Entering March, my focus for watching Carolina Hurricanes games shifted significantly toward building for the 2017-18 season. On February 22, I wrote an article in this vein that was entitled “5 positives of Hurricanes current situation and uses for the March/April schedule.” Though Monday is only March 13, work is well underway on the checklist spelled out in this article.
While there is necessary and valuable work that can be done in the last 5-6 weeks of the 2016-17 season in terms of player evaluation and development, I continue to think that this will be a make or break summer for general manager Ron Francis. I joked recently that I already wrote most of my ‘assessing the team and needs’ type of material last summer and would just reuse it in a couple months. Literally the first article that I wrote upon returning after a short break after the conclusion of the 2015-16 season on April 20, 2016 identified the 2 biggest needs for Francis’ 2016 summer work – an upgrade in net and a scoring difference-maker at forward.
An alternative path to more Carolina Hurricanes scoring
The second priority, a scoring difference-maker at forward, is a challenging task. It is not like anyone has an extra top 6 forward capable of 60+ points that they are just looking to unload. But now sitting 24th in the NHL in scoring, the Hurricanes must find a way to post more goals for 2017-18. The obvious way is to add 1-2 top-tier forwards.
Without letting go of plan A of adding an offensive difference-maker, I think there are 2 other ways that the Hurricanes could fairly significantly boost their scoring from within their current personnel. The first is to get more from the blue line. I think this is starting to happen on its own simply from the young defensemen maturing. I have written about that previously and will put that aside for today.
The other potential scoring boost is to get more depth scoring, especially from the fourth line. In a modern NHL that is minus the need to have 1 or even more hockey-limited old school enforcers on the fourth line, the potential exists for teams with deep rosters to build a fourth line capable of chipping in much more offensively. There are limits to this. Your 10-12th best forwards are still going to garner significantly less ice time than the top lines. And those players are unlikely to find significant roles on the power play where many goals are scored. But even in 9-11 minutes of even strength ice time there is significant scoring upside potential for teams that have enough depth to skate some skilled players on the fourth line.
The Hurricanes are just beginning to reach the point in terms of forward roster depth where this might be possible.
Keeping the good from the 2016-17 fourth line as a starting point
An important starting point is understanding what the 2016-17 fourth did do well and not losing track of that. In terms of doing the job that it was built for, I think the fourth line has had a strong 2016-17 season. When Stalberg was still in tow, the trio of Viktor Stalberg, Joakim Nordstrom and Jay McClement claimed 3 of the 4 forward slots on a penalty kill unit that was the best in the league prior to the trade deadline. And the line was reasonably safe defensively in most situations. Finally, the trio did kick in some timely scoring.
Averaging about 12 minutes of ice time each, Viktor Stalberg, Jay McClement and Joakim Nordstrom clock in at 9, 5 and 3 goals respectively for a total of 17. The total projects to a 3-man total of about 23 goals in a 82-game season or about 7.5 per player. That is actually not bad production from a fourth line when you adjust for ice time, volume of penalty kill ice time and lack of power play ice time.
But is more offense possible?
But could it be possible to get much more? The key would be to keep the good – providing 2-3 solid penalty killers for Steve Smith to utilize to again build 1 of the league’s top penalty kills and also being sound defensively. Trying to score a bunch with a team’s 10-12th best players by compromising defense is a recipe for a disaster that sees scoring increase modestly and goals against go through the roof.
But could the Hurricanes build a fourth line capable of say 40 goals? That would be about 16 more than 2016-17. This might not sound like a lot, but if you somewhat randomly go sprinkle 12 more goals (16 prorated over about 3/4 of the season spread every fifth game) through the Hurricanes 2016-17 schedule thus far, the Hurricanes would have 4 more points in the standings and also have pushed 2 of those games to overtime making another 2 points possible. That is not enough to push the Hurricanes into a playoff spot, but 5-6 more points would have had the Hurricanes in a significantly different position at the trade deadline.
Figuring it out
The potential options to add more scoring punch to the fourth line could probably come from within the system. The key would be sorting out the various options to find a working combination or 2 that meets multiple requirements.
Ideally, a couple penalty killers are housed here still. Adding a fourth scoring line that forces Peters to burn minutes and energy from top scorers on the penalty kill might subtract as much as it adds.
