Top 10 training-camp battles

With training camps opening Saturday — Get. Excited. People! — we here at THN have been looking at, debating and covering the most hotly anticipated job battles.

In the Sept. 14 edition of the magazine, our NHL correspondents detailed some of the anticipated showdowns at training camps. Whether it’s rookies pushing veterans or new signings battling to fill holes, every team has its story.

This week we scoured the correspondents’ files and whittled them down to our favorites, then added some of our own to the mix. What we ended up with is our Top 10 Training Camp Battles.

10. Corey Crawford vs. Antti Niemi, Chicago

This battle for the No. 2 goalie job behind Cristobal Huet is a big one because there is so much pressure on Huet to perform — and no one is sure whether he can. Crawford and Niemi split time with Rockford of the American league last season and both performed well. Crawford played nine more games and had the better save percentage, but Niemi bested him in goals-against average. Based on seniority, we’ll give this one to Crawford.

9. Martin Biron vs. Dwayne Roloson, New York Islanders

This will be one of the more heated contests going, and if it were happening anywhere but on the Isle, it’d be a major newsmaker. Unfortunately, John Tavares is taking up all the headline space. But whoever wins this battle will begin the season as New York’s No. 1 netminder, giving himself the opportunity to showcase his skills and get out of Dodge sooner once Rick DiPietro works his way back — assuming that actually ever happens. The safe money is on Roloson.

8. Vesa Toskala vs. Jonas Gustavsson, Toronto

Toskala had a horrendous season, but he and the Leafs chalk it up to injury — we also include “playing behind a brutal squad” as a big factor. This year, he’s healthy, but has competition. “The Monster,” as Gustavsson is known, was the most highly sought-after goalie from Europe and has already impressed at Leafs rookie camp. We’re going with Toskala to play in front of a much-improved Toronto blue line, but with little room for error.

7. Toronto defensemen

Speaking of Toronto’s blue line, as of Wednesday, there are nine NHL-caliber D-men under NHL contracts getting ready for Leafs camp, taking up as much as $24 million in cap space. Assuming no one is traded, Tomas Kaberle, Francois Beauchemin, Mike Komisarek and Luke Schenn have the top four spots locked up. That leaves Ian White, Garnet Exelby, Mike Van Ryn, Jeff Finger and Jonas Frogren to battle for the Nos. 5 and 6 positions. White can play the wing as well (and Lord knows the Leafs need help there), but that’s still a crowded and costly back end. Something’s got to give; expect a trade. But if one isn’t forthcoming, give the edge to Exelby and Van Ryn with White starting the season as a winger.

6. Dustin Brown vs. Justin Williams, Los Angeles

The top-line right wing position is up for grabs in Los Angeles. Brown is the incumbent, but the Kings would like to see more scoring punch from that spot. Enter Williams. However, as our astute Kings correspondent Rich Hammond pointed out, who wins the battle will also depend on who the No. 1 left winger is. If it’s gritty newcomer Ryan Smyth, Williams will have the upper hand. If it’s the silky Alex Frolov, expect Brown to stay put. Assuming he can stay healthy, we give Williams the nod, as the Kings will want to showcase their big summer acquisition, Smyth.

5. Nikita Filatov vs. Columbus’ other left wingers

Filatov, the sixth pick of the 2008 draft, showed during his first North American season last year that he has the ability to score in bunches. He also showed he needs to play with other skill guys to be most effective. The Blue Jackets finally have a number of those players, including a few at left wing, Filatov’s natural position. He shouldn’t have much trouble unseating Jason Chimera as the third-line lefty, but R.J. Umberger and Kristian Huselius are other matters. The key will be Umberger’s ability to play center as well. Expect Umberger to move to the pivot position and Filatov to move into the No. 2 spot behind Huselius.

4. Dion Phaneuf vs. Jay Bouwmeester, Calgary

Not that either of these two studs are in danger of losing their NHL jobs, but there can only be one top dog in the pack. Phaneuf will be snarling as he looks to have a bounce-back (of sorts) season. Bouwmeester will be his usual introverted, yet sublimely talented self. It’s a good problem to have, but $13 million-plus locked up in two defensemen isn’t, especially when the Flames need talented forwards. We’re not saying there’s a trade in the offing right now, but there’s a good chance both won’t finish their contracts in Calgary. As for the top offensive option this year, expect Phaneuf to emerge.

3. Cody Hodgson vs. Ryan Kesler and Kyle Wellwood, Vancouver

As the reigning Canadian Hockey League player of the year and world junior scoring champ, Hodgson has nothing left to prove as an amateur. But the only place he can go other than Vancouver is back to junior. He’s another player who will need to get top-line minutes to succeed. Kesler blossomed offensively last season and can play the wing, too, but is a great shutdown center. Wellwood is a skill guy with little use for checking. Expect Hodgson to win the No. 2 center job and be in the Calder running, with Kesler either moving to the wing or starting as the No. 3 pivot.

2. Jean-Sebastien Giguere vs. Jonas Hiller, Anaheim

It’s the Vet versus the Kid to see who gets the pleasure of playing behind a team we’ve picked to be a Pacific Division contender this season. With a revamped No. 2 line and a still-formidable (if less so) blue line, it’ll be a privilege to win this battle. Hiller has had nothing but great numbers since coming from Switzerland in 2007-08, while the older Giguere took a step back last season. With two years and $13 million remaining on his deal, Giguere has the inside track, but it’s put-up-or-shut-up time. UFA-to-be Hiller makes for great trade bait.

1. Jose Theodore vs. Semyon Varlamov, Washington

Whoever wins this battle of the netminders will have a great team to play behind and should approach 40 wins. As in Anaheim, you have to give the more expensive Theodore the upper hand to begin, but Varlamov showed talent and mettle in the playoffs. Theodore also has traditionally not done well under pressure, and a summer of personal tragedy will surely add another distraction. The safe money is on Theodore to begin the season as the starter and for Varlamov to finish it. But we’d put everything on Varlamov.

John Grigg is a copy editor and writer with The Hockey News and a regular contributor to THN.com with his Tuesday blog and the Wednesday Top 10.

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