There were eyes everywhere Thursday, on the ice, in the stands, high above the rink. These are always new eyes taking a new look, some still watching for the first time in person, others observing from a new perspective with new responsibility.
The Carolina Hurricanes essentially have completed training camp. The roster, shorn of 10 players Thursday, will be trimmed by two more before the season opens at the end of next week. Two preseason games remain, including Friday at home against the Buffalo Sabres.
The assessment is over for new head coach Bill Peters, whose intensive offseason video study was no replacement for actually watching these players practice, observing them interact on the road, seeing them play in preseason games. Decision time has come for new general manager Ron Francis, now calling the shots after years as Jim Rutherford’s assistant.
With a new general manager and a new coach, this was a situation ripe for someone to take advantage, even before Jordan Staal’s broken leg. There’s still much to sort out, but no one has benefited more from the regime change than Victor Rask.
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The 21-year-old Swedish center was ticketed for the minors when camp opened and has yet to play an NHL game, but it won’t be long for that. The two goals he scored in Wednesday night’s loss at the Columbus Blue Jackets merely reaffirmed his position on the roster. Peters, seeing him live for the first time, has liked what he has seen. Francis has concurred.
“I’d never seen him play until this year, so I’m not the guy to reference back to what he was like earlier in his career,” Peters said. “All I know is he’s a real good player and a responsible player and he makes plays and he’s good on the power play and he’s a good faceoff guy. That’s a lot of positive things. That’s what I see.”
Rask may have benefited most from all these new eyes, not to mention the vacancy created by Staal’s injury, but he put himself in this position long before Staal fell tangled to the ice. He learned from his first pro season in North America last year, spent the summer getting into shape and came into camp prepared.
The Hurricanes were ready to take a fresh look at Rask and he continues to make them notice. Thursday, Peters moved Rask to what is essentially the second-line spot with Jeff Skinner and Elias Lindholm.
“I got to keep challenging this guy,” Peters said. “He’s stepped up to everything we’ve laid out in front of him. That’s the next step, to see if he can be the center for that line and consistently generate offense.”
Contrast Rask’s situation to that of Ryan Murphy, the team’s first-round draft pick in 2011. The Hurricanes were dying for Murphy to step up and claim a spot among the team’s top six defensemen as a power-play specialist. That competition, a frustrated Peters said Thursday, remains open – and he wants a resolution “sooner rather than later.”
“Murph’s a puck guy who runs a power play,” Peters said. “That’s what he did as a junior, that’s what he did for Canada in the world junior tournament, that’s why he got drafted in the first round. So it’s time. For me, it’s time.”
Murphy is only 21, but opportunities like this don’t come along often in any career. This wasn’t a make-or-break training camp for Murphy – he’s all but certain to make the roster by default – but it might have been the best chance he’ll ever have.
This was the best chance Rask will ever have, and he stepped into the breach and made the most of it. More than anyone else, he opened eyes that were willing to see what everyone had to offer.