Projecting preseason lines based on Bill Peters’ comments on Hurricanes line combinations
Bill Peters has said enough on his radio tour and at Canes events/media sessions that we have a pretty good idea how the Carolina Hurricanes top 9 will look at least to start training camp.
At a basic level, it is likely to start out like this:
Joakim Nordstrom / Jordan Staal / Andrej Nestrasil
Jeff Skinner / Victor Rask / Lee Stempniak
Sebastian Aho / Teuvo Teravainen / Elias Lindholm
When I consider the individual forwards projected to be in the Hurricanes top 9, I am inclined to break them into 5 different sets of 2 players each.
True/proven top 6 – Jordan Staal, Lee Stempniak
The only players that I would categorize as true and proven top 6 forwards who would be certain to be slotted into a similar role on deeper teams that are more certain playoff teams are Jordan Staal and Lee Stempniak. Staal might be light on offense, but he has proven he can compete against other teams’ top 6 forwards and hold his own. Stempniak is a strange case of a journeyman who has played in a variety of roles, but I think qualifies as a top 6 forward. Interesting is that if someone tried to make the case that Jordan Staal is still really just the elite version of a 3rd/checking line center he was in Pittsburgh before arriving in Raleigh, I would admit there is some merit to this argument. And if someone tried to make the case that Lee Stempniak is really just very good scoring depth for the third line on a deeper team, I can see that argument too. But leaning optimistically I think there is also a case to put these players in the top 6.
Counting on chemistry – Joakim Nordstrom, Andrej Nestrasil
From the beginning of December through the end of February, Nordstrom/JStaal/Nestrasil was a very good top 6 forward line. They did not blow the doors off scoring-wise, but they were a net positive because of how little they gave up by keeping the puck and also playing sound defense without it. But I would not consider either Andrej Nestrasil or Joakim Nordstrom to be tried and true top 6 forwards regardless of situation.
The fact that both were marginal roster players for regular playoff entrants says something about the state of the Hurricanes forward depth especially when they were obtained. Andrej Nestrasil was claimed at no cost off waivers from the Red Wings when a couple players came back from injury, and he was not good enough to stick in the Wings top 13 at the NHL level early in the 2014-15 season. Similarly, Nordstrom was expendable for the Blackhawks because he was similarly a #12/#13 type of depth forward for them.
As happens in hockey, the line jelled chemistry and role-wise and the sum was better than the individual parts. A key question for solidifying the Canes 2016-17 lineup is whether the trio can pick up where it left off and be a solid shutdown line with just enough scoring playing against other teams’ best lines. In doing neat and tidy sets of 2, Phil Di Giuseppe does not appear in this list. I already wrote an article about him being the forgotten forward, but I think he could also fit here. He was not the driver but was a pretty good complement on the third line with Skinner and Rask during the line’s best stretch of the 2015-16 season.
Trying to move up – Jeff Skinner, Victor Rask
Victor Rask and Jeff Skinner spent the majority of the 2015-16 season playing together, and both players had solid seasons. Victor Rask took a significant step forward offensively going from 33 points in his rookie season to 48 in his second season in 2015-16. Jeff Skinner led the team with 28 goals and also made strides defensively.
But for the 2015-16 season, Skinner and Rask did most of this in a third line role. When hot, they did see some of other teams’ best defenders on the road, but they also had the luxury of playing many of their shifts against lesser competition and at home had the benefit of Peters picking match ups for them.
As built right now, the Carolina Hurricanes 2016-17 roster slots them as the top scoring/offensive line. With that comes a regular helping of elite checking lines and strength against strength match ups against other teams’ best lines. How they handle this challenge will have a significant impact on the Hurricanes 2016-17 results.
Trying to make it there – Teuvo Teravainen, Elias Lindholm
What projects currently as the Canes third line is anchored by 2 young but experienced players. Both Elias Lindholm and Teuvo Teravainen were drafted in the first round with skill sets that projected them into the top 6 in a couple years. Both players matriculated to the NHL quickly and have had their share of runs in the top 6. But neither player has yet put it all together, stuck in a top 6 role and become the every game difference-maker that one would have projected a couple years ago. They start technically in third line roles but are also players capable of playing the top 6 if they can put it all together.
Pedigree but no experience – Sebastian Aho, Julien Gauthier
I am going to cheat and pull a player from off the depth chart into the mix to build a fifth set of 2 players with top 6 potential. Young rookies Sebastian Aho (19) and Julien Gauthier (18) both project to be top 6 forwards (just like Teravainen and Lindholm a couple years ago) but have yet to play in a single NHL game even of the preseason variety. Because of that, projecting just how much and more significantly how soon they will develop is pure speculation. Sebastian Aho is penciled into the lineup based on what he did in Finland and in the international tournaments last season. Aho has as high of a probability of making the opening day roster as is possible for a player who has yet to play in an NHL game. I wrote earlier this summer about the need with patience for Aho. He is incredibly promising but also incredibly young and without any NHL experience. I would peg Julien Gauthier’s chances of sticking at the NHL level past a 9-game NHL try out at a much lower 20-30 percent, but per my post yesterday on training camp highlights, his skill set is 1 that the Canes NHL roster needs.
Positives and negatives
I think the biggest positive in reviewing the Canes forward ranks is the growing volume of players who at least might be top 6-capable. That is a sign of depth. Whereas the Carolina Hurricanes in recent years have had to force players up into the top half of the roster (reference Elias Lindholm) regardless of readiness, a common characteristic of good teams is that they regularly push good players down into the bottom half of the roster or even out of the NHL until they are truly ready or even ‘overripe’ to use a Ron Francis term (reference Jonathan Drouin). The Hurricanes are finally nearing the point when they will have more potentially good players competing for top 6 or top 9 forward slots than there are slots available.
The negative short-term is that the categories above highlight the fact that the Hurricanes are not all the way there yet. ‘Maybe’ and ‘hopefully’ players still outnumber ‘definitely’ players by a significant margin. On August 8, I wrote another article in a similar vein suggesting that the Hurricanes would be relying significantly on player development and growth to improve in 2016-17. Is it possible that the players all take a step forward in unison and the team vaults upward in the process? Because the players play together and because chemistry and system play a role, this is very possible. These are not individual dice rolls but rather a group trying to move forward together.