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Connor Bedard’s linemates, goalie controversies, more: NHL’s 10 most intriguing roster battles


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A life-changing opportunity is waiting for top prospects and fringe roster players when NHL training camps and preseason open. A young prospect on an entry-level contract or a borderline player on a two-way contract stands to gain hundreds of thousands of dollars by upgrading from an AHL to an NHL salary. A bad showing, however, could mean landing on waivers and having to move to a new city.

Often, there’s a lot on the line for more established names, too. There could be an opportunity to play higher up the lineup next to the team’s star center or a chance to push for a promotion into the top-four blue line. Winning a bigger role could juice a player’s numbers, which could earn them millions more on their next deal. A new head coach’s arrival could mean a blank slate for the entire team.

Top players and established veterans are often going through the motions, but for others, the next 4-5 weeks of camp and preseason presents a huge opportunity. Today, we’ll focus on some of the most intriguing roster/lineup battles and questions around the league. Every team has interesting situations to monitor, so inevitably I’m going to miss some important storylines, but these are the ones that initially caught my eye.

Florida Panthers: How will they make up for Aaron Ekblad’s and Brandon Montour’s injuries?

Gustav Forsling is the only guaranteed member of Florida’s top-four defense for the start of the season. Every other spot is up for grabs. How is a Stanley Cup finalist so short on the back end? Well, Aaron Ekblad and Brandon Montour are injured and won’t be back in the lineup until sometime between November and January, according to GM Bill Zito. Marc Staal and Radko Gudas left as unrestricted free agents.

The Panthers have a slew of contenders that will be jockeying to step up.

Oliver Ekman-Larsson was a quality shutdown second-pair defenseman for the Canucks in 2021-22 but was bought out after a disastrous performance last season. OEL’s mobility and defensive play looked heavily compromised, but he was returning from a broken foot he suffered while playing for Sweden at the World Championship. Could a clean bill of health this summer and a fresh start on a better team revitalize his career?

Josh Mahura was an excellent waiver pickup last fall. He blossomed in a third-pair role and quickly earned a midseason extension. Could he follow a Forsling-like trajectory and seize a top-four opportunity?

Mike Reilly was signed to a one-year contract in free agency. Boston had a logjam with five left-shot defenders on one-way contracts last season (Hampus LindholmMatt GrzelcykDerek Forbort, Reilly and Jakub Zboril). Reilly’s skill set as a smooth-skating puck-mover with limited penalty-killing value was redundant with Grzelcyk already there, so he was the odd man out and was waived and demoted to the AHL. It was only a year ago in 2021-22 that Reilly was playing second-pair minutes and driving solid results, so he could be a dark horse.

Niko Mikkola and Dmitry Kulikov are also offseason additions. Both are best suited to a third-pair role, but they have top-four experience, which makes them legitimate challengers.

All of these defensemen are left-handed, so with Ekblad and Montour being righties, a big edge in this competition could go to whoever can play their opposite side comfortably.

Winnipeg Jets: Who will replace Pierre-Luc Dubois as the second-line center?

Winnipeg’s future at center is a mystery.

The Jets landed a solid package in the Dubois trade but it still leaves a hole in the 2C position. Gabriel Vilardi, who was drafted in 2017 as a center, will be one of the top contenders for that role. He started his career playing down the middle but broke out playing on the right wing last season, with 23 goals and 41 points in 63 games. Playing center is a significantly more demanding position, so the question is whether Vilardi can maintain that top-six breakout form there, or whether moving to the flank was an essential ingredient for the big step he took.

Cole Perfetti is the other top candidate. Perfetti was the Jets’ top pick in 2020 and is coming off a solid rookie campaign. Like Vilardi, he was initially drafted as a center, but played on the wall last season.

It’s plausible that Vilardi and Perfetti could play on a line together, with one playing center and the other wing. Both are enormously talented players but they struggle at faceoffs and aren’t very quick skaters, so the transition to center could be challenging. In a worst-case scenario where both of them look out of sorts, Vladislav Namestnikov could be an insurance policy. Namestnikov spent time as Winnipeg’s 2C down the stretch when Dubois was moved up to the 1C role because of Scheifele’s shift to the wing, scoring 10 points in 20 games for Winnipeg.

It’s critical that at least one of, and ideally both, Vilardi and Perfetti develop into viable full-time center options because Mark Scheifele’s pending UFA status could end up leaving a gaping hole in the 1C role too.

Columbus Blue Jackets: How will Mike Babcock sort the center situation and right defense logjam?

Columbus’ right-side defense is overflowing with options: Damon SeversonErik GudbransonAndrew PeekeAdam BoqvistNick Blankenburg and top prospect David Jiricek among them. All of them except Jiricek are on one-way contracts.