Again, being sound defensively is important. When trying to make a modest jump from 7-8 goals per player to 12-13, those gains can be lost really quickly if the line is porous defensively.
There is also the issue of finding a set of players that mesh. Many of the options have already logged ice time together either at the NHL or AHL level. In addition, Peters and Francis still have 17 NHL games to look at those and other combinations in real NHL action.
The pool of players and some of the questions
With AHL call ups performing reasonably well during the 2016-17 season, the Hurricanes should have some options. Right now, I count Jeff Skinner, Victor Rask, Elias Lindholm, Jordan Staal, Sebastian Aho, Teuvo Teravainen and Lee Stempniak as top 9 forwards for 2017-18. That makes 7. If you humor me and give me my difference-maker addition, that makes 8. That does leave 1 spot to be filled from within the organization, but it also leaves numerous players with the potential to build a scoring-capable fourth line.
Joakim Nordstrom: The downside of Nordstrom is that I think even his ceiling is pretty limited scoring-wise. But with more skill in the other 2 slots could his speed and aggressiveness on the forecheck help drive puck possession and offense for his line mates? As a veteran and regular on the penalty kill, he could also be a stabilizing force if the other 2 slots go to less experienced players. Is he vital to the penalty kill, or could he be replaced by someone with more scoring upside?
Brock McGinn: He had 1 massive scoring burst and not that much otherwise. But he brings a rugged element and has logged some time on the penalty kill. And he definitely has more scoring upside than an old school fighter, so just maybe he puts it all together for 15 goals. What is his ceiling offensively? Is he just a rugged fourth-liner who can play a physical brand of hockey, or can he score too?
Phil Di Giuseppe: I actually like him as a power forward element in the top 9, but if he does not earn that role, he seems capable of playing on the fourth line, possibly killing penalties and providing some scoring. I am on record as really liking his game since his recall, but like McGinn, is he just a much-needed more physical player or can he score too?
Valentin Zykov: One NHL game is not enough to draw final conclusions on what he is capable of, but is it possible that he plays on the fourth line but just like Bryan Bickell in early 2016-17 also slots as a net front presence on 1 of the 2 power play units? I thought the power play immediately took a step down when Bickell and his consistent net front presence was removed from the lineup. Can he play at NHL pace? And if he did land a fourth line role, could he be the desperately needed net front presence for 1 of the 2 power play units?
Patrick Brown: Brown is a player who seems capable defensively and maybe in a penalty kill role. The question is how much he can bring offensively if paired with some skill. What can he bring offensively to go with a pretty sound defensive game?
Julien Gauthier: Like Roy, Gauthier would be making the jump to from juniors. A logical projection would suggest that Gauthier is still at least a year away from NHL-readiness, but he is physically ready which makes it at least possible that he surges early and claims a roster spot. With both Roy and Gauthier, for a fourth line role, there would need to be some assessment of whether that or a ton of ice time at the AHL level was better for their long-term development, but they are at least worth considering. How far along is he in his development? Could he be NHL-ready as early as next fall?
Derek Ryan: He is an unrestricted free agent, but if he returns, he is a fairly skilled player for the fourth line with enough playmaking ability to both score and help line mates score. His offensive abilities are intriguing, but can he be sound enough defensively in the center slot to plug into a fourth line?
Lucas Wallmark: We will not see the 21-year old at the NHL level (read my quick thoughts on his recall from yesterday), but he has had a very strong 2016-17 season at the AHL level and could bring a Victor Rask-like combination of sound defense with some offense to boot. Just now making his way to the NHL, he is a bit of an unknown. Is it possible that his hockey IQ and decision-making ability puts him on a Victor Rask-like fast track to being a capable all-around center ahead of schedule?
Nicolas Roy: He will be making the big jump from juniors to professional hockey either at the AHL or NHL level. His NHL-readiness is something that will need to be assessed in preseason, but his skill set as a pretty good all-around player with size and some scoring ability is intriguing. Can he match NHL pace? Is he ready yet, or will he need time in the AHL to continue his development?
Sometime Monday morning look for the Monday Coffee shop post for a place to debate the rankings and possible combinations of Hurricanes depth forwards who could fill a scoring-capable fourth line for the 2017-18 season.