When NHL training camps open in September, here are the Pacific Division jobs that will be up for grabs.
This is the fourth entry in our four-part series examining the roster spots that will be up for grabs when NHL training camps open in September.
First-line left wing: In a perfect world, Dany Heatley becomes GM Bob Murray's version of a winning lottery ticket, turning a $1 million investment into a viable winger who can chip in 20-25 goals alongside Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry and establish himself as a physical presence on the power play. If it doesn't work out, Heatley gets buried in the press box while Emerson Etem, Matt Beleskey, Patrick Maroon and possibly Jakob Silfverberg take their shots at landing one of the most coveted gigs in the league.
Third-line center: Rickard Rakell struggled with consistency during his rookie season, but the 2011 first-rounder showed flashes of the kind of two-way game that could be an asset on one of Anaheim's depth lines. The question now: Can he play that way on something close to a nightly basis? If so, Rakell likely skates between Etem and Devante Smith-Pelly on what would be a lightning fast energy line. If not, versatile veteran Nate Thompson can step in and settle things down with a safer, more defensive-minded approach.
Third-pair left defense: Veteran Clayton Stoner was wildly overpaid (four years, $13 million) to come to the Ducks as a free agent, so it's hard to imagine he won't see a regular role from the start. Still, keep an eye on 2013 first-rounder Shea Theodore. The rangy defenseman has size, speed and the ability to make a strong first pass under heavy pressure. He also has a booming shot, and could find a place on the second power play unit. Theodore's lack of experience suggests that he will most likely end up back in juniors, but his possession-minded skill set could eventually earn him a locker at the Pond.
Dark horse: At 6' 2" and 226 pounds, winger Nick Ritchie, a 2014 first-rounder, has the build and ill temper to make an immediate jump to the NHL. Inconsistency was an issue for him in junior hockey, though, so unless something's changed dramatically over the summer, he's more likely a nine-game preseason option for Anaheim this time around.
Second-line left wing: The Coyotes were excellent with the extra man last season, finishing with the fourth-best power play in the league (19.9%). But with special teams engines Radim Vrbata and Mike Ribeiro gone, and with the even-strength attack in need of a jolt, 2013 first-rounder Max Domi becomes a legitimate top-six option. Coming off a 34-goal, 93-point season in London, Ont., Domi has the juice. But can he bring it consistently? To succeed, the 5' 9" forward has to be able to create space for himself in the greasy areas, and that may be too much to expect of a 19-year-old. On the plus side for Domi, there's not much competition—veteran Lauri Korpikoski is a lousy option for the top six, and Lucas Lessio and Tobias Rieder can't match Domi's offensive potential. Domi could stick.
Second-pair right defense: It's time for Connor Murphy to nail down this spot alongside veteran Keith Yandle. Murphy, a 2011 first-rounder, was solid during his 30-game rookie season, giving Arizona a stable, defensive-minded presence along the blue line. That type of reliable play makes him the ideal fit for Yandle, who's in the market for a new partner after Derek Morris moved on.
Second-line left wing: All eyes are on Johnny Hockey. Though the Flames have said repeatedly that they aren't putting an undue burden on Johnny Gaudreau, the fact is that they desperately need some of the magic he flashed in his NCAA-leading 80-point season last year. His size (5' 7", 150 pounds) is seen as a possible problem, and he must be able to find chemistry with his center (probably Sean Monahan). Gaudreau is a unique talent. It will be up to his pivot to help him find his comfort zone. If it doesn't work out, veteran Mason Raymond can step up from the third line where Calgary would prefer to slot him.
Second/third-line right wing: Devin Setoguchi and David Jones are penciled in for these slots, which says it all about how desperate the Flames are to fill in their right side. All of the team's top young candidates—Sam Bennett, Emile Poirier, Morgan Klimchuk, Ben Hanowski, Markus Granlund—are lefthanded shots, and while that doesn't preclude them from playing their off-wing, it's more likely that the vets, with their limited offensive potential, will stick.
Dark horse: Bennett could make an impression with his tenacious two-way play, but the natural center has Monahan, Mikael Backlund, Matt Stajan and Joe Colborne blocking his path. He's almost sure to get his nine preseason games, but it's hard to see where he fits after that.