Severson is a top-four lock and Gudbranson will be an everyday player, in part because of how much he’s paid. After that, it gets really interesting. Boqvist, 23, has tons of offensive and power-play potential. Peeke’s skill set as a stay-at-home defender who struggles to move the puck makes him a bit redundant next to Gudbranson. But he makes $2.75 million per year for the next three seasons, so this isn’t somebody you can just keep on the sidelines for too long. Blankenburg is a handy sparkplug and deserves NHL minutes, but he can be sent down without requiring waivers so that could negatively influence his odds. Then there’s Jiricek, who was drafted No. 6 in 2022 and profiles as a future top-pair stud, as a wild card.

The Blue Jackets’ center situation is worth watching, too. Boone Jenner and Adam Fantilli will likely be the top-six centers but at third-line center, there could be three viable options. Dmitri Voronkov is a highly anticipated signing out of Russia, Cole Sillinger will be looking to bounce back after a rough sophomore year and then there’s Jack Roslovic, the uber-talented but inconsistent and defensively spotty forward who makes $4 million.

Mike Babcock will have some hard decisions to make on where to slot different players.

Chicago Blackhawks: Who will play with Connor Bedard and Taylor Hall?

I know, I know, there are countless first-line centers we could ask the “who will be the third winger on his line?” question about. The difference is we’ve never seen Bedard play in the NHL — the question isn’t as interesting when it’s an established 1C and we know how good he is. All eyes will be on Bedard after his transcendent draft year and the manic hype that came with it.

Taylor Hall should be a lock to play on the left side with Bedard but there are a few possibilities for who could round the line out. Lukas Reichel, the No. 17 pick in 2020, lit up the AHL and looked excellent with 15 points in 23 NHL games down the stretch. Will he join the top line (would the Hawks be comfortable with two first-year NHLers on the same line?) or could he be asked to drive the second line, especially since he built solid chemistry with Andreas Athanasiou? Reichel’s naturally a left winger so while bumping him to the top line would make for a tremendously skilled line, there could be too many complicating factors.

Tyler Johnson could be a decent option for the right-wing vacancy. Johnson has a long track record of playing center and is excellent at faceoffs, in addition to his skill, so he could support Bedard defensively. Taylor Raddysh is a big-bodied winger who scored 20 goals last season, so he’d be another consideration.

The winner of the final top-line spot will influence Bedard’s season and the Calder Trophy race.

New York Rangers: Will Kaapo Kakko and Alexis Lafrenière both win full-time top-six opportunities?

The Rangers have a couple of established duos in the top six. Mika Zibanejad and Chris Kreider are used to playing together on the top line, while Vincent Trocheck and Artemi Panarin spent most of last year together on the second line. If new head coach Peter Laviolette defaults to those combinations, it would leave a right-wing spot open on each line.

Kakko was a strong fit with Zibanejad and Kreider during short stretches last season. In 229 five-on-five minutes together last season, the trio controlled a dominant 59 percent share of shot attempts and scoring chances, while outscoring opponents 10-6. If Zibanejad and Kreider stay together, Kakko feels like the most logical choice to round them out. In this scenario, you’d then be left with Blake Wheeler and Lafrenière fighting for a final top-six right-wing opportunity.

The debate about whether Lafrenière, a natural left winger, should play his off wing has raged for a long time. Laviolette could be more willing to give that a look compared to his predecessor Gerard Gallant.

But maybe the answer is to forget about the already established duos and construct a new, balanced top nine, where line Nos. 1 to 3 all play similar minutes. Filip Chytil’s breakout certainly makes that more realistic than in years past. Whatever Laviolette chooses, he needs to find a way to use Kakko and Lafrenière in more prime offensive situations, playing top-six-like minutes.

Calgary Flames: Is there a path for Dustin Wolf to make the NHL?

Dustin Wolf is ready for a fair shot in the NHL. The trophy cabinet says it all. Wolf was honored as the best WHL goaltender for two straight years and followed it up by being named the most outstanding goalie in the AHL in back-to-back seasons. Calgary’s goaltending was a massive disappointment last year, finishing 31st in five-on-five team save percentage, so it’s not as if there’s stellar play ahead of him. But there are obstacles, nonetheless.

Jacob Markstrom isn’t going anywhere as the club’s No. 1 with a full no-movement clause. Dan Vladar was expected to be a trade chip this summer, but the goalie market has been frozen with Connor Hellebuyck’s and John Gibson’s futures uncertain, so he’s still on the roster.

What happens if Wolf looks strong in camp and preseason? Will they send him down because he’s exempt from waivers and recall him midseason if and when an opportunity to ship out Vladar emerges? If Markstrom struggles again, will the Flames be forced to lean on Wolf, simply to keep the team playoff competitive?

Carolina Hurricanes: Could one of the top-six wingers get relegated to fourth-line duties?

Carolina is ridiculously deep on the blue line, and it’s no secret. But the logjam of top-six wingers the Hurricanes have, and the questions it poses for how the forward lines will be constructed, has been flying under the radar.

