Today’s Daily Cup of Joe is part 3 of 3 considering one of the projects that lies ahead for the Carolina Hurricanes during the current offseason – figuring out the center position heading into the 2018-19 season.
Today’s part 3 offers my thoughts on the various options and which direction I am leaning.
Jordan Staal as a foundation
Say what you want about Jordan Staal’s scoring totals as compared to other top centers in the league, but he still fits as a cornerstone of a good hockey team at the center position. No doubt, more scoring would be appreciated, but something like 50 in a role that does not ‘use up’ higher-end scoring talent on his wings and plays break even hockey against other teams’ best lines can be a valuable and contributing component on a playoff hockey team.
The key for this are the two things I mentioned plus one more. As stated above, Staal’s 50 points in the middle just is not enough if he plays between two scoring wings. His 19 even strength assists when flanked most of the season by Sebastian Aho and Teuvo Teravainen just are not enough. That duo is better-served aiming even higher (think a point per game), but that requires a more scoring-capable third. No doubt, the inevitable need to shuffle and spark a lineup here and there over the course of a long NHL season will see TSA reunited, but if Jordan Staal is truly the best available for Aho and Teravainen, I think it is a surefire sign that the Hurricanes are still light on raw offensive fire power.
Think Nestrasil/Staal/Nordstrom from the 2015-16 but with higher-end talent. As maligned as the plus/minus statistic is, it is the right one (so let’s call it ‘even strength goal differential’ or use a more advanced version like expected goal differential) for a Staal line with a primary role of quieting other teams’ best scoring lines.
In an ideal world, Staal would be flanked by another solid all-around forward capable of playing against other teams’ best and also a capable two-way wing with playmaking ability to provide some fuel for scoring. The peak version of Jussi Jokinen is the player who comes to mind. Jokinen was a player who could hold his own defensively and also bring a playmaking element from the wing. I do not like like the version of this line that just includes three two-way forwards who are light on ability to generate offense simply because it is just too hard to play even hockey with great scoring lines by shutting them out completely. The other possibility for this line is to take on a BBC (Brind’Amour-Battaglia-Cole) type persona that cycles the puck well and scores ugly by getting the puck to the point and bodies to the net.
Regardless, I think Staal makes a fine anchor on a top defensive line but only if there is a top offensive line to complement it.
From there the options are many but the sure things are few…
One of the kids (Sebastian Aho and Martin Necas)
People sometimes like to lump Sebastian Aho and Martin Necas into the same category as young players who are capable of centering legitimate first or second scoring lines at the NHL level.
But past having high offensive ceilings, I think the two players are wildly different.
Sebastian Aho is proven at the NHL level and clearly capable of putting up 60+ points in the 2018-19 season probably regardless of position.
As much as Martin Necas has the skill set and potential to similarly be a higher-end scorer at the NHL level, the schedule for that is very uncertain. As much as Necas showed flashes of brilliance in preseason, he finished with a lone power play assist and nothing to show for even strength ice time in six games of preseason action and only two shots on net. There was an element of line mates not finishing, but there was also a significant element of his game still having gaps. He has the skating ability and creativity to push pace and get the puck into situations that cause duress for an NHL defense, but his ability to convert that directly to passing lanes and scoring chances was still unrefined. And he lacked the kind of shot that kept NHL defenses honest at this early stage of his development. Long story short, Necas’ skating ability and creative style of play offer a HUGE ceiling, but anyone who considers him a sure thing for the 2018-19 season has been blinded a bit by headlines and highlights and maybe missed a broader assessment of where Necas was as a complete player in September.
Another significant difference is the each player’s skill set. Aho brings a nice balance of finishing and playmaking, and even when playing more in the role of a puck distributing center still tends to play around rather than through the defense most times. That finishing skill set and maneuvering type playmaking lends itself nearly equally well to being effective as a scoring wing or a playmaking center. In my opinion, a move to center by Aho is more a function of team need rather than a necessity to maximize his offensive production.
