Much like last summer, Rod Brind’Amour has spent considerable time mulling over various lineups for the Carolina Hurricanes.
The one name the Canes head coach still is not sure about in the lineup: Justin Williams.
Brind’Amour played golf with Williams and the newly retired Cam Ward on Wednesday at MacGregor Downs in Cary. A day later, he remained noncommittal about Williams’ eventual decision -- retire or return -- other than to say it should come soon.
Williams, the Canes captain, does have a name plate up in the team’s Raleigh Center Ice locker room. The locker stall is there waiting for him. Will he be using it?
“That’s the million dollar question,” Brind’Amour said in an N&O interview Thursday. “Obviously I’ve talked to him and I have a pretty good idea where his head is and where his heart is. He’s going to make a good decision really soon here and it’s going to be the right one, whatever it is.
“From our standpoint, if he plays it’s awesome and it’s easy. If he doesn’t then you know what, we’ll move on and we’ll be all right. He’s obviously thought about it forever. If he doesn’t (return) then it’s the right thing for him.”
Brind’Amour said for now, with Williams unsigned, he has to plan as if Williams won’t be with the team, that he will decide to retire at 37. “Then if he doesn’t it’s almost like an addition and a huge addition,” Brind’Amour said.
In looking at potential lineups, Brind’Amour said he has Sebastian Aho, Jordan Staal, Erik Haula and Lucas Wallmark penciled in as the centers. There is some flexibility, he noted, in that forwards Jordan Martinook and Teuvo Teravainen could be options at center.
“We’re pretty solid there,” Brind’Amour said.
Martin Necas, the Canes’ first-round draft pick in 2017, made the Canes roster after preseason training camp a year ago but spent nearly all of last season with the Charlotte Checkers in the American Hockey League.
Necas, 20, was drafted as a center, but the speedy Czech Republic native spent much of last season on the wing with the Checkers. That likely will be the plan should Necas again win a spot on the NHL roster in camp, which begins Sept. 12.
“To give him the best chance to make it I think he’s probably a winger,” Brind’Amour said. “Right now I look at it a lot like Aho a few years ago. I think we all agree that’s a tough position, center. It’s just a lot of responsibilities for a young kid.
“Marty’s best chance to play now is the wing. Do I think he’s a center man? Yes, at some point. We’ll see.”
Brind’Amour was hesitant at first to play Aho at center but the Finnish forward proved last season he can handle all those responsibilities. And with Aho’s contract situation settled, even if it took an offer sheet July 1 from the Montreal Canadiens to get it done, Brind’Amour didn’t have to plan for training camp wondering if Aho will be available or be an extended holdout.
The Canes preferred a contract with a longer term, but they matched the Canadiens’ offer of five years at an average of $8.454 million a year. Unlike other unsigned restricted free agents in the NHL, Aho was set.
“From my standpoint it’s great that we know he’s here,” Brind’Amour said. “We had two months to plan and didn’t have to spend a lot of energy figuring out what if he isn’t here. So that made it easier.
“It didn’t work out probably the way we all wanted it to in a lot of ways. But at the end of the day, he’s here and we’re happy for that. And it will push him, hopefully, to be even better. That’s the whole deal.”
The goalie spot
The Canes went into last season unsure about their goaltending. For much of preseason, Petr Mrazek and Scott Darling were competing, but Darling suffered a hamstring injury in the last preseason game. The Canes picked up Curtis McElhinney on waivers from Toronto and Mrazek and McElhinney became a solid twosome.
Mrazek is back, signed to a new two-year contract, and the Canes traded for veteran James Reimer. Alex Nedeljkovic, after a big year with the Checkers, and another newcomer, Anton Forsberg, will be in the mix.
“I thought that was our most improved area last year,” Brind’Amour said. “I think we have a lot of options. I think (Reimer) has a lot to prove, too. The other two guys are kind of question marks. But that will play out.”
Brind’Amour smiled when asked about his golf round Wednesday with Williams. He did note that Williams was his partner and they were the winning team, which Ward confirmed.
“Yeah, I did have to swap some cash,” Ward joked.