After the Michael Bunting signing, the Canes have five top-six caliber wingers (Bunting, Seth JarvisAndrei SvechnikovMartin Necas and Teuvo Teravainen) but only four top-six roles to go around. Necas led the team with 71 points, so he should be a lock, as should Svechnikov, who produced at a 70-point pace. Bunting is the splashy addition and found success in a first-line role as a complementary piece for Auston Matthews, so he should earn a left-wing spot next to Sebastian Aho. That would leave Jarvis and Teravainen, who are both coming off down years, fighting for the final top-six wing job. Jarvis bounced back in the playoffs and has breakout potential because of his age, so you might look at Teravainen as the odd man out, but that’ll be established in training camp.

The next question is where you’d slot the winger who loses out on a top-six role. Carolina’s third line of Jordan StaalJordan Martinook and Jesper Fast was outstanding in a checking role last season. Do you really want to break up a line that throttled opponents by driving 63 percent of scoring chances? You may not want to but the alternative would be using somebody like Teravainen in a fourth-line role, which would be an awkward fit.

Buffalo Sabres: Will one of the top prospects win a top-nine job because of Jack Quinn’s injury?

Jack Quinn had a really promising rookie campaign but will miss a decent chunk of the 2023-24 first half because of an Achilles injury. That creates an open top-six opportunity and a ripple effect of questions further down the lineup.

Buffalo’s top line with Tage ThompsonJeff Skinner and Alex Tuch should stay intact. Dylan Cozens and JJ Peterka are locked for the second line as well, which leaves one vacancy on the right wing to round out that trio. Is filling it as simple as sliding Victor Olofsson up? Olofsson is a one-dimensional goal scorer with major defensive warts and was a trade candidate before Quinn’s injury.

Jiri Kulich and Matt Savoie are a pair of excellent blue-chip forward prospects. Kulich, 19, scored 46 points in 64 AHL games last season, while Savoie was the club’s pick at No. 9 in 2022. Could either one be ready to slot into a second-line spot, or even a third-line role, if somebody else on the roster gets promoted into the top six? Both are still exceptionally young so it would take a heck of a training camp and preseason.

Could a center like Casey Mittelstadt or Peyton Krebs shift to the wing and into a top-six role with Cozens?

Buffalo has a lot of different top-nine combinations it could experiment with.

Boston Bruins: Morgan Geekie vs. Trent Frederic — who will assume the third-line center role?

Patrice Bergeron’s and David Krejci’s retirements will put a lot of stress on Boston’s center-ice situation. Pavel Zacha will slide to the middle as the ostensible first-line center, while Charlie Coyle will likely move up to the 2C role. The success of Boston’s 3C will be critical because Zacha and Coyle are already playing higher in the lineup than they should, meaning they’ll need all the help they can get from the third line.

Morgan Geekie and Trent Frederic appear to be the top contenders to fill that 3C role heading into training camp. Geekie excelled as Seattle’s fourth-line center last season and could have breakout potential in a bigger role. Frederic, meanwhile, can play all three forward positions. The bruising forward broke out with 17 goals and 31 points last season but his NHL production was anemic before that and he’d have to adjust without Coyle if he ended up on the third line.

This is a big opportunity for both players to see what they can do in expanded roles.

Vegas Golden Knights: Who will step up to replace Reilly Smith?

Reilly Smith became a cap casualty to afford Ivan Barbashev’s extension. Now the Golden Knights will have to affordably replace his stellar two-way play and the 26 goals he pitched in.

The Golden Knights have a few intriguing players who could step up as full-time top-nine contributors. Brett Howden only scored 13 points in 54 games during the regular season, but he broke out with 10 points in 22 playoff games as the third piece on a line with Chandler Stephenson and Mark Stone. It’d be massive if he could fit there full-time.

William Karlsson will have an opening on both wings. Nicolas Roy is a big, versatile forward who could move up the lineup and onto Karlsson’s wing. Roy is a reliable two-way player and has chipped in with 30-plus points during each of the last two seasons. Paul Cotter, 23, scored 13 goals in 55 regular-season games and would be another option. Mike Amadio offered steady secondary scoring in a limited bottom-six role last year — could he step into a bigger role? There’s Pavel Dorofeyev, a 22-year-old prospect who buried seven goals in the 18 NHL games he saw last year. He has the highest pure skill and scoring ability of these wing options, but he’s also the most one-dimensional player, which needs to improve considering Karlsson’s line will get difficult matchups.

Vegas has a lot of bubble top-nine wingers. It’ll be fascinating to see who can break out.

Honorable mentions

Anaheim Ducks: Which top prospects, such as Leo Carlsson, Pavel Mintyukov and Olen Zellweger, will make the team?

Detroit Red Wings: How will they settle their blue-line logjam?

Montreal Canadiens: Will Kirby Dach or Alex Newhook be used at center? Which one of them will ride shotgun with Nick Suzuki and Cole Caufield on the top line?

Pittsburgh Penguins: Who will win a top-six job to start the season due to Jake Guentzel’s injury?

“There he goes. One of God's own prototypes.

A high-powered mutant of some kind, never even considered for mass production.

Too weird to live, and too rare to die.”

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