Positional Battles to Watch in the NHL Preseason

Nicholas GossCorrespondent ISeptember 12, 2013

Positional Battles to Watch in the NHL Preseason

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    One of the most exciting parts of the preseason is watching positional battles unfold.

    This is the time of the year when young NHLers and top prospects attempt to impress the coaching staff and earn a permanent roster spot. But not all positional battles are amongst younger players. Many of these competitions involve veterans who are trying to prove they still deserve an important role on an NHL team at the end of their careers.

    With training camps underway, let's look at 10 important positional battles to keep a close eye on during the preseason.

Boston Bruins Third-Pairing Defensemen

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    Position Battle: Fifth and sixth defensemen

    Likely Participants: Torey Krug, Matt Bartkowski, Dougie Hamilton, Joe Morrow

    The Boston Bruins have a problem most teams would love to have, and that's an abundance of talented young defensemen who are all ready to play an important role at the NHL level.

    Unfortunately for these young prospects, the Bruins already have four veteran defensemen occupying six starting spots on the blue line, including captain Zdeno Chara, Dennis Seidenberg, Johnny Boychuk and Adam McQuaid.

    The players with the best chances to win a third-pairing role are Torey Krug and Dougie Hamilton.

    Krug enjoyed a breakout postseason last year with four goals in his first five games, while also playing strong defense and moving the puck well. He also brings an element of speed and mobility that the Bruins currently lack on the blue line.

    Hamilton has tremendous size—6'5", 199 pounds—and offensive skill. He's a future No. 1 defenseman and needs NHL experience to develop the defensive aspect of his game. Playing alongside a veteran such as Chara or Seidenberg would benefit him greatly.

    Matt Bartkowski is another NHL-ready defenseman, but he's not better than Krug, and Hamilton has more potential. It's too bad, because he's definitely ready for a full-time NHL role, but there just aren't enough open spots on the Boston blue line.

    The likely scenario for Bartkowski and Joe Morrow is playing first-pairing role in the AHL for the Providence Bruins.

Calgary Flames Starting Goaltender

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    Position Battle: Starting goaltender

    Likely Participants: Reto Berra, Joey McDonald, Karri Ramo, Joni Ortio, Laurent Brossoit

    The Calgary Flames have five goaltenders listed on their NHL roster, and none of them have a fantastic case to be the opening day starter over the competition.

    Calgary has not prepared well for the retirement of longtime No. 1 goalie Miikka Kiprusoff, which has left the franchise with a lot of depth at the position but very little top-tier talent.

    The players with the best chance to win the starting job are Joey McDonald, Reto Berra and Karri Ramo. McDonald has the most NHL experience, but his recent performances would indicate that he's not No. 1 goalie material. He has a career record of 39-57-14 with a 3.01 GAA.

    Berra is the best choice to start in net based on his talent, athleticism and size (6'4" and 194 pounds). But he will have to earn it during the preseason and training camp because the competition for the No. 1 job is wide open at this point.

Chicago Blackhawks Second-Line Center

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    Position Battle: Second-line center

    Likely Participants:Brandon Pirri, Patrick Sharp, Brandon Saad, Michal Handzus, Marcus Kruger

    Michal Handzus filled in very well at center on the Blackhawks' second line last season after being acquired from the San Jose Sharks at the trade deadline. While the veteran forward brings tremendous size, experience and hockey intelligence to that role, Handzus' playmaking skills and speed aren't what they used to be earlier in his career.

    As head coach Joel Quenneville searches for a new second-line center, the first person to get an opportunity will probably be top prospect Brandon Pirri. The 22-year-old forward led the AHL in scoring last season with 76 points and provides the level of playmaking skill, vision and mobility that Chicago is looking for in a second-line center.

    There's no question that he's ready for an important NHL role after developing his skill set at the minor league level for three seasons.

    If the Blackhawks don't think Pirri is a good fit on the second line, expect Calder Trophy finalist Brandon Saad, veteran Patrick Sharp and fourth-line center Marcus Kruger to get a look at this position. Sharp and Saad are more suited to be wingers, but the team's lack of depth down the middle may force one of these players into a center role.

    The likely outcome is that Pirri wins the job, but if that doesn't happen, Quenneville will have some tough decisions to make.

