Eric Gelinas has a pretty decent collection of hockey jerseys.
Unlike most hockey players and fans, the Carolina Hurricanes’ defenseman, who signed with the club during the offseason after three years with Rogle BK Angelholm in Sweden, has come by his jerseys naturally, earning them by playing for the teams those sweaters represent.
Given his travels through the junior, minor pro and professional ranks, Gelinas has a lot of them.
“I have a few that are frames, and up on walls in my basement, like a little sports bar type thing,” Gelinas said after a Hurricanes training camp session. “The rest of them, there’s too many of them, the rest are in my closet. I just keep track of all of them.”
He’ll have at least one, probably two, and possibly several more to keep track of this season as he battles to crack a deep Carolina roster loaded with defenders.
“I want to be part of this team; I think they’re heading in the right direction and doing all the right things,” Gelinas said. “The culture around here is great, too, which is really exciting to be a part of.”
Addition by necessity
Last spring, the Hurricanes were in good shape during the shortened NHL regular season. OK, the Canes were better than “in good shape,” running over the competition in the Central Division to a 36-12-8 record, among the best in the NHL.
And save for a see-saw goaltending battle among three NHL-caliber keepers (none of whom are still with the team, mind you), the Canes largely avoided the injury bug when compared to many other teams in the league.
In the playoffs, however, the grind of the regular season took its toll. Injuries, and some weaker-than-expected performances, rendered the Canes’ blue line vulnerable.
“Last year, we were pretty fortunate during the year,” coach Rod Brind’Amour said. “We didn’t have a lot of injuries on D, and then when you had it, in the playoffs, it was obvious. It was like, wow, you need to have that.”
So what did President and GM Don Waddell and Brind’Amour do? They stocked up on NHL-ready defenders.
Joining mainstays Brett Pesce, Brady Skjei and Jaccob Slavin on the blue line this season are NHL-tested defenders Gelinas, Ethan Bear, Tony DeAngelo, Ian Cole and Brendan Smith. That’s in addition to any younger players — rookies or second- and third-year pros — who play their way into consideration. That makes things a bit crowded in the room. It also gives the Canes a measure of flexibility — and insurance.
“You look at Tampa, and they are kind of like the poster child of how to do things, and they went out and got another D at the trade deadline,” Brind’Amour said. “You can’t have enough of that. You don’t really notice it until you don’t have it.”
Gelinas, 30, is trying to return to the NHL after four years away. He has 189 games under his belt, with 55 points and 92 penalty minutes, in addition to 102 points in 236 AHL games, and 56 points in 90 Swedish Hockey League games.
“If anything, the time I spent in Europe made me think a lot,” Gelinas said. “What I really wanted was to get back in the NHL. At my age — I’m not considering myself old — but my hockey age, I’m getting up there, and this is probably the last time I could try it.”
In his first season overseas, with Bratislava Slovan of the KHL, Gelinas realized he still had a little bit of learning to do, despite nearly 200 NHL games to his credit. A tall, rangy defender, Gelinas learned to use his reach and his speed simultaneously on the larger ice surface.
“I had to make a few adjustments in Europe, with the ice size, also, and the style of play, which helped me in a way,” Gelinas said. “It helped me understand the positioning aspect of the game, also to keep up with the speed. I’ve always been a good enough skater for my size to get around, and I think I’ve gotten better at reading plays and positioning myself in areas to be ready for whatever happens.”
After one year in the KHL and three in Sweden, the lure of the NHL was too great for him to pass up.
“I had another year in my contract with my team in Sweden for this year,” Gelinas said. “I made it clear with them that something I wanted to try and do was play in the NHL again, so I had to make that decision before the 15th of June, so I knew then I was going to stay in North America for the next season. I worked out all summer and skated all summer, and then came (to Raleigh) September 1.”
On a (patient) mission
Gelinas doesn’t think he’s going to be a top four defender for the Canes — at least not right away. He doesn’t have delusions of grandeur in the least.
“I want to play some NHL games, whether I’m a depth guy and I’m in some of the games, in and out, or I’m in the minors and eventually come up, I think the whole thing for me was to be back in the NHL, and I’m ready to take on any role that is available for me,” Gelinas said.
Having been through all of this before has helped Gelinas remain on an even keel.
“Even if it doesn’t work out right away, in camp, I remember the first time I ever called up, I was playing in the minors and somebody got hurt, I got called up and stayed in the league for four-and-a-half years. I want to stay here right out of camp, but if I do go to the minors, that’ll be the route, and I’ll work hard enough to get back here.”
When he first made a pro roster out of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League, Gelinas played for the Albany Devils, New Jersey’s AHL club. Gelinas was drafted by that organization in the second round, 51st overall, in 2009. After capping his junior career in 2011, he played a season and a half in Albany before injuries in New Jersey forced the Devils to call him up. He played all of his games in the NHL from 2013 to 2017.
After one more AHL season with the Montreal Canadiens’ affiliate in Laval, Quebec, Gelinas decided to play in Europe.
This week, Gelinas has skated predominantly with a group of prospects and younger players.
“I think I’m the only 30-year-old in that group,” Gelinas deadpanned.
With age comes experience, and a measure of calm. But he still has the same goal all of the younger players do: Make the roster.
“I’m doing the same thing they’re doing, I’m trying to steal a job from somebody, and I want to turn eyes toward myself,” Gelinas said. “Rod said in the first meeting, they split up the groups that way, and if you do earn a spot to change groups, they’ll do that. That’s what I’m working towards.”
Contractual obligations may get in the way, at least initially. The Canes have seven defensemen on one-way, NHL-only contracts, meaning if the team were to send one of them to the AHL, they’d be subject to a waiver claim. Gelinas? He’s on a two-way deal.
“The reality of it is there are one-way contracts and two-way contracts,” Gelinas said. “We know that’s a big part of it, but there are some spots available, and the one thing they’ve told us that if I earn my spot, they’ll make some adjustments to make me fit in the group. That’s all I’m worried about, I want to bring my game and see how I perform.”
There’s no doubt Gelinas brings size and a physical demeanor to the ice, something the Hurricanes have needed. He’s hoping that mentality, and his willingness to be a chameleon of sorts in adapting to any role the Canes ask him to play, will mean a longer stay in greater Raleigh — and collecting a few more jerseys for his wall.
“A successful season would be to be here, have the team and the organization like me and hopefully stick around for a couple more years,” he said.
Canes preseason, Game 1
Who: Carolina Hurricanes vs. Tampa Bay Lightning
When: Tuesday, Sept. 28
Where: PNC Arena, Raleigh
Time: 7 p.m.