The preseason line combinations
Coach Bill Peters and the Carolina Hurricanes exited the preseason with reasonably strong conviction that they had a working set of forward lines.
Skinner/Rask/Stempniak had looked pretty good in preseason and notched a few goals.
Nordstrom/Staal/Nestrasil did not play together that much, but they had a longer run of strong play in the middle of the 2015-16 season.
Aho/Lindholm/Teravainen was not lights out, but they showed some strong flashes of being NHL scoring-capable.
And that left a decent mix of options to fill out a fourth line with a decent number of those players having decent preseasons.
The regular season assessment
Boy how things can change quickly once the AHLers are gone and regular season hockey ensues.
The Skinner/Rask/Stempniak line has been everything Peters could have hoped for and then some. That line has been good scoring-wise for 2 points in the standings, and it is doubtful the Hurricanes would have even a single point without them.
But that’s it in terms of anything even remotely close to serviceable.
Joakim Nordstrom and Andrej Nestrasil seem to both be off to slow starts. Nordstrom has had more than his share of small mistakes that were almost completely absent from his efficient and tidy game in the second half of the 2015-16 season. Most notable was his failure to clear a puck that might have iced the game just before Winnipeg tied up the game late. Nestrasil is similarly off to a slow start to the point where he was in the press box for game #3 on Tuesday. That leaves Jordan Staal on an island.
The young guns line of Aho/Lindholm/Teravainen has been even less impressive. The trio has made some plays and picked up some points on the power play but has been virtually invisible at even strength. They look very good when they get a chance to play with the puck on their sticks and with a little bit of space. The problem is that when I work through my memory of the 3 regular season games, I am not sure that has happened more than a handful of times.
The fourth line has not been horrible, but it is times like these that a coach would love to have a little bit of depth scoring down there.
So what is Peters to do?
I have been critical of Coach Bill Peters’ constant shuffling of lines during October and November of last season while the team floundered with nothing working. So to suggest that it might be time for Peters to shake things up a bit might legitimately seem hypocritical.
But it is not as if a couple of the combinations seem to be just barely missing.
What is locked in with certainty?
First and foremost, under no circumstances should anyone consider tinkering with Skinner/Rask/Stempniak. The trio is dynamic now and amounting to about 2/3 of a solid NHL offense on a nightly basis.
Second it would be rash to consider taking Jordan Staal out of the lineup. He has shown signs of being the same puck-carrying power forward that he was last season and is just too important of a player.
But that’s it…I would not call a single one of the other forwards a lock for ice time nor are there any other 2 or 3-player combinations that I would declare inseparable. It might be more methodical to only change 1 player on a couple lines versus completely starting anew with random sets of 3, but I would not consider anything locked in.
If I was Bill Peters my absolute top priority would be to find a combination that works with Jordan Staal. If Peters can get to the point where he has the Rask line still going and something workable for Jordan Staal, he can cover about 2/3 of his ice time and even tinker within games to figure out what is working for other options.
It is not an absolute requirement, but I would also have a bias toward keeping players from the first power play unit in the lineup. Despite not scoring on Tuesday, the power play continues to look good and provide another way to generate goals.
What I would try
* With Jordan Staal: I would be inclined to give Phil Di Giuseppe a longer look with Staal. Di Giuseppe is 1 of only a few players who have the combination of mobility, ability to complement Staal’s ability to cycle the puck on the boards and defensive acumen. I am torn on who to play on the other wing. It would make for an even bigger shake up, but I might consider trying Lindholm on the right side with Di Giuseppe on the left side. A dynamic offensive element continues to be elusive for Lindholm, but he is the type of positionally and defensively sound player that could match the checking responsibilities of Staal’s line.
* Some size to complement the skill: As noted above, I think the biggest problem in the early going with the Lindholm line is that there is really no one on that line who would rate higher than 3 out of 10 in terms of going and winning pucks on the wall or in a 1-on-1 puck battle. If Di Giuseppe does not play with Staal, he could bring that element to this group. Andrej Nestrasil is another player currently without a slot who brings size but with enough skill and skating to hang. It is unclear whether Bickell could match pace, but he theoretically could also bring a different element to the kids skill line.
At a basic level, I think I would try something like:
Di Giuseppe/Staal/________ (Di Giuseppe can player either wing)
Aho/Teravainen or Lindholm (but not both)/Nestrasil or someone else with size
The big question with my set is how much Peters is willing to adjust from original thinking on who plays center. My set of moves could quickly remove Lindholm from his run back at center, remove mainstay center Jay McClement from the lineup altogether and create a new center (he played there some in Chicago) in Nordstrom. That is a significant shift from where Peters’ head was at only 1 week ago.
What would you do?
1) How patient would you be with current lines? Is 3 games too short for wholesale changes?
2) What 4 lines would you ice on Thursday in Calgary?