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Today’s Daily Cup of Joe does a deep dive on Canes center Lucas Wallmark.
Lucas Wallmark’s entry point following the 2018-19 season
After bursting onto the scene last year when Victor Rask was injured at the start of the 2018-19 season, Lucas Wallmark reminded me very much of Josef Vasicek and ironically also Victor Rask in their rookie seasons. Like both of those players, Wallmark was mature well beyond his experience level in terms of attention to detail and the challenging defensive responsibilities of an NHL center. Wallmark jumped straight in the C3 slot as a rookie and looked capable doing so. That advanced level of soundness defensively makes for a high floor for a young player and a great starting point to grow into more at the NHL level. Vasicek did that to some degree before injuries and a shift in the NHL to a faster game limited his ceiling. And Rask similarly rose quickly before suddenly plummeting when the offensive part of his game seemed to completely dry up. Then Wallmark did one better filling Jordan Staal’s shoes taking on Staal’s top-end match ups when Staal was out of the lineup for an extended period of time with a concussion.
Over the course of the 2018-19 season, Wallmark established himself as a capable center who was not in over his head defensively even against other teams’ top lines. He finished with a modest 28 points especially considering his reasonable helping of power play ice time and time with raw but talented Andrei Svechnikov. As a 24-year old coming off his rookie season, Wallmark entered the 2019-20 season with a firmly established high floor courtesy of his two-way play and seemingly still with offensive upside as he matured.
Lucas Wallmark in 2019-20
With the addition of Erik Haula, Lucas Wallmark entered the 2019-20 season slotted as the Hurricanes’ fourth line center. I view his 2019-20 season as being two primary segments. The first segment is primarily with Erik Haula in the lineup and Wallmark centering the fourth line that he started the season with. Through November 16 which was Haula’s last game before an extended layoff and less five other games Haula missed, Wallmark had a modest one goal and two assists in 15 games for a fourth-line-ish 16-point pace if projected over 82 games. During that stretch, Wallmark saw minimal power play time, mostly Brock McGinn, Jordan Martinook and AHL call ups as line mates and fourth line level ice time of 8-12 minutes most nights.
The other stretch of Wallmark’s season is the time with Haula out of the lineup. In the first short stint with Haula out, Wallmark had a goal and an assist in five games. During the longer second stretch with Haula out of the lineup, Wallmark found a higher gear and posted three goals and four assists in 15 games. So in 20 games without Haula in the lineup, Wallmark has collected nine points in 20 games with Haula out of the lineup for a higher 37-point pace. Maybe most interesting is that Wallmark has surged with seven points in five games since Haula returned to the lineup and mostly bumped Wallmark back down to the C4 slot.
In total, Wallmark’s pace for 39 points over a full season is a sizable step up from just over half of that in 2018-19, and his recent trajectory suggests that he might just be finding the next gear offensively. His development very much reminds me of Rask’s where he first built a solid foundation based on solid two-way play and then added offense to it with a skill set that is light on dash and flash but heavy on heady play and decent finishing ability.
Lucas Wallmark’s effect on those around him
Interestingly, the wings around Wallmark have not similarly flourished. None of the AHL call up fourth-liners clicked and stayed largely because none generated any goal scoring. Brian Gibbons, Clark Bishop and Julien Gauthier combined for exactly zero goals in 25 total games playing mostly on Wallmark’s wings. Brock McGinn and Jordan Martinook are having modest seasons in terms of goal scoring on pace for eight and four goals respectively over an 82-game season. So somewhat similar to his modest scoring totals centering the fourth line, those around him on the line have not produced significantly either.
Maybe more significantly, higher-scoring forwards Martin Necas and Ryan Dzingel did not really thrive flanking Wallmark. In the longer 15-game run without Haula in the lineup and mostly playing win on Wallmark’s line, Dzingel had zero goals and one assist at even strength in 15 games. Four of Dzingel’s five points during that stretch were on the power play. During that same stretch but only 11 games games with four games missed with an injury, Necas had only two goals in 11 games. So though Wallmark’s own production bumped up a bit, it is not clear that his line mates have benefited.
One could go multiple directions in figuring out how to interpret that. A good debate could be had about whether the light fourth line scoring is simply a function of the scoring ability for the wings or if perhaps Wallmark just does not generate enough scoring chances. The lack of scoring from Necas and Dzingel is maybe slightly more negative since both of those players possess scoring ability.
