Important disclaimer: Last summer, Ron Francis made his biggest deal in September when he plucked Kris Versteeg and Joakim Nordstrom from the Blackhawks roster for virtually nothing. So any year over year roster analysis is obviously an interim check in.
Important to select correct rosters for comparison
Critical to trying to determine of the Hurricanes are better or worse off roster-wise is selecting the correct point in time for the 2015-16 roster. The comparison point should be the roster that the Hurricanes won with during their surge from early December through the end of February when things changed significantly at the trade deadline. The team from that 3-month stretch is the one that needs to be bettered or even just matched if it can be sustained for a full 82-game season.
Lost from the December-February roster
Lost from the winning roster from 2015-16 are Eric Staal, Kris Versteeg and John-Michael Liles. There are a few other depth players who have also departed, but those players were sharing time in the #11 and #12 slots and not the drivers of the team’s success during the winning run from early December through the end of February.
Most significant is the loss of Eric Staal and Kris Versteeg who accounted for two-thirds of the Hurricanes top line. On the surface, the duo and the line that they led does not seem hard to replace. Eric Staal’s scoring totals were underwhelming at 33 points in 63 games. Kris Versteeg had exactly the same points total in exactly the same number of games. But what is lost is the role that the line had driving possession and controlling play. Both players were among the team leaders in advanced statistical measures of possession and shot percentages. While they were never able to convert offensive zone time, puck possession and good shot differentials into first line scoring, they did do their part to hold other teams down. The result was a team that was 2 lines deep in terms of giving up very little. The result was a team that stayed in games and collected points at a playoff-type pace winning tight games or least pushing to overtime.
That top line that had Versteeg/EStaal as a constant with a mix of primarily Elias Lindholm or Phil Di Giuseppe at right wing is what the Hurricanes must replace this summer. I think the task is more challenging than a quick look at scoring totals might indicate.
Also not to be missed is the departure of John-Michael Liles. Liles, combined with Brett Pesce, was the defensive equivalent of the Versteeg/EStaal combination. The defensive duo did not generate a ton offensively, but they were generally safe and sound, difficult to play against and mostly mistake free. The result was a combination that was not flashy but gave up very little. Pesce looked nowhere near as good when playing with Noah Hanifin who is also young and still learning too. The chemistry that Liles had with Pesce should not be underestimated when trying to build the 2016-17 roster. It is possible that the Hurricanes take a step down replacing Liles if a young player hits a bump in the road and also a step down with Pesce who fit incredibly well with Liles.
Gained this summer
To replace Kris Versteeg and Eric Staal in the top half of the forwards, the Hurricanes added Teuvo Teravainen and Lee Stempniak. These two players seem capable of replacing the raw scoring that departed, but the more significant challenge for Bill Peters might be finding lines that can match the chemistry and style of play and the puck possession that resulted from it. In addition to proven NHLers Teravainen and Stempniak, Sebastian Aho and the huge potential that he brings to the lineup is a wild card. He has yet to play even a minor league professional game in North America, so projecting what he will do is a guess at this point. But the offensive potential is there for him to quickly play his way up the roster.
John-Michael Liles will be replaced from young players moving up the depth chart. Jaccob Slavin was the player who saw the biggest increase in ice time and role when Liles left and Justin Faulk was eventually shelved for the season due to injury. He absolutely excelled in a bigger role. The volume of young defensemen with NHL experience and new reinforcements seeking NHL experience offer plenty of options to back fill Liles’ slot, but there is much to be said for having some predictable and safe veterans in the lineup to provide support and stability.
Key measuring points
When you net it out, there are two important points of comparison. The first is whatever Coach Bill Peters ices as a top scoring line to play alongside Jordan Staal’s line. With Peters’s comments at prospect camp about trying Elias Lindholm and Teuvo Teravainen together, my best guess right now is that the first try for a top line will be Skinner/Rask/Stempniak. That line could make or break the Hurricanes offensively and more generally at forward. Slotted as a first or second line, they will see a heavy helping of other teams’ first and second lines. Against Metropolitan Division foes that includes a regular does of players like Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Phil Kessell, Claude Giroux, Wayne Simmonds, Jakub Voracek, John Tavares, Alexander Ovechkin, Niklas Backstrom, etc. At home, Bill Peters will try to match Jordan Staal’s line against the other teams’ best, but on the road a Skinner/Rask/Stempniak line will surely be tested by opposing coaches to see if they can hold their own against elite lines.
The other key measuring point will be if Peters can find chemistry and quality to build two defense pairings similarly capable of spending most of their ice time against the other teams’ best players. The pieces seem to be there but in the form of young players who are still learning.