RALEIGH — A year ago this time, the Carolina Hurricanes and the rest of the NHL were gloomily bracing for the worst.
This year, the Canes are optimistically hoping for the best.
The Hurricanes will open preseason training camp Wednesday with team physicals and photos. On Thursday, the 48 players invited to camp take the ice at PNC Arena for their first preseason practice.
Everyones excited, Canes captain Eric Staal said Tuesday. Everyone is in town, the rookie camp is over, well have an influx of young guys coming in. I think everyone is chomping at the bit to get it going.
Last year, a long NHL lockout was looming and the coaches and players faced so much uncertainty in September. It wasnt until January, when the leagues new collective bargaining agreement was approved, that a 48-game regular season finally was played.
This year, normalcy has returned.
Thank goodness, Staal said. It wasnt fun last year talking about those (lockout-related) things. Now its just about the game of hockey and focusing on our group. Its exciting just to be talking about the season.
The Hurricanes have not reached the Stanley Cup playoffs since 2009. A late-season meltdown ended their chances last year, left them with a 19-25-4 record and adds even more urgency to their situation this season.
Perhaps the biggest question for the Canes heading into camp is the status of defenseman Joni Pitkanen, who has been slow to heal from a broke heel bone, an injury suffered in early April. The team hoped to learn Tuesday how much time Pitkanen, the Canes best skating defenseman, might have to miss this season.
But there are other questions, as well:
Who takes Pitkanens minutes?
The Finnish defenseman, when healthy, logs as many minutes as any D-man in the NHL. If Pitkanen is out, minutes will be divided and there will be an opportunity for someone Ryan Murphy, Brett Bellemore, Rasmus Rissanen to not only earn a roster spot but get significant playing time.
It will be tough to replace Joni, defenseman Justin Faulk said. He plays a lot in the game, hes good offensively and great with the puck. It will take someone to step up and fill his shoes.
Murphy, the Canes first-round draft pick in 2011, may be the guy. Canes coach Kirk Muller also has talked of dressing seven defenseman, so it may not just fall to Murphy to fill Pitkanens void.
Who fills the forward spots?
The challenge is daunting: a lot of forwards in camp and a few spots to be won.
Zac Dalpe knows the drill from past camps. So do Riley Nash, Zach Boychuk, Drayson Bowman, Brett Sutter and others.
Added to the mix are Elias Lindholm, the fifth overall pick of this years NHL draft, Nathan Gerbe and Radek Dvorak, a 36-year-old veteran invited to camp on a professional tryout. Rookies Sergey Tolchinsky, Victor Rask and Brock McGinn also will be in camp.
Its a lot of guys, said Gerbe, who was bought out by the Buffalo Sabres after last season and signed with Carolina. Its going to be fun to come in and compete.
Thats what Muller wants in his first full training camp with the Canes: intense competition for spots.
What NHL team doesnt have that? Dalpe said. For all 30 teams, there are competitive jobs to be had. This is my fourth time around and I know how it works.
Where does Jeff Skinner fit?
Muller has talked of starting Skinner on the third line, possibly with Lindholm. He also has talked of using Skinner at center, not at left wing.
Skinner, the 2011 Calder Trophy winner, insists he does not mind playing either position and said its up to the coaching staff to decide the best place for him in the lineup.
But Skinner, who suffered concussions each of the past two seasons, is a big domino. Once he is slotted, it should lead to other decisions on what forwards stay, who goes where and who goes to Charlotte to start the season with the AHL Checkers.
Is the goaltending set?
At first glance, the answer would be yes. Cam Ward, fully recovered from a knee injury, will be the No. 1 goalie and Anton Khudobin will be his backup.
Justin Peters, like Khudobin, has a one-way contract this season. Khudobin signed a one-year, free-agent deal for $800,000, and Peters will be paid $550,000.
Im prepared and I feel good, Peters said this week. Theres always competition but I believe in myself and what Im capable of doing. Im coming in here to make the team like I do every year.
Odds are, Khudobin will be the backup and Peters back in Charlotte. But that will be answered in camp, on the ice.
Is Lindholm ready for the NHL?
The Canes drafted the Swede confident he could be in the lineup this year, at 18. Lindholm then injured a shoulder in the teams prospects development camp in July, limiting his training and conditioning the rest of the summer.
Lindholm played two of the Canes four games in the Traverse City (Mich.) rookie tournament that ended Monday. General manger Jim Rutherford praised his play, saying Lindholms puck skills and vision on the ice were impressive.
But that competition was against other NHL rookies. Lindholm now goes into camp with guys, as Staal said, chomping at the bit.