RALEIGH Defensemen Trevor Carrick and Roland McKeown each face high hurdles if they’re going to be in Winnipeg Oct. 13 for the Carolina Hurricanes’ season opener against the Jets.For Carrick, it would likely mean unseating one of three left-handed defensemen who held jobs in Raleigh last year: veteran Ron Hainsey or second-year standouts Jaccob Slavin and Noah Hanifin. McKeown, in his first pro season, is part of a battle for the No. 6 spot with fellow righties Ryan Murphy armed with his first one-way contract and free agent addition Matt Tennyson. “You gotta come in focused every day,” McKeown, 20, said of training camp. “I mean, camp’s only about two weeks, so if you think about that that’s 14 days out of the year to prove yourself.The 22-year-old Carrick, a former fourth-round pick, emerged as a force in both ends of the ice for Carolina’s top affiliate, the AHL’s Charlotte Checkers, the last two seasons. He led the Charlotte defensemen in scoring each of those seasons, including scoring seven and nine goals in his first and second year, respectively, and also provided a physical presence on the back end.But Carrick dipped to around 180 pounds last season as he struggled to maintain weight on his 6-foot-2 frame. Enter the 2016-17 version of Carrick, who is looking about 200 pounds and ready to make a case for himself sticking in Raleigh this season after a two-game call-up back in March.”I managed to put on some weight this summer,” Carrick said. “I think that’s what they wanted me to do, so I spent a few extra hours in the gym this year, [ate] a little bit more food, calorie intake was a little higher. So I’m feeling the best I’ve ever felt at camp this year.”It’s not lost on Carrick that other young defenders have been given big opportunities with the Hurricanes, but he sees that as a positive that the team is willing to give young players those shots rather than a slight to him.”Obviously they got really young, smart D corps right now, and they’re all really good at moving the puck and jumping in offensively,” Carrick said. “And I think in today’s game now every d-man has gotta be able to do that.”Assistant coach Steve Smith, who manages the defense and has helped lead the start of camp while Bill Peters coaches with Canada at the World Cup of Hockey, summarized the camp battle in simple terms.”We’ve got some pretty good players,” Smith said. “We’ve got probably as good a young D as there is in the league.”Even Hanifin and Brett Pesce, two of last year’s rookie defensemen who exceeded expectations on an overachieving blue line, said they still need to compete for spots this year because of the organization’s depth at the position.”I’m not trying to get a big head or anything,” Pesce said. “I’m still coming to camp and like before I’m competing for a spot again. I don’t have a job right now. I’m on a two-way contract, so I have to continue to impress the management.”Forward Lee Stempniak, with his 10th organization after signing as a free agent with Carolina this summer, has been around young teams before, but not one where the defense had so many fresh faces.”Especially with young guys playing this prominent a role, especially the defensemen,” Stempniak said of the contributions of the Hurricanes’ not-yet-in-their-prime set. “Usually it’s always been older, more veteran defensemen, but from playing against them I think that’s the strength is this group of d-men. As a player, it’s fun to play with guys that are able to defend well and contribute offensively and break the puck out because it allows you to play with the puck a lot more and get the puck in good spots to do things.”McKeown, who captained Carolina’s title-winning entry at the NHL Prospects Tournament in Traverse City, Mich., ahead of training camp, knows that at the end of the day it comes down to proving you belong on NHL ice.”Make those plays. You gotta make high-end plays to play at the next level and obviously Carolina’s big on D joining the rush and be that fourth guy or be a number on the rush,” McKeown said. “So that’s what you have to do in order make this team is be one of the guys and be what they want to see.” Given what happened last year, it would be hard to rule out anyone.
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