenteau and Brendan Gallagher presumably holding down the first two spots on the right side, the competition is wide open for the third line. Jiri Sekac, a 22-year-old vet of three KHL seasons, was hotly pursued as a free agent after putting up 11 goals and 28 points in 47 games with Lev Prague. His hands and two-way game make him the early favorite, and if Parenteau flatlines he could even get a look alongside fellow Czech Tomas Plekanec. Michael Bournival, 2013 second-rounder Jacob de la Rose, and Sven Andrighetto are also in the mix.
Third-pair left defense: Strong possession skills and the ability to chip in on an underperforming power play give Nathan Beaulieu the leg up on the roster spot mercifully vacated by Douglas Murray. Jarred Tinordi, a 2010 first rounder, will also contend. Keep an eye on Greg Pateryn for seventh man.
Backup goalie: Do they go with a guy who has proved that he'll put the team before himself in Peter Budaj or do they pass the torch to Dustin Tokarski, the kid who almost backstopped them to the Stanley Cup Final with a solid fill-in performance when Carey Price went down? Bet on the vet.
Second-line center: With Kyle Turris moving up to replace Jason Spezza, the Sens need a new anchor to build their second unit around. Ideally, Mika Zibanejad asserts himself as a legitimate top-six forward after spending most of last season in a depth role. To do that, he has to become a more dangerous and consistent presence in the offensive zone. If he's not up to the task, crusty vet David Legwand can fill in ... but if we're all being honest here, no one wants to see that happen other than Legwand and Maple Leafs fans.
Second-line right wing: The Sens would love to see Alex Chiasson, the key asset acquired from Dallas in the Spezza trade, step in and make an immediate top-six impact. While his two-way game isn't quite where it needs to be yet, his north/south drive and physical presence could be a good fit at even strength and on the power play. But the team would be just as happy if 2013 first rounder Curtis Lazar came to camp and seized the job. He's smaller but faster and plays a safe two-way game with some offensive upside. If he works his way onto the roster, Chiasson likely moves down to the fourth line where he'll displace Mark Stone
Starting goalie: It's been clear for years that Robin Lehner was being groomed for the No. 1 job, and after signing a new three-year deal this summer that time may be now. Craig Anderson is 34, injury prone and playing out the last year of his deal. That lame duck status won't prevent him from maintaining his role heading into the season, but it's clear that Lehner will take the reins at some point. The only question is when.
Tampa Bay Lightning
First-line left wing:
This may be the single most coveted spot legitimately up for grabs this fall: the chance to skate alongside Steven Stamkos
. Both Ondrej Palat
and Alex Killorn
had success on Stammer's wing at various times last season, but the Bolts will give top prospect Jonathan Drouin
every chance to stake his claim in camp. His otherworldly playmaking skills are an ideal fit for a finisher like Stamkos. If he's ready, Palat and Killorn slide down to the second and third lines. If not, look for Palat to pick up first line duty.
Fourth-line center: Is this the last chance that Tampa will give Brett Connolly to prove he's an NHL-caliber pivot? He's been relegated to the minors for the bulk of the past two seasons, and with prospects like Vlad Namestnikov pushing for playing time, the sixth pick from 2010 could be trade bait by the end of camp.
First-pair right defense: Summer additions Anton Stralman and Jason Garrison could both see time in camp with No. 1 blueliner Victor Hedman, but Garrison's offensive-minded game might be a better fit for the second pair. Andrej Sustr will also get a look after playing well with Hedman at times last season, but his inexperience and the added depth on the blueline could drop him into the seventh-man role.
Fourth-line left wing: Anyone planning on seeing veteran Brenden Morrow in this spot had better write his name in pencil. He may be a terrific presence in the room, but his 35-year-old legs are shot. That opens a window for prospects Adam Erne and Richard Panik. Panik is flash and Erne is smash, so it could come down to which element coach Jon Cooper feels is most needed on the roster.
Toronto Maple Leafs
You don't have to look too hard to find a scout who'll bet you a buck that William Nylander turns out to be the most gifted player from the 2014 draft. The question is: How quickly can he start showcasing that talent? A strong camp would land him this top-nine role, but there are legitimate questions to be answered about his strength and durability. If he can't cut it, Finnish vet Petri Kontiola
is next in line. The 29-year-old paid $500,000 out of his own pocket to break his KHL deal for a second shot at the NHL, so motivation won't be an issue. Nylander should get his nine games, but Kontiola is a better bet to stick through the season.
Third-line left wing: Expectations are high for Leo Komarov, who returns to the Leafs after enjoying his best season as a pro (34 points in 52 games) with Moscow Dynamo in 2013-14. He's likely to get some top-six time spelling the routinely injured Joffrey Lupul, but should spend most of his time adding a bit of offensive pop to go along with his usual pesky play on the third line. Daniel Winnik, the north/south banger acquired late in free agency, offers a heavier physical presence that coach Randy Carlyle may prefer.
Fourth-line center: Speedy Mike Santorelli is a bit of a question mark coming off shoulder surgery that cut his season short, but he was one of the few bright lights for the Canucks in 2013-14, posting 28 points in 49 games. The free agent could be a very pleasant surprise. But the Leafs need to find a spot for Peter Holland as well. The former Anaheim first rounder is out of options and would almost certainly be claimed if the Leafs tried to send him down to the AHL. The loser of this battle could slip into the 13th man role, or be put up on the trade block.