Second/third-line center: The biggest question for this club entering the season: Who replaces Sam Gagner? Leon Draisaitl, the third pick in this year's draft, projects to fill the role in time, but it's unfair to ask him to step in at 18. He'll be given every opportunity to win the job in camp, but the smart (well, the desperate) money is on Mark Arcobello. The second-year pro has neither the ideal size (5' 8", 166 pounds) nor the scoring bona fides (four goals in 42 career games) to suggest that he's up to the task, but at 26 he at least brings a level of experience and maturity. Draisaitl is better slotted in as the No. 3, where he would face softer defensive matchups and could see more offensive-zone starts. Anton Lander could be in the mix for the job if/when Draisaitl is returned to juniors.
Fourth-line right wing: Is this the last chance for Tyler Pitlick? The 31st pick in the 2010 draft hasn't figured out how to score as a pro, but he has the physical tools to be a solid checking-line wing. If Pitlick struggles in camp, he could be waived to make room for Finnish free agent Iiro Parkarinen or possibly Jesse Joensuu.
Dark horse: Keep an eye on undrafted winger Vladimir Tkachev. Yeah, he's tiny (maybe 5' 9") and has all of 20 QMJHL games on his resume, but his undeniable skill set and offensive talents (10 goals and 30 points in his brief stint with Moncton) earned him a training camp invite. The buzz suggests he's worth watching.
Los Angeles Kings
It should come as no surprise that jobs with the defending Stanley Cup champs are scarce. Up front, 23-year-old Andy Andreoff is out of minor league options, which puts him in direct contention with Jordan Nolan and Adam Cracknell to be the 13th forward. On the back end, Brayden McNabb will battle Jeff Schultz for the seventh D job. Derek Forbort should get his first taste of NHL action this season, but the 2010 first-rounder will be hard-pressed to make the club out of camp.
San Jose Sharks
Third-line left wing: Post-surgery complications have opened up a spot that was supposed to belong to the rambunctious Raffi Torres (knee). Could first-rounder Nikolay Goldobin slide in? There are questions about the physical maturity of the 18-year-old, but his dazzling skill set (38 goals and 94 points in 69 OHL games) makes him a very intriguing option. Beyond him, it's not pretty. Tyler Kennedy, a massive disappointment last season, is first in line, and James Sheppard, after struggling at center, is also an option. Versatile veteran Adam Burish could also squeeze in, but he's better suited for spot duty on the fourth line. If one of those experienced players moves up, it could open a spot on the fourth line for Eriah Hayes, Freddie Hamilton or Tye McGinn.
Third-pair defense: With the Sharks looking to take at least one step into the future, the slot alongside Jason Demers appears to be Mirco Mueller's to lose. The 2013 first-rounder is a terrific skater with a big frame and elite hockey sense. What he lacks is experience (just nine AHL games), a tough hurdle for any defenseman to overcome. If Mueller stumbles, look for Matt Tennyson and Taylor Fedun to challenge veteran Scott Hannan for the job.
Second-line right wing: This job should go to the loser of the battle between Radim Vrbata and Zack Kassian for the coveted first-line spot alongside the Sedins. But don't rule out Nicklas Jensen. The 2011 first-rounder brings an element of skill that Kassian lacks, and he could add some offensive punch to a team that scored just 2.28 goals-per-game last season—28th in the NHL. The Canucks' desperation for some sizzle up front could also open the door for 2014 first-rounder Jake Virtanen (45 goals last season for WHL Calgary), though he's a long shot.
Third-line center: Is Bo Horvat ready to make the jump from juniors? The ninth pick in the 2013 draft has the traits that Vancouver is looking for in a depth center—high energy, the ability to win draws, strong defensive skills and talent on the penalty kill. The question the Canucks have to answer is whether Vancouver is the best place for Horvat to nurture his potential. If the club decides that OHL London is the better option for him, they could turn to Linden Vey, the minor-league star acquired from the Kings, or veteran Shawn Matthias.
Depth defense: The trade of Jason Garrison to the Bolts opens the door for Frankie Corrado to grab a spot on the third pair. The smooth-skating defenseman could help replace Garrison's offense more effectively than either Ryan Stanton or Luca Sbisa. Veteran Yannick Weber is also in the mix.
Dark horse: Brendan Gaunce finally figured out how to use his size to dominate the OHL, and that physicality plays well into GM Jim Benning's view of how winning teams are built. A lack of experience and a logjam at center will likely force Gaunce to work on his game in Utica, but he'll get a long look before he it told to clean out his locker.