Credit where it is due / meeting my challenge
When Haula went down and was expected to be out for an extended period of time, I wrote in some detail about the opportunity that I termed a “crossroads” for Lucas Wallmark. In that article I wrote:
Fork in the road career-wise?
Now with 120 NHL games under his belt, I really think this next stretch could be a significant fork in the road for Wallmark’s career. If he can find a higher gear offensively with greater responsibility, he starts to look more like a capable third line center. If instead he continues to muddle along offensively, I think he even more so gets pegged as what he is currently which is a competent and capable depth center who just does not bring enough offensively to slot above the fourth line on a good team at least long-term.
My two cents on the tea leaves and where Lucas Wallmark best fits
When I try to mesh the numbers with what I have seen, my opinion is as follows…
–Lucas Wallmark has undeniably taken a step forward offensively though I think it is primarily as a complementary finisher and less so as a playmaker who generates a high number of chances for his line mates.
–Because I think his skill leans finishing over playmaking and also because he lacks speed at transition points, I do not think even the good version of Wallmark is a great fit for Necas and Dzingel whose strength is pressuring/attacking defensemen with pace through the neutral zone and crossing the offensive blue line. Too often they entered 2v2 or 2v3 with Wallmark not quite able to step up into the play to be the third and provide another option.
–It would take an injury such that Wallmark was playing back in the top 9 again, but I wonder if the best fit for Wallmark might be playing alongside a playmaking wing like Teravainen who likes playing with the puck on his stick and whose greatest strength is distributing the puck. Such a scenario might play well with Wallmark’s comfort level playing without the puck despite being a center and also his ability in a receive/finish role.
–Regardless of details and usage, Wallmark has taken a step forward this year offensively and is a Swiss Army Knife of a center capable of playing on both special teams units, taking key defensive zone draws, being sound defensively and growing offensively.
Coming out of the 2018-19 season, I would have rated Lucas Wallmark as a very good fourth line center with unproven potential to be more of a middle 6 center if he could find a higher gear offensively. In 2019-20, Wallmark has made a strong case for being that middle 6 center based on his increased offensive production. Those are very different things in terms of slotting and also significantly salary since after playing two years for a meager $675,000 on his entry-level contract Wallmark will be a restricted free agent with arbitration rights this summer.
This might sound odd, but in some ways the Hurricanes might be better off with a version of Wallmark that is somewhat tamped down offensively. If Wallmark does push up to 40 or more points, he very much looks like a scoring-capable third line center in terms of arbitration comparables. Whereas 20-25ish points looks like McGinn’s $2.1 million salary, 40-45 points could easily push north of $3 million. With the Hurricanes needing to re-sign Andrei Svechnikov and Dougie Hamilton after the 2020-21 season, a Wallmark salary north of $3 million becomes more of a decision point in terms of roster building than a no-brainer budget player who can fill many roles. At a minimum, it almost certainly forces the Hurricanes to choose between Wallmark and Haula. At an extreme, he becomes one of the players to consider unloading for value as the team starts to push up against the salary cap. At a very basic level, having players play well and command raises and facing the related salary cap challenge is a good thing. It means the team is doing well and can also trade a few players from positions of strength/value. But at the same time, getting one of two more years of Lucas Wallmark at a bargain price would have been a plus salary cap-wise.
If I try to build a peak Hurricanes lineup out two-ish years, I continue to think that ideal is having a second higher-end center to give the Hurricanes 1A and 1B scoring lines. Skill-set wise but with no guarantees on the ability/time line to round out other areas of his game, I think Martin Necas has the greatest chance to be this second center in the future. That seems to again put Wallmark as more of a 2B for Staal’s role.
Salary cap math and lineup building aside, I think Wallmark is making a case for a larger role even if it requires some figuring out line combination-wise though the new management regime has shown a willingness to trade out of good players if the money math is not right.
What say you Canes fans?
1) Where do you land on assessing Lucas Wallmark as a third line or higher center after his recent scoring surge? Is he arriving and on the brink of carving out a permanent slot in the top 9 starting in 2020-21? Or is he still just a valuable fringe third/fourth line center?
2) If Wallmark pushes to 40 or more points in 2019-20, do you see that as more likely to establish him in a greater role or more likely to make him unaffordable and therefore an off-season trade chip?
3) What do you project/expect for Lucas Wallmark for the rest of the 2019-20 season given his recent scoring surge?