For the first time since 2009 the Carolina Hurricanes won’t start preseason training camp being nagged with the same question: Is this the year they return to the Stanley Cup playoffs?
That was answered, finally, last season. With Rod Brind’Amour as their coach, the Canes crashed their way into the playoffs, sent the Washington Capitals packing, won a couple of series in making the Eastern Conference finals and earned respect from a lot of naysayers and doubters — yes, you Don Cherry.
“It’s exciting to come back after a year like that,” Canes center Jordan Staal said at the team’s media day last week. “It makes it easier and makes you excited about the team we have and way we’re moving forward. We want to keep raising the bar and keep pushing each other to raise our own expectations.”
It’s time to start anew. Camp begins Thursday with physicals and physical testing, then the players are back on the ice Friday at PNC Arena. It will be a team missing former captain Justin Williams but with some new faces such as forwards Ryan Dzingel and Erik Haula and defenseman Jake Gardiner.
Here are five pressing questions for camp:
1. Will Justin Faulk be there?
Despite NHL speculation this week about a potential trade to Anaheim, Faulk appears good to go. He scrimmaged with the Canes players Tuesday in an informal workout at Raleigh Center Ice. The Canes released the training camp roster Wednesday and the defenseman was on it.
Faulk, asked Tuesday if a trade to the Ducks had been presented to him for approval, declined to comment -- a friendly but firm response. Remember, Faulk joked after last season that he had been “traded a hundred times, according to media reports.” Maybe the Anaheim talk is No. 101.
Faulk, drafted in 2010 by Carolina, has played his entire career with the Canes and is entering the final year of his contract before becoming an unrestricted free agent . He would make a valuable addition to a team seeking a right-handed shooting D-man with a heavy shot. But he also has a lot of value to the Canes.
2. Will a captain be named?
Brind’Amour apparently will take his time in naming someone to replace Williams.
“I’m not sure what we’re going to do yet,” Brind’Amour said at media day. “We’re not going to have the co-captain stuff. I guarantee that won’t happen. But I’m in no rush. We’ve got good leadership now. I feel good about it.”
Williams, at 37, has taken a maybe/maybe not approach to a possible return this season, although Brind’Amour said, “We’re moving forward as if he’s not going to be here.” And if a captain is named? Brind’Amour said he has several good options while noting of Williams, “He left us in a better place. He helped turn this place around. He gave everything he had.”
3. Who’s the No. 2 goalie?
A year ago, Scott Darling and Petr Mrazek opened camp looking to push each other and compete for the No. 1 job. A year later, Mrazek is the No. 1 guy heading into camp, and the Canes traded for veteran James Reimer, acquiring him from the Florida Panthers (while sending Darling to Florida.)
The Canes will have a glut of goalies to begin camp: Mrazek, Reimer, Alex Nedeljkovic, Anton Forsberg, Callum Booth and Jeremy Helvig are on the 50-man roster. Reimer has a $3.4 million salary hit and is expected to share the net with Mrazek. But the Canes made a trade with the Chicago Blackhawks for Forsberg, a restricted free agent who later filed for arbitration and was awarded a one-year, one-way contract.
Nedeljkovic, a second-round draft pick by Carolina in 2014, was named the AHL Goalie of the Year as the Charlotte Checkers surged to the Calder Cup title last season. He signed a two-year contract with the Canes in June — a two-way arrangement in 2019-20, in which he will be waivers exempt.
“It’s going to be an interesting battle, in my opinion,” Brind’Amour said.
4. Is Necas ready for the NHL?
The past two years have been interesting — and challenging — for Martin Necas, the Canes’ first-round pick in 2017. The speedy forward made the Canes’ opening-night roster in the 2017 camp and made his NHL debut, but soon returned to his native Czech Republic to play another season for HC Kometa Brno. A year ago, he again made the NHL roster out of camp, played seven games for the Canes and scored his first NHL goal, then spent the rest of the season with the AHL Checkers.
Drafted as a center, Necas was used primarily on the wing with the Checkers and had 16 goals and 52 points in 64 games, then 13 points in 18 playoff games. Necas is a right-handed shooter, and the Canes have precious few at forward. It’s a big camp for him.
“It’s up to me, how I’m going to play, how I’m going to work,” Necas said last week. “I want to spend the whole season here this time.”
5. Are the defensive pairs set?
If Faulk stays put probably so, although Trevor van Riemsdyk is coming off shoulder surgery after being injured in the playoffs and his status for the start of the regular season unknown.
Brind’Amour has said van Riemsdyk would be in camp but likely miss some contact work. That will allow staff and management to take longer looks in camp at former first-round picks Haydn Fleury and Jake Bean, as well as new faces such as Chase Priskie, the former Quinnipiac star and Hobey Baker finalist this past season.
The Canes added free agent Jake Gardiner on Saturday, and when camp ends the defensive pairs could be Jaccob Slavin-Dougie Hamilton, possibly Gardiner-Brett Pesce and Faulk with van Riemsdyk. On paper, a solid six. But the Canes may have more moves to make.