RALEIGH — The Hurricanes open training camp Wednesday with physicals and testing before hitting the ice Thursday to officially start the 2023-24 NHL season. A quick glance at sportsbooks across North America shows Carolina along with Colorado as favorites to win the Stanley Cup.
Of course, we’re about eight months away from that being decided, and there will be plenty of questions and answers by June. But the start of the season, even for a top contender, comes with some uncertainty.
Here are four questions going into training camp as the Hurricanes begin their pursuit of a championship.
Never enough defense
The talk of the offseason in Raleigh has been Carolina’s defense. The Hurricanes entered the summer with three blueliners — Brett Pesce, Brady Skjei and Jalen Chatfield — with one year left on their contracts before unrestricted free agency.
The Hurricanes then added more, signing longtime Capitals defender Dmitry Orlov — the top rearguard on the market — to a two-year deal that will cost $7.75 million against the salary cap — and bringing back Tony DeAngelo on a one-year contract after he spent last season with the Flyers.
With Dylan Coghlan re-signed and Caleb Jones added in free agency, Carolina has nine defensemen with multiple seasons of NHL experience.
The problem is, you can play, at most, seven in a game. Furthermore, five of those players — Jaccob Slavin, Brent Burns, Pesce, Skjei and Orlov — have averaged more than 20 minutes per game in their NHL careers, and DeAngelo has logged 19-plus.
That logjam of talent is a nice problem to have, but coach Rod Brind’Amour will need to juggle ice time until the front office finds a way to clear the glut of defensemen.
“It’s gonna make for some challenges for sure if everybody’s healthy,” Brind’Amour said last week. “I don’t know how many we’re gonna have, but that’s something I guess we’ll figure out as we go.”
The Hurricanes are in a similar situation in net, with the re-signing of goalies Frederik Andersen and Antti Raanta, coupled with last year’s contract extension for “goalie of the future” Pyotr Kochetkov, giving Carolina three netminders to manage.
Without an AHL affiliate for the season, the Hurricanes could opt to carry all three rather than assign Kochetkov to the minors — he does not need to go through waivers — where his development would be overseen by another NHL franchise’s staff.
The other side is that the durability of both Andersen and Raanta is a question mark, so having Kochetkov readily available gives the Hurricanes security in net.
“The good news on that: We know those guys and we’ve got a lot of confidence in them,” Brind’Amour said. “That was a smart move to get three of them because there’s a history there. That position’s just too important. So how we figure that out again, that’s gonna be me juggling it around if we end up keeping three.”
Full forward complement
The addition of Michael Bunting and return to health for Andrei Svechnikov gives Carolina plenty of options at forward. The biggest roster battle up front will be at fourth line center where 23-year-old Jack Drury and 21-year-old Vasily Ponomarev — both former second round picks — will compete for a spot.
Drury has 53 games of NHL experience, which includes playing in 13 playoff games last season when Carolina reached the Eastern Conference final. Ponomarev, meanwhile, has yet to make his NHL debut but led the AHL’s Chicago Wolves with 24 goals a year ago. For the second straight year, he was one of the Hurricanes’ top players at the pre-camp NHL Rookie Showcase tournament that ended Monday.
Brind’Amour thinks Ponomarev is close to being an NHLer.
“I don’t think he’s far away,” Brind’Amour said. “He’s had a great summer. We see him here every day, and he’s been working hard. It’s kind of hard to tell. We’ll see. He hasn’t really played at this level. We’ll see, but I think he’s definitely improving.”
Ponomarev was quick to say he thinks he’s ready to make the jump.
“I think yes,” he said last week. “I think I can help this team to raise it up.”
Who flanks Aho?
The other big question at forward is who will play alongside Sebastian Aho on the Hurricanes’ top line. Seth Jarvis manned Aho’s right side for much of last season, and the addition of Bunting gives Carolina a new piece to try on the left side. Svechnikov could also be an option on the left.
So wither Teuvo Teravainen, who is in the final year of his contract?
“We need him,” Brind’Amour said, “all your top guys. … You’re saying, OK, he didn’t play to what we hoped. We need to get him there and he needs to get there, so he knows that. He’s a big part of what we do.”
If Brind’Amour chooses to keep his third line of Jordan Staal centering Jordan Martinook and Jesper Fast together, Teravainen will need to outplay Jarvis, Bunting, Svechnikov or Martin Necas to figure into the top six assuming everyone is healthy. Otherwise, Teravainen could find himself fighting for fourth line ice time with Drury, Ponomarev, Stefan Noesen and Brendan Lemieux.