RALEIGH — After four days of drills, systems and skating — lots of it — the Carolina Hurricanes are finally playing hockey again. The team opened its preseason schedule Tuesday night with a 4-1 win at Tampa Bay and will host the Lightning on Wednesday at PNC Arena, the first two of six exhibition games before the 2018-19 season opens Oct. 4 when the team hosts the New York Islanders.
The beginning of camp can only teach the new coaching staff — led by coach Rod Brind’Amour, assistant Jeff Daniels (in his second tour of duty behind the Carolina bench) and new addition Dean Chynoweth — so much, with each September game slowly revealing who will be on the roster come the season opener.
That doesn’t mean there aren’t things to be learned this early in camp, and nowhere is an answer needed more than at center. The injury to Victor Rask — who cut his hand while cutting food in his kitchen last week, requiring surgery that Brind’Amour said will keep him out “months” — further stresses the need for someone to step up and be a legitimate top-nine pivot this season.
The Hurricanes have had a parade of young players pegged as future centers who never made the move to the middle: Jeff Skinner, Elias Lindholm and Teuvo Teravainen were all touted as centers but never got a fair shot at playing the middle full time. Sebastian Aho is the latest promising player the team has said could be moved to center, and early in camp, he has lined up in the middle.
Aho spent the first couple days of camp in drills centering newcomer Micheal Ferland and second overall pick Andrei Svechnikov, and then at Monday’s practice — with the Russian rookie moved to the other group that played in Tampa on Tuesday — with Ferland and Finnish import Saku Maenalanen.
The concern with Aho is that he is just 5-foot-11 and 172 pounds.
“Usually a prototypical centerman, you’re talking about is 6’3, 200, big guy, skates like the wind,” Justin Williams said back at media day.
“You need to have that certain arrogance, that strength on the puck, the ability to win faceoffs and the ability to be counted on,” he added. “That’s a big responsibility, playing center.”
The Hurricanes know they have a franchise cornerstone in Aho, but only time will tell if he can be a center rather than a standout winger this season and beyond.
There’s been no such indecision with Martin Necas, the 2017 12th overall pick who has come to his second camp looking the part of star center in the making. Necas is bigger than a year ago but still slight at 6-foot-2 and 179 pounds. Fortunately, he’s already shown that his skating ability can help him in the corners, where his ability to quickly change direction allows him to stay with puck carriers even if he’s not yet strong enough to physically challenge bigger forwards.
With hulking Jordan Staal entrenched as the shutdown center, it’s the final spot — or two, if Aho moves back to wing — that is still up in the air. Brind’Amour said the team views the versatility to play center as a plus.
“I think in general we were looking for that, even if Rask was around,” Brind’Amour said after Monday’s practice. “(Jordan) Martinook’s been playing center. It’s not really his natural position.”
Martinook played center Tuesday, logging more than 14 minutes and winning five of 15 faceoffs. Maenalanen has played in the middle and, at 6-foot-3, 185 pounds, has the type of frame Williams mentioned, but Brind’Amour hinted that the transition to North America — specifically with the subtleties of English that come only with time — required some patience. He is set to play on Aho’s wing Wednesday.
Teravainen, who doesn’t check off any more boxes than Aho when it comes to being a “prototypical” pivot, is also an option — and willing.
“I’m available with anything pretty much, either wing or center,” Tervainen said. “I played center pretty much all my young career, so I can do that, too. But it’s whatever the coaches want to do.”
Lucas Wallmark — who had a goal and an assist in Tampa — and Nicolas Roy, who both played center exclusively in Charlotte last season, could also be considered, while Janne Kuokkanen — who has spent a lot of time at the beginning of camp playing with NHL players — Aleksi Saarela and Warren Foegele all have experience at center but have played more on the wing as pros.
The hope for Brind’Amour and his staff is that the opportunity will bring out the best in one or more players.
“We’ve got a couple weeks here; we’ve got six games,” he said. “Hopefully, someone will emerge and take charge of that and it will be an easy decision.
“If not, then we’ll have to figure something else out.”