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In Hurricanes’ entire time in NC, there’s never been a training camp like this

Even after training camp started, the Carolina Hurricanes managed to step up the competition. Already crowded with players fighting for a sparse few roster spots at every position, late arrival Fredrik Claesson took the ice Saturday, the kind of veteran depth defenseman the Hurricanes could have used when they started running out of bodies deep into their playoff run last spring.

Claesson is technically on a tryout, but the Hurricanes have every intention of signing him, and with Justin Faulk still here after a trade last week with the Anaheim Ducks fell through, Claesson is one of a handful defensemen competing for a maximum of three spots at the bottom of the defensive depth chart. That doesn’t even include Trevor van Riemsdyk, who is continuing to recover from shoulder surgery.

Things are just as crowded in goal, where it looks like Petr Mrazek and James Reimer will start the season 1-2, but Anton Forsberg and rookie Alex Nedeljkovic will be given every opportunity to force the issue, with the Hurricanes potentially losing one of the three veterans on waivers. And while the forward group appears to be set, holdovers from last season like Warren Foegele and Brock McGinn will have to fight to keep their spots on the depth chart.

In the 20-plus years the Hurricanes have been here, there’s never been a training camp like this, with this much legitimate competition for important jobs. There may have been an open spot on forward or defense here or there, but in most seasons you could write down the 23 for opening night in ink at this point in camp, and only something truly rare and extraordinary could change that.

A year ago, there was maybe one forward spot open, and even that was quickly settled. This is a completely different scenario.

Even without the semi-retired Justin Williams and unsigned Saku Maenalanen, who will apparently remain in Finland, the Hurricanes have questions to answer at forward, where Brian Gibbons, Jordan Martinook, Martin Necas, Foegele and McGinn are competing for two open third-line winger spots. In Necas’ case, that’s probably the difference between starting the season in Raleigh and Charlotte; there’s no point in keeping him up here to play on the fourth line.

Watching the four goalies sort out their pecking order could potentially be fascinating, but it’s on the blue line where things really get interesting — and were, even before Claesson’s arrival.

Barring a trade, which certainly remains possible, there are five locks, the core of what with Faulk is probably the NHL’s deepest defensive group: Jaccob Slavin, Brett Pesce, Dougie Hamilton, Jake Gardiner and Faulk. (Van Riemsdyk will be the sixth when healthy.) That leaves two or three openings for five players, all of whom came into camp expecting to fill one.

Chase Priskie would be the exception, even before the college free agent suffered a mysterious injury Friday that will keep him out for at least the first two preseason games, but he certainly still has every chance to make the team with a good camp. Out of Gustav Forsling, Haydn Fleury, Jake Bean and Claesson — two first-round picks, a trade acquisition and an imminent free-agent signing — someone’s not making the roster. Maybe two someones.

Across the board, that all presumes there isn’t an unexpected challenge from someone who started training camp off the radar but could play their way onto it, a player like Eetu Luostarainen or Jesper Sellgren or Clark Bishop or Morgan Geekie. And with the Hurricanes hard up against the salary cap, they could end up carrying 22 or 21 or even 20 players, which only makes the competition more intense.

It’s too early to see that on the ice now. The first few days of camp are remedial schoolwork, systems installation, Xs and Os. Veterans and prospects alike are skating, not hitting; listening, not competing.

But it won’t be long before the competition gets intense, and while there’s no guarantee that spills over into preseason team performance, the first two preseason games — Tuesday at the Tampa Bay Lightning and the Raleigh return game on Wednesday — will begin an evaluation process that will determine not only which 23 (or fewer) players make the roster, but even the trajectory of entire careers.

There’s that much on the line. For a change.

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Sports columnist Luke DeCock has covered the Summer Olympics, the Final Four, the Super Bowl and the Carolina Hurricanes’ Stanley Cup. He joined The News & Observer in 2000 to cover the Hurricanes and the NHL before becoming a columnist in 2008. A native of Evanston, Ill., he graduated from the University of Pennsylvania and has won multiple national and state awards for his columns and feature writing while twice being named North Carolina Sportswriter of the Year.
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