Today it was announced that the Hurricanes had called up Aleksi Saarela from the AHL to join the team for Saturday’s game 5 of the first round of the playoffs. Saarela will make his NHL debut in a playoff game which is exciting. Does he still get the solo skate?
Aleski Saarela is yet another of the Finnish contingent. If he joins Sebastian Aho, Teuvo Teravainen, and Saku Maenalanen as expected, fully one-third of the Canes forwards will be Finnish in Saturday night’s game. As noted above, Saarela will be making his NHL debut. His game is that of a sniper with NHL-caliber receive/finish skills and the potential to put the puck in the net. In preseason, he looked good in scoring situations but mostly disappeared otherwise. He had a strong regular season in Charlotte with 30 goals and 54 points in 69 games played and finished strong with a whopping 14 goals in the last 18 games of the regular season. He is a bit undersized height-wise at 5 foot 11 inches tall but physically reminds me a bit of Jeff Skinner as a slightly shorter player but with a strong lower body that makes him sturdier than height would suggest. His calling card and upside is the ability to score goals.
Brown played only 4:34 in Thursday’s game, but he looked okay and stayed out of trouble in doing so. With another forward down, it will be interesting to see if Brind’Amour shortens the bench and hopes that the top players can run extra or if he maybe extends the leash a bit for Brown in his second playoff game. Patrick Brown is sort of an opposite for Saarela. Even at the AHL level, he was a checking line type forward with 35 points in 70 games. His calling card is strong two-way play and being a decent fit as another rugged forward who fits into what Brind’Amour is trying to do right now generating offense with an aggressive forecheck. As a center moved to wing, he also brings another player who can take face-offs. His calling card is his generally sound defensive play and being a decent fit for the Canes forechecking system.
The overall status of the depleted forward group
The reason for Saarela’s call-up is the injury to Jordan Martinook who reaggravated a lower body injury when falling into the boards. He returned for a few shifts in the second period but did not play in the third period and is not expected to be available on Saturday. News was much better than the worst case scenario for Andei Svechnikov after being knocked out in his fight with Alexander Ovechkin. He is in concussion protocol with an uncertain return, but the fact that he skated and took shots before practice on Thursday suggests there is hope for a return sooner rather than later. Finally, Micheal Ferland who reaggravated an existing upper body injury (thought to be a shoulder but never officially confirmed by the team) is expected to be out for awhile.
That leaves the Hurricanes with 10 regular NHL forwards including Saku Maenalanen who was the healthy scratch before the pair of injuries with the addition of AHL call-ups Patrick Brown and Aleksi Saarela.
The risk right now offensively
Before the addition of Saarela, the Hurricanes were down two players who had decent goal scoring potential in Svechnikov and Ferland with the replacements being two players who are more checking line type players in Maenalanen and Brown. Based on regular season scoring totals and NHL experience, the Hurricanes are really light on pure finishing ability on the wing. Game 3’s domination was fueled by offense generated by the strong forecheck. That portion of the offense/scoring is not really about having skill or finishing. It is about opportunistically generating enough high-quality chances to play the numbers game and also getting the puck and bodies to the net to score crease battle goals like those scored by Foegele. Ideally, the Hurricanes can resume generating offense with the forecheck, but in a game that requires playmaking and finishing, the Hurricanes are probably at a disadvantage to the Capitals. The key takeaway in this regard is that the Hurricanes need to stay even and/or score first. I think the current Canes personnel will struggle if they have to chase a game from behind.
But there are wild cards
But the Hurricanes do have a few wild cards offensively. The team’s top scorers really have not clicked yet. I thought Aho looked like a different player on the good side in Monday’s win, but the carry over to Thursday was minimal. Teravainen who has also had a quiet series scored a huge game-winner on Thursday closing out the second period and pushing the Canes into the third period with a lead. The group of Aho, Teravainen, Niederreiter and Williams who would be the primary parts for the top scoring line have only two goals total through four games. Were Aho and company to re-find the higher gear from February and early March, the Hurricanes offense would look much different.
Dougie Hamilton is another wild card. Despite being a defenseman, he was the team’s best offensive player down the stretch in the regular season and seems to be dialed in shooting-wise right now. Give him a few shots ideally with traffic in front, and he is as dangerous as any forward.
Aleksi Saarela is also a wild card. He needs to show he can handle NHL playoff pace and intensity, but if he earns Brind’Amour’s trust enough to get ice time, he has an NHL-caliber shot and could also benefit from the fact that Holtby has not seen him yet.
Using Saarela to his strength
Though I think Brind’Amour might have preferred Clark Bishop who has been out of the lineup since late March in Charlotte, he gets a completely different skill set in Saarela as a scorer. Rather that trying to make Saarela measure up as yet another elite forechecker perfectly built for Brind’Amour’s system and strategy right now, I would try to utilize his strengths. I would consider giving him ice time in Svechnikov’s slot on the power play, and I would also consider giving Saarela some offensive zone starts on scoring lines. At a minimum, I would get him some shifts with Lucas Wallmark who is playing well right now and contributed in Svechnikov’s two-goal game. More succinctly, I would look for chances to selectively put Saarela in position to contribute as a scorer.
The starting point for building lines
Down another forward, one could reasonably expect Brind’Amour to mix and match lines a bit on Saturday especially if he does not get a good feeling early about AHL call-ups Brown and Saarela. So I would not be surprised to see an occasional random line on Saturday especially after special teams play to balance out ice time among key players. But one would figure that Brind’Amour will use a bunch of familiar on Saturday.
Warren Foegele who is the most assertive Canes forward on the ice could play on any line trying to bring a skating spark. Brock McGinn similarly brings a hard-charging style that can generate
Aho/Teravainen could well see time together again.
Williams and Niederreiter could both slot in a few places trying to find a combination that works.
Add in Jordan Staal and Lucas Wallmark centering the other top lines and that group of eight regulars will be the core for the Hurricanes on Saturday. The key is for at least a couple of the depth players to have strong games and play their way into the regular mix.
The challenge of the road and the call for balance
The challenge of being shorthanded at forward is amplified from playing on the road. With the Capitals having last change on the road, the Hurricanes will not be able to go too top-heavy for fear of having weaker and/or more inexperienced lines get preyed upon. The fact that the game is on the road makes the case for giving Wallmark at least one of the core players on his wing to help balance things out.
What say you Canes fans?
1) Despite jumping from the AHL straight into the AHL spotlight, do you think Alesksi Saarela maybe gets carefully selected chances in an offensive role? For those who have been watching him in Charlotte, do you think he could be a surprise X-factor?
2) What would you do for line combinations to start Saturday’s game recognizing that the Capitals get last change on home ice?