I am in the middle of a series that looks at specific players and combinations. Yesterday I wrote that Jaccob Slavin might have the highest ceiling of all of the Canes young defenders (yes, including Justin Faulk) and also about Jeff Skinner and Phil Di Giuseppe as a pair.
Today looks at Andrej Nestrasil, the complementary skill sets that made Nestrasil/JStaal/Nordstrom go and that line now in Nestrasil’s absence. Arguably, the single biggest driving force behind the Canes reversal of fortune and surge from December through February was the play of Jordan Staal and his line. In the beginning, the trio was a very good checking line capable of holding other teams’ best lines in check and kicking in an occasional goal. By the end, they were still doing the defense thing but were also scoring more like a top line than a checking line.
When the group was put together it had the look of a checking line that could hold its own without the puck but was unlikely to score much. Jordan Staal’s greatest strength has always been the defensive side of the puck, and neither Andrej Nestrasil or Joakim Nordstrom entered as a player that would be described as an offensive catalyst or play maker. But the line grew to become much greater than the sum of its parts. Complementary skill sets and a repeatable formula for playing with the puck in the offensive zone led to puck possession and ultimately figuring out how to convert that to more scoring.
Formula for success
The formula for the line’s success is pretty simple:
1) All 3 players are pretty sound defensively and also win more than their fair share of 1-on-1 battles for pucks. When you combine this with Staal’s strong face-off skills, there is a good chance that the line will gain possession of the puck at some point during their shift even if they start without it.
2) Nordstrom and Staal are both good at carrying the puck up with speed through the neutral zone to get to the offensive blue line with options. Ideally (and often), they carry the puck into the offensive zone with control. But when that is not possible, the line has become incredibly good at entering the zone at least 2 wide such that if a defenseman is in good position, has back pressure help and stands up at the blue line, the puck can be dumped to a place where a line mate will win the race more than 50 percent of the time.
3) Once the line gains possession of the puck in the offensive zone, the basic goal is to play the rest of the shift there and depart from that only for decent shooting attempts. Version 1.0 of the line saw them eat up entire shifts cycling the puck but not often generating much from the possession time. Version 2.0 saw the become better at timing for playing the puck to the point and getting a body or 2 off the wall and to a scoring area. The key to this part of the game is that all 3 players are capable of cycling the puck, and they became very good at all being on the same page for what was going to happen next.
Adapting to life after Nestrasil’s injury
And that is where the line misses Andrej Nestrasil and also an explanation for Jordan Staal’s less dominant play of late. (To be clear, Jordan Staal has still played fairly well but just has not been as dominant in recent games.) With Elias Lindholm dropped into the mix, the line took a couple steps back in terms of keeping/controlling the puck in the offensive zone with the 3 players always on the same page for where the puck was going next. I think Lindholm is a small step down from the more physical Nestrasil in terms of winning and cycling pucks, but the bigger thing is that the trio might just need to go through the same ‘getting on the same page’ and perfecting process that the original 3 also went through.
An interesting question would be if the video coaching staff have pulled video of the original Nestrasil/JStaal/Nordstrom line doing their thing. It seems like some deep video sessions could help with keeping as much as possible from the success already established before Nestrasil’s injury.
A reminder that 1+1+1 can be significantly greater than 3 when building NHL forward lines
At a higher level, the significant success of Nestrasil/JStaal/Nordstrom is an important reminder that it is possible to build incredibly good lines from players who are individually good but become great when matched with a complementary skill sets. Here is hoping that Coach Bill Peters can find more of that as he tries different combinations with a couple players gone to trade and injury.