During the weekend, the Hurricanes recalled Eetu Luostarinen from the AHL. Today as expected, the other shoe dropped when Sara Civian from The Athletic quoted Rod Brind’Amour as saying that Erik Haula who is now out would not be back “any time soon.”
The news bumps Lucas Wallmark back up into Haula’s third line slot and back fills the fourth line center slot with Luostarinen though I think that is subject to change based on play.
Today’s Daily Cup of Joe looks at the new center situation from multiple angles.
No doubt losing Erik Haula for an extended period team is a big deal. Haula helped make the team team three lines deep at even strength, and he was playing a vital role on the power play. The Hurricanes do not have another player who can do what Haula does on the power play. Jordan Staal has an even bigger body but has just never had a knack for when to screen versus when to slide out for a pass and just does not have the finishing hands of a true goal scorer. Replacing Haula will have to be by committee. The power play may need to adjust a bit with his absence. And at even strength, Wallmark pushes into a bigger role. The big question there is if he has a higher gear offensively.
If Haula is out for an extended period of time, I think this next stretch could be a fork in the road for Wallmark’s NHL career. As a rookie in 2018-19, Wallmark made two sizable steps forward. First, he was able to step into the third-line center slot vacated when Victor Rask was injured. Playing mostly with Jordan Martinook and Andrei Svechnikov early in the season, Wallmark proved competent even if not flashy at the NHL level. Then when Jordan Staal was out of the lineup for an extended period of time with a concussion, Wallmark made another leap forward stepping into Staal’s top checking role logging a bunch of minutes against other teams’ best lines. Wallmark again proved capable in an even bigger role. In total, Wallmark’s rookie season was a success, but the lingering question was whether he could/would find a higher gear with experience. His 28 points with a reasonable helping of power play ice time was light for being more than a depth or fourth line center. And thus far in 2019-20 he is tracking similarly. Now bumped off the power play, Wallmark’s 20-point pace is nearly identical to the 21 points he had at even strength in 2018-19.
Fit within the Hurricanes structure
On a team with 1A and 1B scoring lines, I think Wallmark could slot nicely as a third line center on a checking-focused line. But on the Hurricanes, the issue with slotting another offense lite, sold two-way center into the Hurricanes top 9 is that Jordan Staal is already exactly that. At the point where Jordan Staal and Lucas Wallmark both center top 9 lines and continue at their historical scoring paces, the Hurricanes quickly become a one-line team offensively and will be challenged to produce enough offense on nights when the forecheck does not click.
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.
Enter Eetu Luostarinen. He looked very good in his brief NHL stint. He also brings a bit more pace and tempo and more of a physical edge than Luostarinen. And based on his play through three games, Luostarinen seems capable of filling a similar role as Wallmark. But only 21 years old and three games deep into his NHL career, the burning question is whether Luostarinen can bring more offensively with his different skill set. Out of the gate on Tuesday, Wallmark slots third and Luostarinen fourth at the center position, but I think that is subject to adjust pretty quickly if Luostarinen can continue on his current path and especially if he starts to produce offensively. Even if not for 2019-20 once the lineup is healthy, I think Luostarinen is playing to make an impression for where he might slot for 2020-21 and beyond.
Another ripple effect of Haula being out is that there will again be a bit more pressure on Staal to produce offensively. The timing might be right for this. Staal started slow this season, but his latest line with Ryan Dzingel and Warren Foegele was the team’s best on Saturday in Minnesota. Just maybe timing is right for Staal and his line to find a higher gear and pick up some slack for the loss of Haula.
Luostarinen or I guess theoretically Wallmark have the potential to change the situation, but I think ultimately Martin Necas is the ideal candidate for a center slot long-term. He brings the dynamic that Wallmark lacks and has the potential to be a tremendous NHL playmaker especially off the rush with his fluid skating ability laterally and straight line speed.
After struggling at the center position for his audition to start the 2018-19 season, I would be surprise to see Necas shifted back to center near-term. He is playing well and building a foundation at the NHL level as a wing, and best is not to mess with positive momentum right now. But that said, I do think more than any other player currently in the system that Necas could be the longer-term heir apparent to Haula’s slot.
Best bet is that the Hurricanes will not revisit Necas at center until late this season or even more likely 2020-21 or later. But if Necas does somehow get a second audition at the center position, count me as someone on the edge of his seat. I have long said that the Holy Grail for the Hurricanes is being able to build a second scoring line behind Aho’s to compensate for Staal’s light scoring and balance the lineup. More than any other player currently in the organization, Necas has the potential to excel in this role.
What say you Canes fans?
1) Do you think Lucas Wallmark has a higher gear offensively, or is he what we have seen so far a competent defensive center who is limited offensively?
2) What are the chances that Eetu Luostarinen seizes the opportunity presented to him, never looks back and claims a more permanent slot in the NHL lineup?
3) Though maybe not yet, what are your thoughts on Martin Necas eventually moving back to center and becoming the catalyst/playmaker for a second scoring line?