Boston Bruins Third-Line Wingers

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    Position Battle: Third-line left and right wings

    Likely Participants: Jordan Caron, Daniel Paille, Carl Soderberg, Reilly Smith, Jared Knight, Ryan Spooner

    The Bruins' third line was awful last season and prevented head coach Claude Julien from having the ideal amount of scoring depth. It also didn't help that veteran center Chris Kelly had one of the worst seasons of his career following a career-high 20-goal campaign in 2011-12.

    Kelly will remain in his role as the third-line center, but the spots on his wings are up for grabs. Jordan Caron has the best chance to win one of the jobs because of his size and familiarity with the Bruins' style of play, but he's been a bit of a disappointment as a former first-round pick who hasn't earned a permanent spot on the roster in the last three years.

    Carl Soderberg also has a strong chance to be the left wing on the third line. He's an offensively gifted player with good size, an accurate shot and a high hockey IQ. He's inexperienced at the NHL level after spending his entire pro career overseas, but he has the most potential of all the players competing for third-line roles.

    The wild card here is Daniel Paille, who enjoyed his best season in Boston last year as a staple of the league's best fourth line. His offensive production skyrocketed and he's certainly deserving of a more important role. However, breaking up the "Merlot Line" of Gregory Campbell, Shawn Thornton and Paille when they have such amazing chemistry would be a foolish move.

    The most likely scenario is a third line of Kelly, Soderberg and Caron on opening night. Spooner and Knight are still another year away from being ready for a full-time NHL role.

Anaheim Ducks Goaltending

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    Position Battle: Starting and backup goaltender

    Likely Participants: Viktor Fasth, Jonas Hiller, John Gibson

    The emergence of 30-year-old rookie Viktor Fasth, along with the steady play of veteran Jonas Hiller, gave the Anaheim Ducks one of the best goaltending duos in the league last season. As a result, the team finished ninth in goals against and earned the second-best record in the Western Conference.

    These two players have the best chance to be the top two goalies on the Ducks roster next season, but top prospect John Gibson won't make it easy for them. The 20-year-old goalie was the MVP of the 2013 World Junior Championships as a member of the gold medal-wining Team USA squad. He's also been one of the OHL's best goalies over the last two seasons with a combined record of 38-19-1 record for the Kitchener Rangers.

    Gibson represents the future of the Anaheim net. He's arguably the top goalie prospect in the world, but the likely outcome for him is spending a full year in the AHL for the Norfolk Admirals. With that said, it should shock no one if Gibson earns a spot on the NHL roster at the end of training camp.

Dallas Stars First-Line Right Wing

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    Position Battle: First-line right wing

    Likely Participants: Alex Chiasson, Valeri Nichushkin, Erik Cole

    The Dallas Stars have an open spot on their first line at right wing next to new No. 1 center Tyler Seguin and superstar left wing Jamie Benn.

    The candidate best suited for the job is 2013 first-round pick Valeri Nichushkin. He has the speed and goal-scoring ability to form strong chemistry with Benn and Seguin. He also has the physical, power forward-type of game that both Benn and Seguin lack. He's a perfect compliment to these players, and based on his skill set, the Russian should start on the top line as a rookie.

    Unlike most young players with little or no NHL experience, Nichushkin wants the puck on his stick and shows great composure on the ice.

    If Nichushkin doesn't prove he deserves a first-line role, veteran winger Erik Cole is the next-best option for new head coach Lindy Ruff based on his wealth of experience as a top-six player.

Toronto Maple Leafs Starting Goaltender

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    Position Battle: Starting goaltender

    Likely Participants: Jonathan Bernier, James Reimer

    After posting a 19-8-5 record and backstopping the Toronto Maple Leafs to their first playoff appearance in nine years, James Reimer was not handed the starting goaltender job for the 2013-14 season. Instead, the Leafs acquired Los Angeles Kings backup Jonathan Bernier to provide competition for the No. 1 role.

    Even though Reimer has more experience as a starting goaltender, Bernier has more talent, athleticism and potential. He's composed in net, and has better rebound control and puck-handling skills than Reimer.

