RALEIGH — Finally.
More than five months have passed since the Carolina Hurricanes last played a hockey game. Most remember that one didn't go well for Carolina - a 6-2 loss to the Tampa Bay Lightning that kept the Canes out of the Stanley Cup playoffs and ended the season with a thud.
But the wait is over. Today, preseason training camp begins as the Hurricanes players go through physical testing. On Saturday, the first official on-ice practices will be held at the RBC Center.
"It's an exciting time of year when you come back and see everybody and everybody is excited to get the season going," forward Jeff Skinner said. "Hopefully we can come together quickly and put together a good season."
A total of 56 players have been invited to camp. The competition should be intense. It's that time again.
Here are five leading questions heading into Canes camp:
WHO MOVES FORWARD?
Canes coach Paul Maurice says it's the most pressing question on everyone's mind.
"Which one of the young players will emerge to take those two openings we have (at forward)?" he says. "It's a question mark not because we don't have good people, but because we have a number of good people who can do it."
The forwards' names are familiar: Zac Dalpe, Zach Boychuk, Drayson Bowman, Jerome Samson. And there are more.
General manager Jim Rutherford has mentioned Dalpe a few times as the player most likely to be on the Canes' top two lines this season. But that's what training camp is for: The strong survive and the others go to Charlotte to play for the Checkers of the American Hockey League.
WHAT ABOUT THE 'D'?
After last season, Rutherford said a top priority was to restructure the back end. The Canes have a new assistant coach, Dave Lewis, who will handle that assignment, and signed free-agent defenseman Tomas Kaberle.
Tim Gleason is being shifted to the right side and will be paired with Joni Pitkanen as the Canes' top defensive duo. But there's also the matter of finding a suitable fit for Kaberle, a former NHL All-Star, and deciding on the best six defensemen.
The Canes have puck-movers in Pitkanen, Kaberle and Jamie McBain, and some bangers in Gleason, Bryan Allen, Jay Harrison and Derek Joslin. A few rookies also could push the older guys.
"A real key to me is how the defense unfolds," Rutherford says.
WHO PLAYS WITH STAAL?
Eric Staal again will center the Canes' top line but who will be his wing men? Erik Cole signed with the Montreal Canadiens after last season. Cory Stillman has retired.
There has been some talk that Jeff Skinner could move up to Staal's line on the left wing, but free-agent signee Alexei Ponikarovsky may get a first look there. On the right side, Jussi Jokinen, newcomer Anthony Stewart and Dalpe are among the names being tossed around.
Jeff Skinner made the leap from the Kitchener Rangers of the Ontario Hockey League to the NHL last season at 18 and won the Calder Trophy as rookie of the year. Now another Kitchener product, defenseman Ryan Murphy, is in the mix as well.
Murphy, 18, was the Canes' first-round draft pick this year and was thought to be the best offensive defenseman in the draft. His speed and puckhandling creativity for the Canes' rookie team in the Traverse City (Mich.) NHL prospect tournament last week made an impression.
"Murphy has the skill level and ability to play in the NHL but that's asking a lot of a young defenseman, to come into the league and play at his age," Rutherford says.
THE SURPRISE OF CAMP?
A year ago, it was Skinner. This year, it could be the player the Canes drafted just after Skinner in 2010.
Defenseman Justin Faulk was a second-round draft pick, went to Minnesota-Duluth last year and as a freshman helped the Bulldogs' win the 2011 NCAA title. He then went to Charlotte, jumping into the Checkers' lineup for the Calder Cup playoffs, and held his own.
Faulk, 19, also had a strong showing in the Traverse City tournament. His conditioning, strength and maturity have led to comparisons to Skinner.
Faulk could really make things interesting - and more crowded - on the back end.
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