Camp is underway, the captain has been named, and the season is approaching. There are tons of stories every day about new players and position battles, but it is very hard to keep all of them in context. I'm going to break down the nine biggest questions/battles that we have going into camp in no particular order.
1. How do the top two lines shape up? It is assumed that Briere and Giroux will be centering 1A and 1B with Hartnell most likely sticking with Briere (even though Lavy said he's considering anything) and JVR with Giroux. There are two clear favorites to win the fifth and sixth spots on the top two lines: Jaromir Jagr and Jakub Voracek, but where will they be placed?
2. Who centers the third line? Once again, two favorites with a dark horse. The early money is on the kid, Brayden Schenn. He's supposedly committed to defense this camp, which is great news. The other option is Max Talbot, the new guy from Pittsburgh. Most likely one will play center and the other will play wing unless Michael Nylander can win that center spot (Nylander is here on a tryout, thoguht to have been brought here to play with Jagr, the two have had chemistry before). Wayne Simmonds will most likely play the RW on line 3 unless he wins a top-6 spot.
3. This question can be phrased two ways: Who plays LW on the third line? Where does Andreas Nodl fit? If Schenn does win the 3C spot then this battle is Talbot vs. Nodl for the 3L spot with the loser getting 4L. If Talbot wins the 3C then it's Schenn vs. Nodl for 3L. If Schenn loses that battle, he'll most likely end up in the AHL for some time. People who want to write off Nodl's offensive abilities forget he was a PPG, second round pick from St. Cloud State and still could find his scoring touch given the right line mates (Schenn, Simmonds, Nodl could be the right fit for him).
4. Who are the 12th and 13th forwards? This one is pretty simple: Shelly vs. Sestito vs. Rinaldo. Shelly will be a Flyer, whether its as the 12th man or the 13th man is the question. Sestito and Rinaldo are fighting for a roster spot. Rinaldo has had a lot of positive press since rookie camp a few months ago and has started to look at himself more as a hockey player and less as "certifiably insane"---a term that has come up in describing Rinaldo by teammates. I'm rooting for Rinaldo in this one, I think that he does have some seirous agitator potential... and I would just love to see him beat up on the Chris Neils, Matt Cookes, and Brad Marchands of the league (I can hope, right?).
5. If we need an early season, top-6 call-up, who is the best offensive Phantom? This is a loaded question. Matt Read, in his first full season of pro hockey, is an option. Other viable options are Ben Holmstrom (Phantoms MVP last season), Eric Wellwood (had a cup of coffee with Flyers last year), Jon Kalinsky (had his cup of coffee two years ago), Mike Testwuide (camp darling last year), and Stefan Leigin (former first round pick).
6. If we need a bottom-6 or a grinding Phantom, who is the guy? Holmstrom was the MVP and played all situations---so he has to be the leading candidate right now. Wellwood is also defensibly responsible as is Kalinsky (all three play PK).
7. Who wins the 6th and 7th defensive spots? Andreas Lilja, Matt Walker (who has gotten praise from Homer), and Oscars Bartulis (The Wolf) are the three who have the legitimate shots to win these openings. Lilja and his 35+ contract isn't going anywhere, so he's a lock for one spot. Walker's 1.7 million cap hit hurts his chances compared to the 600k cap hit of Bartulis. Walker really has to shine to make the Flyers this year. Dark horse: Kevin Marshall---former second round pick, stay at home guy, could be a perfect fit to play with the offensive Andrej Meszaros.
8. Who is the best Phantom defensemen? Offensive oriented Erik Gustafsson or defensive Kevin Marshall?
9. Will there be any major surprises? Sean Couturier, Tyler Brown, Jason Akeson, Blake Kessel, Tomas Hyka, and Oliver Lauridson are the guys who have grabbed some headlines over the past few weeks for their good play. Can any of these guys keep it up and play their way onto the roster a la JVR/Pyorala 2009?
Last note: I really don't care about how Sean Couturier plays unless he blows everyone away. He was the 8th pick in the draft, 5th best prospect according to Hockey Prospectus (behind Granlund, MIN; Nugent-Hopkins, EDM (1st OA this year); Ryan Johansen, CBJ; Schenn, PHI). He will progress and he is just 18. This camp is a learning experience and he really doesn't have a spot on this team. All I want from him this year is health and hopefully a strong performance at the World Juniors---he was the only draft eligible player to play last year and could be at least an alternate captain this year.