In the wee hours of the night (that will teach me not to write my daily post earlier in the day when the Canes are on the west coast), my Daily Cup of Joe considered the puzzle pieces facing Coach Bill Peters at the forward position.
After some sleep and some time to think about it, here is the direction I would take right now for the forward position if I was Bill Peters.
1) If it ain’t broke don’t fix it
The Skinner/Rask/Stempniak line has been nothing short of sensational thus far and has almost singlehandedly (with a little help from the power play) produced enough offense to register 2 points in the standings despite lackluster defense and goaltending. There is no reason to even consider tinkering with this right now. The trio gives Peters 1 line and a chunk of the scoring that the team needs.
2) Prioritize building a foundation of 6
Past the obvious of leaving Skinner/Rask/Stempniak together, my second priority above all else would be to build a solid checking-capable line around Jordan Staal. Ideally, the line needs to score some too, and I think that is possible given the personnel available, but the top priority is regaining the soundness and stability that Staal’s line provided during the middle stretch of 2015-16.
This priority tops all others. Anything other than stealing from the Rask line is perfectly acceptable.
Some might say that this could leave some odd combinations or not enough talent for the third and fourth lines. I am perfectly willing to live with whatever patchwork is necessary for the bottom 6. With a solid checking Staal line added to the Rask line, Peters suddenly has almost two-thirds of the ice time he needs at forward if both of those lines run close to 20 minutes. In addition, there are power play and penalty minutes dispersed among the players who would be left. The result is that Peters could need as little as 15-18 minutes from his bottom 2 lines and would have some ability to pick match ups and situations for them.
There are any number of possible combinations that could be tried. Based on what we saw last year, Nordstrom/Staal/Nestrasil should have been at least decent, but it just has not worked thus far in 2016-17. The job description for playing on a checking line centered by Staal is that the wings must bring at least reasonable speed to keep up with/support Staal through the neutral zone, must be solid defensively and ideally be capable of playing a cycling game. I am not sure there are perfect fits which is why Peters happily stuck with Nordstrom/Staal/Nestrasil last season even though they were maybe a bit light scoring-wise for a second line.
My first try would be moving Elias Lindholm back to right wing and playing Phil Di Giuseppe on the left side. Both players skate reasonably well, are decent 2-way players and have some potential (more than other options) to contribute to a grinding possession game. And if the line clicks, there is seemingly more scoring ability than last year’s trio.
At least short-term, I am not high on Aho or Teravainen for this role. Sure both would add a higher skill element to the line, but each would have to rate 3 out of 10 or less in terms of puck engagement so far, and I think that could be a recipe for problems for the match ups that Staal’s line will see especially once the Hurricanes return home Peters lines them up against opponents’ best lines all night.
Important to note is that this move is not so much a vote against Lindholm at center. It is just that short-term, I am place choosing the best possible line mates for Jordan Staal above all else. Last season, the Hurricanes received a tough lesson in how quickly a season evaporate quickly in October and November, so the time is now to at least build a stable top half of the roster to ride while some other things get sorted out.
So my first try is Di Giuseppe/Staal/Lindholm.
3) Build a scoring-capable third line with which you can pick spots
Last season, the third line during the team’s winning run was primarily Skinner/Rask/Di Giuseppe with a little bit of Lindholm mixed in Di Giuseppe’s slot. Peters was able to shield that line a little bit and cherry pick favorable match ups on occasion and use the line for solid depth scoring. With some talented but also inexperienced (overall for Aho, in Peters’ system for Teravainen) players, it could make sense to do the exact same thing again. Aho/Teravainen have familiarity and are scoring-capable. I think ideally what they need is a complementary player who can help win/keep possession especially on the walls but also has enough smarts and skill to contribute offensively.
I think the key prerequisites are that the player be capable of skating with the kids and also have enough offensive acumen to not be a null offensively. Those 2 prerequisites could rule out many of the players on the fourth line. I like Nestrasil for the open slot with Teravainen moving back to his one-time natural center position.
So I would try Aho/Teravainen/Nestrasil realizing that Bryan Bickell or Viktor Stalberg could also be possibilities. My gut instinct says that Stalberg could meet the skating requirement but might be light offensively and that Bickell would be the opposite as a good ‘around the crease’ option offensively but maybe not mobile enough to keep up.
4) Try shaking up the fourth line
The Hurricanes need to ideally get 2 of 3 things from the fourth line. First, the team ideally needs to net an upfront penalty killing pair. Second, the team could use some secondary scoring. Third, for a team that is light on size and physical play, the team could use some jam and spark from an old school energy fourth line. The penalty killing option should be doable. I think the burning question for me is whether it could be possible to build a scoring-capable line that was not a defensive liability around a center other than Jay McClement.
I am not as high on Martin Frk as some. I see him as a bit of a one-dimensional scorer but maybe no man’s land as a player who cannot skate or defend well enough to climb onto a true scoring line. I think it is a long shot, but with Joakim Nordstrom now minus a regular slot, I would consider trying him at center between Bickell and Stalberg, so Bickell/Nordstrom/Stalberg. The line does not look like an offensive juggernaut by any stretch of imagination, but maybe the injection of speed at the center position leads to better puck movement, more offensive zone time and a few more scoring chances here and there.
What about Charlotte?
Longer-term, I do not think it is out of the question that we see forwards from Charlotte enter the mix, but I think Peters has enough shifting parts right now that it is not a great time to add even more wild cards and inexperienced players to the mix.
What do I think Bill Peters will do?
It is purely a hunch, by my best guess is that Peters will be less aggressive. My guess is that he will be slower to move Lindholm from the center position only 3 games into a trial that is going okay. That would suggest something more like Di Giuseppe (on either wing) with Staal with a number of options for the third.
Though I like the idea, I also would be somewhat surprised to see Peters take McClement out of the lineup this soon. McClement has actually been okay thus far, and the fourth line has not been a huge problem.
My best guess is that Peters will do Di Giuseppe/Staal/????, will pull at least 1 player off the third line (possibly for Staal’s) and stick with McClement and some combination of the NHL-level leftovers instead of reaching to Charlotte to fill out the fourth line.
Line combinations are arguably the greatest coffee shop bantering topic available. I would love to hear everyone else’s ideas for how best to build a lineup past the 1 working line right now.