Necas is another story. As noted above, at least the 1.0 version of Necas last fall was heavy on playmaking and puck distributing ability and light on shooting and finishing ability. In addition, whereas much of Aho’s puck distribution comes more from buying time and making space often to the outside, Necas’ skill is set is more that of the best NHL centers today who forge a path straight into the teeth of the defense and force them to make tough decisions while under attack. That potential to attack by forging a path straight into and through the middle of the defense like the MacKinnons, McDavids and Crosbys of the NHL is the most intriguing part of Necas’ game. So whereas, I think the wing versus center decision for Aho is more a function of what the team needs, I think the wing versus center decision for Necas is more a matter of Necas’ skill set at least for the 2018-19 season. More directly, I do not get where some people think that moving Necas to wing could be an option depending on who slots at center. It just not play to what he does well (playmaking in the center of the rink) and instead brings to the forefront the shooting/scoring part of his game that is not nearly as advanced development-wise.
One commonality between Aho and Necas is the room for growth away from their strengths as offensive players. Both players have work to do in the face-off circle. And both players are prone to play a ‘squishy’ game in the neutral zone and entering the defensive zone playing defense. ‘Squishy’ has become my term for generally being in the right general place and doing the right general thing, but not so much understanding and aggressively taking away skating and passing lanes.
Especially if the Hurricanes do not add at the center position from outside of the organization this summer, how quickly at least one of these two players grows to become a true top 6 center instead of a good young center with the potential to be that could have a huge say in whether the Hurricanes make the playoffs in 2019.
What about Victor Rask, Derek Ryan and Marcus Kruger?
With a $3.1 million salary cap hit and $2.3 million salary, Marcus Kruger could be tough to deal, but I think that is exactly what the Hurricanes must do even if it means eating salary or packaging him into a bigger deal. The Hurricanes forward depth has progressed to the point where the potential is there to at least begin working toward more of a balance four-line attack like other deep teams are beginning to use. Especially with the need for more scoring, that approach should have a scoring-capable center in a depth role. While there is a chance that Kruger just is not movable, the goal should be to free up the roster spot and as much salary as possible.
Per part 2, I am probably in the minority in thinking that Derek Ryan could be a useful part of the roster if paid and slotted correctly. I like him as a #13 forward who brings depth and a versatile skill set at a modest price of $1-1.2 million. While by no means elite, he is capable depth-wise as a face-off man, center or right wing, power play player and depth scorer. That is a lot for a modest price and worth keeping. The question is price and roster slots. His $1.425 million salary in 2017-18 is already a tiny bit on the high side for the role described. If another team sees him as an an inexpensive third-line center and is willing to pay him accordingly, he quickly becomes too pricey for where I see him slotting with the Hurricanes. In addition, there are only so many depth forwards who can be retained and still leave room for the AHL brigade to win roster spots. If Kruger cannot be moved and the team opts to retain Joakim Nordstrom for his penalty killing, there might be no room at the inn for Ryan.
Finally, there is Victor Rask. Especially if it is partly to free up salary and roster space to add a higher-end center, I think Rask could be expendable. But at the same time, he is not a player that I would desperately sell low on after a sub-par 2017-18 season. No doubt, Rask is overpriced at $4 million per year right now coming off of a lackluster campaign offensively. But he is still a capable NHL center who at a minimum slots nicely as fourth-line depth of the two-way variety even if his price is a bit high for that role.
If I try to balance what I would like to do with what I think is actually possible, I think Victor Rask stays because his trade value just is not worth it right now for a capable proven two-way center. I think Kruger somehow goes with the Hurricanes eating salary in the process. And I think Ryan could go either way. By no means do I think the Hurricanes would enter and win any kind of bidding war to retain him, but I think he fits as a versatile known quantity in a depth role for the right price.
