Jason Chen, RotoWire
Special to Yahoo Sports
Every year, a number of battles play out during NHL training camps as players try to win bigger roles — or any role at all. Here are the top battles to watch as they play out over the course of this month.
Carolina Hurricanes: Cam Ward vs. Scott Darling
It only took 526 starts, but Ward and his career .909 save percentage finally won’t be considered a locked-in starter. Sure, Ward has the Conn Smythe and the Stanley Cup title to remain a beloved figure in Carolina, but Darling also has a Cup ring and sports a career .923 save percentage, and he’s been waiting for a chance to be a starting goaltender after spending three years as one of the league’s best backups in Chicago. Ward is on the last year of his deal, so a change is imminent.
Detroit Red Wings: Petr Mrazek vs. Jimmy Howard
Last season was supposed to be Mrazek’s big coming-out party, but he finished dead last in both GAA (3.04) and save percentage (.901) among goalies with at least 40 appearances. Despite battling groin and knee injuries for most of the season, Howard was clearly the better goaltender (2.10 GAA, .927 save mark), and the two alternated starts to finish the season. This is a big season for the 25-year-old Mrazek, who’s in the final year of his two-year bridge deal; meanwhile, the 33-year-old Howard is signed for two more years. Howard is penciled in as the starter, but there’s always a chance Mrazek steals the No. 1 job again.
Greiss had the better 2016-17 season, but Halak went 4-0 with a 1.24 GAA and .961 save percentage to close out the season, and along with his more extensive resume, he’ll likely begin as the team’s No. 1. However, if there’s any sign Halak can’t handle the duties, the Islanders won’t hesitate to throw Greiss back in. There’s added motivation for Halak as he enters the season on the final year of his contract, and the 32-year-old will try to cash in one last time as his career winds down.
Philadelphia Flyers: Brian Elliott vs. Michal Neuvirth
Neuvirth is coming off the worst season of his career, having made just 24 starts and posted an .891 save percentage; he missed time due to illness and a concussion. For his part, Elliot is coming off a playoff meltdown in which he was pulled 5:38 into a series-deciding game. Both have a lot to prove, and it won’t be easy with the Flyers, whose highest-paid defenseman is Andrew MacDonald. The best-case scenario would be both goalies contributing a Jennings-caliber season, but it’s far more likely to be a goalie carousel, with the edge going to the younger and more talented Neuvirth.
Winnipeg Jets: Steve Mason vs. Connor Hellebuyck
We know Mason’s the starter, but how long can he really last in the tough Central Division? Hellebuyck struggled after being thrown into the fire last season, but he’s the team’s goalie of the future — it’s only a matter of when, not if. Mason has already failed to hang on to the No. 1 job in Columbus and Philadelphia, and he sports a career .905 save percentage against Western Conference teams.
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Montreal Canadiens: Shea Weber’s partner
Karl Alzner is the current frontrunner to take Andrei Markov’s usual spot, but the best-laid plans can go wrong, too. Jordie Benn is the other obvious candidate to play with Weber, and the pair played well together last year, but Benn’s skill dictates a spot on the lower pairings, not the first. Whoever plays with Weber will have to play against the opposition’s top line, but he’ll also get the chance to set up Weber’s blueline bombs.
Philadelphia Flyers: Ivan Provorov vs. Shayne Gostisbehere
Gostisbehere had a predictably tougher sophomore season, which means Provorov might be next, but the Flyers need one of them to quarterback the first power-play unit. Last year, Gostisbehere handled power-play duties while Provorov killed penalties, but Provorov scored 134 points in 122 games in major junior and projects to be a very skilled defenseman as well. The Flyers will likely play Provorov on the second unit, but if he outplays Gostisbehere like he did last year, he’ll get a chance to run the top power play.
Arizona Coyotes: Anthony Duclair vs. Tobias Rieder vs. Clayton Keller
Derek Stepan is the No. 1 center and Max Domi is the top winger, but how the rest of the roster shakes out is anybody’s guess right now. Duclair has top-six talent, but he’s fallen out of favor to some degree due to issues with inconsistency, while Rieder’s improvement from last year was marginal, which leaves Keller as a potential first-line winger. Often compared to Patrick Kane, Keller has the most offensive upside by a significant margin.
Chicago Blackhawks: Jonathan Toews’ right wing
We know Brandon Saad will play on the left wing, so right wing is the big question mark. Richard Panik, who’s coming off a 22-goal season and spent most of the year playing with Toews, is the first option, but so is Nick Schmaltz, who has a much higher offensive ceiling and will be able to play on his strong side as a right-hand shot. Ryan Hartman will also be part of the mix if the Blackhawks feel like Toews’ line needs a more aggressive presence.
Florida Panthers: Evgeny Dadonov vs. Henrik Haapala vs. Radim Vrbata
Dadonov is a KHL star in his second NHL tour, Haapala is a Finnish league scoring champion, and Vrbata is a wily 36-year-old vet who scored 20 goals last year; it’s too bad that only one of them will get to play with one of the league’s top duos in Aleksander Barkov and Jonathan Huberdeau. Dadonov is the best finisher, so he’s the logical solution, but Barkov and Haapala are friends with built-in chemistry.
New York Islanders: John Tavares’ left wing
Jordan Eberle is locked in on Tavares’ right wing, but any one of Anders Lee, Andrew Ladd or Anthony Beauvillier could end up on his port side. Lee is the obvious choice, having racked up 34 goals last year while spending a lot of time alongside Tavares, but Ladd could have a bounce-back season, and Beauvillier has the speed