Lee Stempniak, who has seen a lot in his NHL career, was in for a couple of firsts on Friday.
Stempniak had never started a preseason training camp on a team missing its head coach.
More so, the veteran forward said he has never been on a team quite as young as the Carolina Hurricanes.
“Not really, not with young guys playing this prominent of a role, especially the defensemen,” Stempniak said.
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Stempniak and Canes center Jay McClement both were rookies with the St. Louis Blues in 2005-2006. Both now are 33, feeling a bit like old salts in a Canes locker room at PNC Arena where youth surely is being served.
“It’s young,” Stempniak said, smiling. “I think it’s a team with a lot of potential. I think a lot of the success for our team is going to be harnessing our potential. Guys need to take the next step individually and the new guys coming in need to fit in and complement the players who are here and find a role.”
Stempniak, a free agent after last season, signed a two-year contract with the Canes on July 1. A year ago, he went to the New Jersey Devils training camp on a professional tryout, earned a contract and then put together a very solid year, finishing with 19 goals and 32 assists.
The Canes are Stempniak’s 10th NHL team and while he had a phone conversation with Carolina coach Bill Peters, he will have to wait to meet him. Peters is serving as an assistant coach for Canada in the World Cup and won’t be in training camp until Team Canada has finished playing.
Team Finland finished up Thursday with a loss to Russia in the World Cup. Finnish forwards Teuvo Teravainen and Sebastian Aho were in Raleigh on Friday, although Canes general manager Ron Francis said the two would get a few days off and join camp sessions Monday.
The two should fit it well. Teravainen, obtained in a trade with the Chicago Blackhawks, just turned 22. Aho, a second-round draft pick by Carolina in 2015, is 19.
Much has been made of the Canes being one of the league’s youngest teams and it is a big selling point in marketing the team. The Canes could have 12 or so skaters who are 24 or younger on their roster for opening night.
But is there some danger in being too young?
“This is a young man’s league,” defenseman Ron Hainsey said. “I don’t think it’s a danger. Speed, skill is the name of the game.”
Hainsey, 35, noted the excitement generated by Team North America at the World Cup, with a roster of players 23 and younger.
“The more speed and skill that’s out there, I think the more the fans will be into it,” Hainsey said. “That’s just the way it’s going.”
Forward Jeff Skinner, only 24 but entering his seventh NHL season, noted most of the younger guys do have NHL experience. Teravainen won a Stanley Cup with the Blackhawks. Defensemen Noah Hanifin, Jaccob Slavin and Brett Pesce — Slavin the oldest at 22 — all played extensively as rookies last season.
“Some young guys stepped up and played some really big roles for us,” Skinner said. “Young guys are eager to learn, to come in and prove themselves.”
With Peters in Toronto, assistant coaches Steve Smith and Rod Brind’Amour headed up the two on-ice practices Friday along with the Charlotte Checkers staff.
“I thought it was a really good first day,” Smith said. “I thought the guys moved the puck crisply and the guys were engaged. I felt the guys were really excited to be back.”
Peters, a meticulous type, left behind detailed practice plans to be followed until he returns, possibly as late as Oct. 2. But Smith said Peters doesn’t have enough time to watch or critique practice videos from Canes camp.
“He shot us a text and said, ‘Good luck, I’ll be back on the second, please have the guys ready,’” Smith said.