One of the interesting story lines to track in the preseason is the assembling of lines and defense combinations. Only three games into a seven-game preseason, nothing is set in stone, but we do have a good luck at the starting point for Coach Bill Peters’ work in this regard.
Sebastian Aho / Jordan Staal / Elias Lindholm seem to be a thing at this point. The trio played together again in Wednesday night’s game against Tampa Bay, and they have seen each other consistently since training camp began.
Teuvo Teravainen / Victor Rask / Justin Williams also seem to be a thing. That trio has also practiced together regularly and saw preseason game action together earlier this week.
One would reason that lining out the two lines above leaves Jeff Skinner, Derek Ryan and Lee Stempniak as another line. This trio has also played together and Skinner and Ryan played together on Wednesday, though they were minus Lee Stempniak. One could easily reason that Lee Stempniak is the third right wing behind Elias Lindholm and Justin Williams. It would also be fair to say that Derek Ryan slots third behind Jordan Staal and Victor Rask with it even being possible to say that he ranks fourth behind Marcus Kruger. If one follows this train of logic to an end, it seems to reason that leading scorer Jeff Skinner, he of 37 goals, has been relegated to the third line.
Cue the heated debate…
But is Jeff Skinner really on the third line at all?
Whenever asked about the lineup using numbered lines terminology, NHL coaches nearly unanimously steer around it. And in the case of the Hurricanes especially, I would say that the lines or more purpose-built than ordered. Consider that the team does not really have a prototypical first scoring line top-heavy with raw scoring talent. And consider also that any kind of line numbering seems to slot Marcus Kruger in a fourth line role which would be a puzzling downgrade from his third line role in Chicago.
More significantly, does it even matter?
If forced to number lines, I think I could defend calling Skinner’s line anything from the first to the third. But especially for the Hurricanes 2017-18 lineup, I think numbering lines mostly misses the boat on where I think Bill Peters is headed. I do not think that the strategy is about line ordering and allocating minutes accordingly. Rather, I think it is about purpose-built lines that will largely be deployed situationally and with different tactics at home versus on the road.
What is Jeff Skinner’s role?
There is no devious top secrete plot here. Until one of the young guns emerges from the pack and overtakes him (and I am not saying that will necessarily happen anytime soon), Jeff Skinner is the Hurricanes top offensive weapon. First and foremost, his job is to score goals. And playing on a team that was below average in terms of scoring goals in 2016-17, the primary goal in terms of his deployment should be putting Jeff Skinner in situations to score as many goals as possible.
How does one maximize Jeff Skinner’s goal scoring opportunity?
So how does one put Jeff Skinner in the best possible situation to score? More ice time is better than less for scoring, but more significant than generic ‘ice time’ is maximizing ice time in high-quality scoring situations.
First and foremost is power play ice time when goals happen at the highest rate.
Second is ice time during other favorable scoring situations. There are a few elements here, but I think top of the list is quality of competition. Because of his every/any direction agility, Jeff Skinner is a difficult cover for any NHL defenseman, and he is an utter nightmare for defensemen who are average or below average skating-wise. Second to quality of competition, but still significant is maximizing offensive zone time. After all, that is where goals happen. Most people focus on offensive zone face-offs, but I think just as favorable are on the fly changes when the team has possession of the puck. There is a HUGE difference between coming onto the ice after your team has dumped the puck deep (and given up possession) to get a line change versus coming onto the ice with possession of the puck behind your own net after the other team dumped it in for a change.
Third is with line mates who can complement and boost possession and scoring chances.
So the primary objective with regard to Jeff Skinner if I was Bill Peters would be to get him as much scoring-favorable ice time as possible.
A diversion – Profiling Jeff Skinner
Because it is vital to defining what makes for the best possible situation for Jeff Skinner, I will next go on a bit of a side trip to profile Jeff Skinner.
Jeff Skinner is an elite NHL goal scorer, and he is incredibly self-sufficient. He creates and finishes his own chances. I would go so far as to say that Skinner has not really found chemistry of significance with line mates that boosted his scoring since he played with Jussi Jokinen and Tuomo Ruutu years ago. Victor Rask has probably played with Skinner the most in the past few years, and while I think the two work together, I would not so much say that Skinner made Rask significantly more productive or vice versa.
Skinner does benefit from having some skill on his line just like anyone would. But one thing that is unique about him is that unlike most pure goal scorers, I am not sure he would benefit all that much from playing with a pure playmaking center. That is because he has a preference for playing with the puck on his stick to generate chances versus the alternative of reading off a centerman with the puck and finding places to receive and finish. I actually think that is why Rask always worked fairly well with Skinner. Rask is comfortable playing with or without the puck, and he is a good read/react player. As such, he is capable of playing without the puck without becoming a fish out of water and seeing his game deteriorate.
So with his propensity to beat defensemen one on one and also his ability to retrieve loose pucks in the offensive zone and quickly finish, I think quality of competition is incredibly important. Skinner and his every/any way skating as I have termed it are nearly impossible for lesser skating defensemen to defend. More than anything else, I want Jeff Skinner on the ice against the other teams’ weakest defenders especially if the weakness is because of lack of mobility.
On the other hand, within reason that line mates are not as big of a factor. As noted above, it is not clear that Jeff Skinner would receive a huge scoring boost from a playmaking center, and I think there is some chance that it would even be a detriment because of the need to share the puck. There is need for line mates who have decent offensive ability and ideally the ability to match Skinner’s pace, but it is not clear to me that higher-end line mates would necessary provide a massive scoring boost.
Contemplating favorable ice time for Jeff Skinner
So if I want to maximize goal scoring for Jeff Skinner, it does not start with figuring out which line number he goes on. The starting point is incredibly simple. That starting point is first to get Skinner as much power play ice time as possible. He should lead the team in power play ice except possibly for a defenseman who can play more than a regular shift on the power play would receive more ice time.
Next I consider who he plays against at even strength. I want to opportunistically use Jeff Skinner against the other teams’ weakest defenders as much as possible.
Then I would try to get ice time slanted toward playing in the offensive zone where goals happen.
Finally, and in the order listed, I would consider who he plays with. There is a need for reasonably skilled line mates and the ability to play with pace, but I do not think Jeff Skinner needs to have his line stocked with other top players to be effective.
Enter ‘the third line’
Finally getting back to the topic at hand, I think the “third line” is a great fit for Jeff Skinner. A chunk of his ice time will be playing as much as possible on the power play. Behind that and with other match up type lines in front of him, Peters can opportunistically match Skinner’s line against lesser defenders looking to prey on them to the tune of bunches of scoring chances. And though I note it as a secondary condition, I actually think Derek Ryan might be the best possible center for Jeff Skinner. No doubt, Jordan Staal and Victor Rask rank higher on the depth chart, but I think Ryan rates equal or better to both of them offensively and definitely has more of a pure playmaking element to his game.
Netting it out
The biggest things for Jeff Skinner are maximizing his ice time in favorable scoring situations include the power play, against weak defenders and in the offensive zone. By putting Jeff Skinner on a ‘third line,’ he can steer him around the majority of the tough match ups and instead opportunistically get him on the ice against weak defenders. Finally, I think Derek Ryan could be a good option for a center next to Jeff Skinner.
What say you Canes fans?
Check out also the Thursday Coffee Shop which should be open by late morning at the latest for another round of Canes hockey debate?
What are your thoughts on Jeff Skinner’s current slot next to Derek Ryan and likely Lee Stempniak?