Deeper Hurricanes will feature camp battles up and down lineup

Madeline Gray—North State Journal
Hurricanes General Manager Ron Francis

RALEIGH — Year 3 of the Ron Francis/Bill Peters era is officially underway with Friday’s start of Carolina Hurricanes training camp. The team’s 15-point improvement in the standings last year along with an influx of new talent — both through the prospect pipeline and through trades and free agency — has Carolina thinking postseason in 2016-17.Carolina’s status as an up-and-coming team was legitimized when the Hurricanes waltzed through the NHL Prospects Tournament in Traverse City, Mich., last week, trailing only once in four games en route to the tournament title over seven other NHL teams.While most pundits still predict Carolina to be on the outside looking in come mid-April, there’s no denying the team has improved on paper with more depth than in recent memory. And with depth comes legitimate battles for positions in the lineup, and Carolina figures to have plenty to sort out during training camp.Here’s a look at each position group, who the contenders are, and the best guess on how the opening night roster will look on Oct. 13 in Winnipeg.ForwardsDefinitely in (10): Elias Lindholm, Jay McClement, Andrej Nestrasil, Joakim Nordstrom, Victor Rask, Jeff Skinner, Jordan Staal, Viktor Stalberg, Lee Stempniak, Teuvo TeravainenLast in (3): Sebastian Aho, Bryan Bickell, Phil Di GiuseppeJust missed (3): Julien Gauthier, Brock McGinn, Sergey TolchinskyThe Hurricanes have put Aho in their opening night lineup in pencil — not pen — essentially since last season ended. Betting money is on him being in Carolina’s top nine, while Bickell, Di Giuseppe and Stalberg — who will make the team but could be the 13th forward — battle for two forward spots.Gauthier has an NHL body, and no one should rule out him getting a look for 10 games before his entry-level contract kicks in. But at the end of the day, it’s best for his development to spend another season in junior. Raffi Torres, the NHL Public Enemy No. 1 who was invited to camp on a tryout, doesn’t seem like a fit, but his presence should give McGinn — a player who himself has straddled the gray line of clean hits in the past — a reason to be at his best. Tolchinsky could surprise and earn a spot, but it feels like he’s still another year away from really being in the mix. Valentin Zykov, acquired from the Kings in late February as part the trade deadline deal that sent Kris Versteeg to Los Angeles, is a sleeper pick.DefensemenDefinitely in (6): Justin Faulk, Ron Hainsey, Noah Hanifin, Ryan Murphy, Brett Pesce, Jaccob SlavinLast in (1): Matt TennysonJust missed (3): Trevor Carrick, Haydn Fleury, Roland McKeownWhile six blueliners are locks to make the team, that doesn’t mean all six will be starting on opening night. The five key returning defenders are written in Sharpie, but Murphy still needs to earn his ice time despite receiving the first one-way contract of his career. Tennyson was brought in as an alternative to Murphy — another right-handed shot who can play in the third pairing, likely with Hainsey — but he and Murphy will face competition from a few other players.Fleury and McKeown would both benefit from an AHL season in Charlotte. Fleury fits the mold of Carolina’s D corps — a rangy skater who can hold his own in all three zones — and McKeown plays with a maturity and poise beyond his years, which could help him beat out both Murphy and Tennyson for the right side spot. Carrick is the most ready to crack the lineup, but as a lefty it would probably take an injury to see him with Carolina to start. The Hurricanes’ top pick in the 2016 draft, Jake Bean, should head back to the Calgary Hitmen for a year of dominating the Western Hockey League.GoaltendersDefinitely in (2): Eddie Lack, Cam WardWard heads in to camp as the favorite to again be the No. 1, but this is an open competition and Lack could wrestle it away with a good camp. More interesting is the battle below them, where the Hurricanes added journeyman Michael Leighton as an insurance policy for Raleigh and to push the two prospects battling for ice time in Charlotte, Daniel Altshuller and Alex Nedeljkovic.First-year pro Nedeljkovic has the pedigree, but Altshuller already has two minor league seasons under his belt. Carolina would surely like both to get a lot of ice time, so bank on Altshuller starting the season as the No. 1 in Charlotte with Leighton supporting him, and Nedeljkovic starting with the ECHL’s Florida Everblades.