For last Friday’s Daily Cup of Joe I ventured knee deep into starting to consider the work ahead for the summer and building the 2018-19 lineup. In that article, I presented the recent history leading up to the current situation with the Carolina Hurricanes at the center position.
Where we left off
At a basic level, we left off with a primary group (before late season tinkering) of Jordan Staal, Victor Rask, Derek Ryan and Marcus Kruger that just was not good enough. For the 2018-19 season, the Hurricanes will need more out of the position and will need to find a way to upgrade especially in terms of scoring production.
Slotting the original four from the 2017-18 season
The starting point is figuring if and where the four primary centers from the 2017-18 fit. Ryan is an unrestricted free agent, but Staal, Rask and Kruger are all under contract.
Despite being a bit light on scoring for a first or second line center, he still fits in a winning lineup because of how strong he is defensively and because of his ability to anchor a line that can hold its own against the league’s elite scoring lines. Key though, is an opposite/complementary scoring first or second line that makes the math work offensively.
Verdict: Let’s call his the second line center.
His offense fell off a cliff for most of the season (only 31 points in 71 games) and his play in total was ‘meh’, but he did manage to stay on course defensively for the most part such that he somehow managed to be an even player despite underperforming offensively. Especially if he can refind his offensive game and also chemistry with line mates, Rask could be a capable third line center in 2018-19, but on a team that already has one defense-leaning center in the top 6, I do not see Rask as an option for a top 6 role even if he rebounds.
Verdict: Let’s call him a third line center.
As maligned as Ryan was by the fan base during parts of the 2017-18 season, I actually think he performed about as expected. His 38 points represent decent dept scoring especially when considering his modest salary, but the issue is just that he is overslotted. As a free agent, there is a good chance that Ryan will not return, and if he does, I think it will be in a depth role.
Verdict: I would gladly take him back at the right price as a #13-ish depth forward, but would not allocate a top 9 slot to him.
He was the centerpiece of a failed attempt to build a veteran-heavy fourth line that could be relied on heavily in a checking line role. The project missed on multiple fronts. The defensive play was fair not great. Kruger was not the strength on the power play that he was expected to be. And the fourth line in total contributed virtually nothing offensively. Kruger is under contract for one more season with a hefty $3.1 million salary cap hit and $2.3 million actual salary. Those numbers will make him difficult to move, but he will certainly be on the trading block this summer.
Verdict: Kruger could actually fit nicely in a #13-ish slot too, just like Ryan, but his salary is a mismatch for that role.
When I net it out, I have the Hurricanes with Jordan Staal and Victor Rask manning the second and third line center slots and openings for a first line/scoring-leaning center and also a fourth line center.
The Hurricanes have a number of options within the organization already.
He has already arrived offensively with 65 points for the 2017-18 season with most of those coming as a left wing though. In his audition at the center position late in the season, his game was a mixed bag that leaned positive. He looked immediately comfortable playing in the middle of the rink with the puck on his stick. And with Aho at the center position, Teravainen’s strong offensive play held steady, and the duo also played a role in Valentin Zykov’s strong run at the NHL level. Aho’s game defending especially in transition/the neutral zone are not nearly as advanced as his offensive play, but he did not look to be in over his head either. My question with Aho is whether his shifty style of advancing the puck and above average finishing ability are better spent at the wing ideally with a bigger center who can blaze a path straight through the middle of the rink and distribute the puck from there.
Like Aho, Elias Lindholm looked capable in his end of season audition at the center position. The key word with Lindholm is ‘capable’. Especially on a team that needs more offense out of the position, it is not clear that Lindholm is the right fit for a top 9 center slot. In addition, the team is short at right wing both currently and possibly looking into the future, so unless Lindholm is truly a diffence-maker above other options, he might be better left at right wing.
Lucas Wallmark had a phenomenal season at the AHL level. As far as showing NHL-readiness at the level below he rates incredibly highly. In addition, he looked capable even if not spectacular in limited NHL ice time. Wallmark will definitely get a long look in training camp next season, but the question is where he fits. He seems unlikely to just jump right into a top 6 role which would leave him battling for a depth center role. Especially if the Hurricanes want to build a fourth line that is capable of more offensively but still with a reasonable amount of defensive acumen, Wallmark could be a good fit.
Martin Necas is the wild card. More than any other player currently in the Carolina Hurricanes organization right now except maybe Aho, Necas has the potential ceiling of a first line offensive center. He training camp and preseason audition was eye-opening. His skating is top notch, and he uses it to push pace right into the teeth of the defense off the rush just like the best NHL playmakers do. With another year to mature, round out his game and add some strength, he could be ready offensively for the 2018-19 season. The question is whether he can be competent enough defensively to play a regular role without being hidden/sheltered significantly. His skating makes him capable as a first forechecker but his play in read/react situations behind the forecheck were ‘iffy’ at times in preseason play. That is the area of his game that will most be under the microscope next fall, as he tries to win an NHL roster slot.
Options outside the current roster
This summer is not a great one for shopping the free agent market for a higher-end offensive center. Such players are a precious commodity which makes it hard to add them from outside. The best option might be to acquire either a scoring center or help for an internal center option via trade.
He is not a pure scoring first line center, but he is maybe the closest thing of players who are likely to be available. Since the arrival of Connor McDavid, Nugent-Hopkins’ usage, role and line mates have been more than of a Jordan Staal type of role. But I think the positive spin on that is that the offensive part of his game is still there, but he is even more well-rounded than he was 3-4 years ago as a young scorer. He would definitely make the Hurricanes deeper at the center position and the forward position in total. With the Oilers’ playoff miss and salary cap challenges, Nugent-Hopkins figures to be available.
I wrote about Max Pacioretty quite a bit leading up to the trade deadline. Like Nugent-Hopkins, he is another good player who is allegedly available. Pacioretty is a proven top 6 scorer and left wing. As such, he could be a great complementary player to build a scoring line around one of the internal center options.
In browsing the list of available players, the trade market seems more likely to yield the right kind of player than free agency.
What say you Canes fans?
As always I have some thoughts on possible solutions and also decision points for the various options, but will save them for another day so as not to stymie what should be a great Monday debate in The Coffee Shop.
1) Do you lean toward using an internal option or adding from outside the organization to fill a top center slot?
2) Which internal option(s) do you like best and what would be your preseason decision points for deciding on the last one or two centers?
3) Which, if any, of Derek Ryan and Marcus Kruger do you see filling a role on the 2018-19 roster, and what is it?