    With that said, the Quebec native has never been a full-time starter for an Original Six team. Reimer has this experience and understands the pressure and expectations placed on the No. 1 goalie in the hockey-crazed market of Toronto.

    Head coach Randy Carlyle usually doesn't settle on a clear-cut No. 1 until he sees regular season performances from these players, but after making Bernier the highest-paid goalie on the team and giving up quality assets to acquire him, it would be surprising if he isn't the starter on opening night.

    This is by far the most intriguing position battle in training camps.

Pittsburgh Penguins Sixth Defenseman

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    Position Battle: Sixth defensemen

    Likely Participants: Derrick Pouliot, Simon Despres, Brian Dumoulin, Deryk Engelland

    The Pittsburgh Penguins have five veteran players who will likely occupy the first five of six starting spots on the blue line to begin the season. Those defensemen are Kris Letang, Rob Scuderi, Matt Niskanen, Paul Martin and Brooks Orpik.

    The sixth defenseman role should be up for grabs during training camp, and there are many talented young players who will compete for the job.

    The player with the best chance to earn the position is Simon Despres, who after 51 NHL games, is ready for a permanent role with the Penguins. He's a strong skater who moves the puck well and has a rapidly improving defensive game. His playmaking skills and high hockey IQ make him a trustworthy player in all types of situations, including special teams.

    Pouliot will provide stiff competition, because the former No. 8 overall draft pick has the talent needed to be a top-pairing defenseman at the NHL level for a long time, but at this stage of his career, his defensive game isn't where it needs to be for a full-time role in Pittsburgh.

    Penguins head coach Dan Bylsma has a lot of depth on the blue line, but not many spots on the NHL roster. It's a good problem to have for a team that struggled defensively in the playoffs last year against the Bruins.

Florida Panthers First- and Second-Line Centers

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    Position Battle: First- and second-line centers

    Likely Participants: Aleksander Barkov, Nick Bjugstad

    The Florida Panthers are starting to build an impressive group of young forwards through the draft. Two of their recent first-round picks expected to make the NHL roster this season are Aleksander Barkov and Nick Bjugstad.

    Both of these forwards have strong two-way games and possess better defensive abilities than most highly-skilled forwards. They back check consistently, fight for pucks in the corners and are willing to block shots.

    As the more NHL-ready of the two, Barkov is the best choice for the top line. He's a fantastic playmaker and would be able to set up Calder Trophy winner Jonathan Huberdeau with quality scoring chances because of his puck-handling skills and high hockey IQ.

Pittsburgh Penguins Starting Goaltender

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    Position Battle: Starting goaltender

    Likely Participants: Tomas Vokoun, Marc-Andre Fleury

    The Pittsburgh Penguins chances of winning the Stanley Cup hinges on the performance of their goaltending.

    This could be a problem, because Pittsburgh has no clear-cut choice to start in net. Marc-Andre Fleury was benched in last year's playoffs after allowing 17 goals in four games and didn't get his job back. Fleury has been a solid regular season goaltender, but his recent postseason failures won't instill much confidence in his teammates.

    Tomas Vokoun, for the most part, was excellent in the 2013 playoffs with a .933 save percentage and a 2.01 GAA. He's the most logical choice to be the starter, but as a former first overall draft pick who's making $5 million per season, Fleury will probably get another chance to keep his job.

    With that said, Fleury's first day of training camp didn't go very well. Josh Yohe of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review tweeted some of the details (four separate tweets from Thursday):

    • Fleury just allowed a goal that can't be described. It was an own goal. I will leave it at that.
    • Fleury has allowed two goals on two shots. Glass and Adams are your goal scorers.

    • Fleury has now allowed three goals on three shots. At least Crosby scored on the last one. Sounds better than Glass or Adams.
    • A thought on Fleury: It's the first day of camp. He usually looks bad in camp. No big deal. But...surely not the day he wanted to have.

     

    Nicholas Goss is an NHL columnist at Bleacher Report. He was a credentialed writer at the 2011 and 2013 Stanley Cup Final, the 2012 NHL playoffs and the 2013 NHL draft. All salary information via CapGeek.

    A thought on Fleury: It's the first day of camp. He usually looks bad in camp. No big deal. But...surely not the day he wanted to have.