RALEIGH — The Hurricanes are a week away from opening the 2023-24 NHL season by hosting the Ottawa Senators at PNC Arena next Wednesday before setting off on their annual State Fair road trip to the West Coast.
There are still a handful of questions to be answered before then.
Will Svechnikov be ready?
The biggest unknown as the season approaches is whether star winger Andrei Svechnikov will be ready for the start of it. The 23-year-old remains in a yellow no-contact jersey during practices as he recovers from knee surgery following a season-ending injury in March.
Svechnikov, entering his sixth NHL season, has not been limited in practices. During skating drills, he often leads a pack of players up and down the ice. And while his jersey protects him from being pushed, bumped and checked during practice, the 6-foot-2, 195-pound Russian has still snuck in a shoulder or two of his own here and there during practices.
The eye test says he’s ready, but the Hurricanes will certainly be careful with one of their cornerstone players.
“They’re testing him again today,” Carolina coach Rod Brind’Amour said when asked about Svechnikov’s progress Monday. “Everything is going to be determined on when he’s 100% ready. He’s right there, but we still have some time.”
The Hurricanes used Monday’s practice to try out some lines in the event Svechnikov isn’t ready. Teuvo Teravainen moved into Svechnikov’s normal spot opposite Martin Necas on the second line centered by Jesperi Kotkaniemi, while Jesper Fast was bumped up and reunited with Jordan Staal and Jordan Martinook on Carolina’s shutdown line.
Michael Bunting moved to the top power play unit, and Kotkaniemi was added to the second group to make up for Svechnikov’s removal.
Svechnikov rotated in on the fourth line during practice and was a penalty killer during the power play drills.
“We’re preparing for it a little bit,” Brind’amour said of trying the combinations that subtracted Svechnikov from the equation. “You don’t want to put all the reps there and then he can’t go. So we’re just given some different looks at things and see where it goes.”
If Svechnikov isn’t ready for the start of the season, it could give some of the players on a professional tryout a glimmer of hope at getting a contract. Without Svechnikov, the Hurricanes NHL group at camp has 12 forwards, with Brendan Lemieux presumably holding the final spot.
But Carolina likely won’t want to hit the road for six games in 11 days without reinforcements. There are internal options like Jamieson Rees that could work, or the Hurricanes could opt to give one of their PTO forwards — Zach Aston-Reese, Brandon Perlini and Jayden Halbgewachs are a few of the options — a contract and go that route.
Carolina also has a wealth of defensemen, and going with 11 forwards and seven D is also a possibility if another injury should pop up.
It’s a long shot, but the Hurricanes could also use Felix Unger Sorum as an extra forward as a reward for his impressive first training camp. A second-round pick in this summer’s draft, the Swede who just turned 18 has looked like he belongs and impressed coaches, staff and the front office with his mature play and skill set.
Carolina could play Unger Sorum for up to nine games without burning a year of his three-year entry-level contract. One would have to think Svechnikov would be ready by then as long as there are no setbacks in his recovery.
Brind’Amour said the last two preseason games — Thursday at Nashville and Friday against the Predators at home — will help the team decide what path to take with the roster.
“We’re still trying to make an assessment on, really, other guys,” he said. “So we’ve got a couple games here to figure that out.”
Carolina has several players entering the final year of their respective contracts, including pending big-ticket RFAs Martin Necas and Seth Jarvis, and several UFAs — Teravainen, Martinook, Stefan Noesen and four of the team’s top seven defensemen.
Two of those defensemen — Brett Pesce and Brady Skjei — have been mentioned in trade rumors, but neither felt their contract situation would be a distraction.
“Honestly, I think I’ve done a pretty good job so far just not worrying about it at all,” Skjei said. “I’m going throughout the season doing the same thing. I know If I play the way I know I can play, all that stuff takes care of itself.”
Pesce’s name has been among the most circulated in trade rumors around the league, but the newly married 28-year-old is focused on the task at hand.
“Yeah, super easy,” he said when asked if it was easy to put aside the off-ice distractions. “I’m here. It’s where I want to be. So I’m just focusing on hockey.”