The Carolina Hurricanes found a familiar face skating amongst them during Monday morning drills. After sustaining a concussion during a preseason game against Montreal, Tim Gleason has begun practicing fully and is nearing a season debut.
Normally, when a player such as Gleason returns from injured reserve, much fanfare follows. But the Hurricanes have had success despite his absence, and some tough decisions will result from his impeding activation.
Twenty-Three is Company
Gleason could return as early as Thursday in Minnesota. When he does, the Hurricanes will have 24 players on their active roster — one too many. It’s unlikely that anyone will be placed on injured reserve, so someone is going to have to go to Charlotte, or elsewhere.
Elias Lindholm and Ryan Murphy are the only two players currently in Carolina that are waiver-exempt, but chances are neither will be sent to the AHL. Lindholm has missed some time lately with a nagging shoulder injury, but when he does play, he’s been effective in his role. Murphy is the heartbeat of the powerplay, and without him the ‘Canes might find themselves at the bottom of the rankings instead of a surprising 20th.
That leaves just a handful of players who’d have to make it through waivers. Brett Bellemore was a healthy scratch Saturday in Toronto, but his age (25) and contract ($600,000 for one year) could make him an attractive claim. It’s a similar story with Drayson Bowman, though he seems to have found a home on the fourth line, playing in every game.
Brett Sutter could make it through, and has been a healthy scratch for the last two games, but what about Kevin Westgarth? When Westgarth does play, it’s sparingly. He averages just 3:26 per game — four minutes fewer than Sutter — with his last two clocking in at under 120 seconds. If Westgarth isn’t going to play when he’s dressed, why is he on the team?
The only thing that might keep Westgarth in Carolina over Sutter is his one-way contract status. And for a team on a budget, that could make all the difference.
For the first time in years, the Hurricanes have some semblance of a legitimate first pairing. Faulk and Andrej Sekara have made an effective duo, and it’s unlikely that they’ll be separated. They play in all situations and are likely to continue handling the bulk of the minutes.
Given Kirk Muller’s penchant for playing his defensemen on their true side, that leaves two potential partners for Gleason — Murphy or Bellemore. Neither seem like a good fit. Murphy needs someone with offensive instincts — decidedly not Gleason — and Bellemore might be bumped to number 7 or 8 on the depth chart.
Muller might have to stray from his preference, landing Gleason with Ron Hainsey. Hainsey has played with Bellemore, Komisarek and even Murphy at times, but all are right shots. Gleason, like Hainsey, shoots left.
But there is another way. When Tuomo Ruutu and Elias Lindholm made their debuts, Muller elected to ease them into the lineup, gradually building up their minutes. Both started on the fourth line before working their way up.
The best option for Muller might be to play seven defensemen, double-shifting either Staal in place of a fourth line center. Who knows how capable Gleason will be in a game situation, and rolling seven defensemen would be the perfect way to take some immediate pressure off him.