More in-depth coverage of the offseason will start in earnest a bit later, but Today’s Daily Cup of Joe takes a summary level look at the all-important situation at the center position in preparing for the 2018-19 season.
This part looks back out how we got here. Part 2 to follow will handicap the situation entering the offseason.
The summer of 2017
The Carolina Hurricanes entered the summer of 2017 with a couple slots to fill at the center position and also needing to upgrade offensively.
Jay McClement was 34 years old and coming off of his contract and unlikely to be re-signed. Derek Ryan was also an unrestricted free agent with an uncertain future with the organization.
Jordan Staal and Victor Rask figured to be locked into two of the top three center slots in the opening day lineup.
The post-season press conference with Coach Bill Peters and General Manager Ron Francis offered early clues as to what direction the team might go to fill out the center position. The team readily admitted that it needed to add more scoring punch. Though that was not directly labeled as a center, the fact that Peters seemed to prefer Elias Lindholm and Sebastian Aho at wing seemed to leave an opening for a higher-end offensive center. In short, Peters said that he preferred Lindholm at right wing and also that Aho would eventually be a center but not likely for the 2017-18 season.
That starting point left two center positions open to be filled over the course of the summer. One of the two openings was at least tentatively filled on June 26, 2017 when the Hurricanes re-signed Derek Ryan. And another center slot was filled on July 4, 2017 when the Hurricanes acquired Marcus Kruger in a trade with the Vegas Knights. The fact that Ryan and Kruger were relatively inexpensive additions more of the depth forward variety seemed to leave the door cracked open for a bigger addition, but none every materialized, and the team did in fact enter the 2017-18 season with Jordan Staal, Victor Rask, Derek Ryan and Marcus Kruger slotted to play the center position.
Flawed from the beginning?
It is always easy to second guess after the fact when player moves do not work, but I think it is fair to say that this group was flawed from the beginning. On a team that needed to increase scoring, the group of centers featured three centers who were certainly light on scoring relative to their slot and an offensive depth center in Ryan.
With this group, the path to scoring enough had to come from some other source. The young blue line would have to become more of an offensive catalyst. The other forwards would need to collectively take a step up scoring-wise. Or perhaps the attempt to upgrade the goaltending would make it such that the team could win more even without scoring much more.
But from the beginning, the plan to take an offense that ranked 21st in scoring and not really add much in terms of raw scoring production was risky in itself, and not filling the open center slots with at least one player capable of being an offensive catalyst that boosts his line’s scoring seemed ‘iffy’ at best.
And the results were maybe as should have been expected
Jordan Staal — True to form, he put up 46 points in 2017-18 which is right on par with the 45 and 48 points that he had in each of the prior to seasons respectively. The number is light for a first or second line center on a good NHL team, and even lighter when you consider that he spent most of the season between Sebastian Aho and Teuvo Teravainen who broke out for 65 and 64 points respectively. To be clear, Jordan Staal is a good player and can certainly fit into a winning equation, but he is underpowered offensively which means somewhere in the lineup, ideally with the other top 6 center, the team needs a player who produces more offensively.
Victor Rask — A part of the Hurricanes scoring woes this summer was a tough season offensively for Victor Rask. Somewhat like Staal though at a lesser level, Rask had a respectable year in terms of two-way play. His break even plus/minus actually looks favorable defensively when you consider that he managed it despite a meager 31-point season with only 20 points at even strength. But especially if you count Rask as a #2 center, 31 points just does not cut it on a winning team.
Derek Ryan — As maligned as he was by the fan base as the season wore on, I think Derek Ryan actually produced about as much as might have been reasonably hoped for. His 38 points is reasonable depth scoring. It is just that he is probably overslotted in the top 9.
Marcus Kruger — With Staal and Rask light on offensive production from the center position, maybe the team can make some of it up with strong scoring from a balanced lineup and productive fourth line. Right? …Not even close. The team opted for experience and defensive acumen over scoring upside when it obtained Marcus Kruger to fill the fourth line center slot. In the past two full seasons in Chicago, Kruger had scored 17 points in each season. So while his one goal and six points in 48 games might have been even less than expected, anyone who was hoping for offensive help from Kruger at the beginning of the season was misguided.
Netting it out and teasing on the look forward
When one nets it out for the 2017-18, the team entered the season light on offense from the center position based on any kind of reasonable projection. That problem was compounded by tough years offensively from Victor Rask and Marcus Kruger relative to expectations.
Just like this time last year, the team will enter the offseason needing to score more goals and with the center position as a place with significant room for improvement. All of Staal, Rask and Kruger are still under contract. Ryan is a free agent which could open one slot. And all of Sebastian Aho, Elias Lindholm, Martin Necas and Lucas Wallmark have shown potential promise at the center position in one way or another. Handicapping the situation looking forward into 2018-19 will be part 2 of this two-part article.