The X factor – Lucas Wallmark
Buried well beneath Sebastian Aho and Martin Necas on the ‘exciting youth’ depth chart is Lucas Wallmark. I see him as an X factor. The eye test and scouting of Wallmark suggests a much lower ceiling than either Aho or Necas in terms of raw skill set. He is a notch lower in terms of mobility and a player who turns 23 before the start of the 2018-19 season, he maybe is farther up his improvement curve. But a couple factors are in his favor. First is that he is coming off of a phenomenal AHL season with 55 points in only 45 games. What’s more, his trajectory in terms of improvement continues to be steep despite the fact that he is a bit farther into his professional career. Could he have another year or two of continued growth in him at the NHL level that breaks right through the rather modest ceiling that most scouts and analysts expect for him? That is worth watching if he gets a crack at the NHL level for the 2018-19 season.
Considering only the internal options initially
If forced to consider only the internal options, I like the idea of balancing a lineup between ‘sound’ and ‘opportunistic’. Jordan Staal anchors one line that can play in any situation against any opponent. Victor Rask centers another line built somewhat similarly. Important to note is that ‘sound’ cannot go to the extreme that it has no scoring potential. There must be some balance to it, but maybe these two lines are filled more by players like Justin Williams and Elias Lindholm from the veterans and players like Warren Foegele from the rookies such that the key components tend to be on the higher-end defensively.
Then you balance that with two lines that aim for opportunistic scoring. The first line is centered by Sebastian Aho, and the other line has an opening there to be won by Martin Necas in training camp. If Necas just is not ready yet, then Lucas Wallmark would be another option. With two lines that lean offense and two that are sounder defensively but still stocked with at least decent depth scoring, the coach has the potential to adjust a bit based on game situation. In a game with a one-goal lead in the third period, the bench could be shortened a bit with three lines heavier in veterans. With a deficit in the third period, there is nothing wrong with giving skilled young players a chance to make a difference.
With reasonably balanced ice time, you get something like…
Extras: Some couple of Di Giuseppe, Ryan, Nordstrom, Kruger
I doubt the Hurricanes would be able to add both, but the Holy Grail would be to add a veteran finisher for Aho/Teravainen and a capable defensive player with playmaking ability for Staal/Lindholm.
Max Pacioretty (via trade) or James van Riemsdyk (free agent) would fit the bill for a finishing complement with some size for Aho’s line.
Looking externally to push now and buy time for youth
With the goal of not just rebuilding for forever and/or rolling dice on the rapid development of youth, I do still like the idea of making one big addition at center from outside of the current roster.
Ryan-Nugent Hopkins jumps out as likely available and reasonably close to what the Hurricanes need. Nugent-Hopkins has shifted into more a secondary role with more defensive emphasis since Connor McDavid arrived in Edmonton, but I actually think that just makes Nugent-Hopkins even better. He still possesses the offensive ability had him centering a top scoring line only a few years ago, but he is now also battle tested in a tougher role defensively. I could see him centering the Aho/Teravainen combination. And I think the timing might be right for a player for player deal that sees a piece of the Hurricanes playoff-less core moved out. I also like the idea of adding a more scoring-oriented center either for or simultaneous to trading Victor Rask to change the balance of skill set that the team has in the middle of the ice.
The challenge is building a list of good options who are actually available. Past Nugent-Hopkins the list of top 6-capable centers likely to be available is limited.
Netting it out
Though it feels a bit like another stage of rebuilding with hope of early returns, I would be okay with entering the season with something like Aho, Staal, Rask and Necas or Wallmark filling the four center slots possibly with Derek Ryan as an extra IF the Hurricanes also add a proven scoring wing to fill out Aho’s line.
That said, I would take a run at Nugent-Hopkins too, within reason. I think the Hurricanes need to change the core a bit anyway, so a player for player trade for Nugent-Hopkins sort of kills two birds with one stone.
What say you Canes fans?
On day 3 of Canes center-gate, who still has more thoughts and opinions on how to complete this puzzle?
1) Do you think there is need to add one more veteran center from outside the organization?
2) Between Aho, Staal, Lindholm, Rask, Ryan, Kruger and Necas, who are you four centers if the team goes with internal options for the 2018-19 season?
3) Should we just go full fun and put Martin Necas between Sebastian Aho and Teuvo Teravainen and let them have at it?