To have success in the NHL requires a deep roster that can hold its own from top to bottom, but for the most part those are table stakes. Winning and losing is very often determined by which team’s best players are better with goaltending always having the potential to swing a series.
Today’s Daily Cup of Joe identifies the top Canes players most integral to success in the playoffs for the Hurricanes.
The top 3 centers
Before the season started, I tagged the play of Vincent Trocheck and Jordan Staal as critical to the Canes success for the 2020-21 season. Trocheck needed to be part of a second scoring line that helped balance the scoring. Staal needed to rebound after a ‘meh’ 2019-20 campaign and at least be a solid checking line center behind the two scoring lines. Both have greatly exceeded even high hopes during the regular season. Trocheck is among the team’s top scorers and has during stretches been the team’s top offensive player. Staal has rebounded defensively as hoped but on top of that has also scored at a pace nearly double what he did last season. Not surprisingly, the Canes strength down the middle has been a key part of the team’s success in the regular season. Continuing on a similar track will be critical to achieving success in the playoffs.
With his strong April, Sebastian Aho will not finish right around a point per game in the regular season. I still think he could have one more gear offensively, but especially with his development into a capable or better two-way center, he has become a top line center who can match up against anyone. The next step for him is in the playoffs. Aho’s playoff play and production has been good in both of the last two playoffs. But in both series losses, Bergeron’s line was better than his. Can he lead a line that plays even or better against other top-end lines in the playoffs? That could be what it takes for the Canes to beat a team like Tampa Bay and possibly others waiting if the Canes make it out of the division.
Games lost to injury have tamped down Trocheck’s point total, but he too will finish right around a point per game for games he played in. That gives the Hurricanes two nearly equal scoring lines which is especially important on the road in the playoffs. The aim for the playoffs is for Trocheck to just continue on the path he has been on all season.
No doubt it is asking a lot, but for the Hurricanes to challenge for the Stanley Cup, Jordan Staal needs to play a similar role to Brind’Amour in the 2006 playoffs. He needs to take a heavy share of the tough match ups and be even or better. That requires keeping the pace defensively and as much of the scoring surge as possible.
If the Hurricanes continue to get strong play from the top three centers, they can compete with any team in the NHL.
The fourth defenseman
Brady Skjei (hopefully)
I also see the fourth blue line slot as critical to a deep playoff run. This does presuppose that Jaccob Slavin, Dougie Hamilton and Brett Pesce are solid. Hamilton is a tiny bit more of a wild card as a player who does stray a bit defensively at times and had a rough patch early in the 2019 playoffs, but I still think this group of three will be good enough or better in terms of beating good teams in the playoffs. But beating good teams in the playoffs, especially on the road, requires having two defense pairing that can hold their own against elite scoring lines. And that requires having a fourth defenseman who is capable of fulfilling that role. Thus far in 2020-21, Skjei has been up to the task. His ability to play at that level consistently makes the Canes balanced and solid across two defense pairings. If one of the top 4 defenseman goes does with an injury, I think ability for someone to rise up and play at that level would be critical to staying in the hunt for the Cup. I am on record as being concerned about the Canes depth on defense and being able to backfill a top 4 slot if that becomes necessary.
In any playoff series, the goalie can be a wild card. Poor play by a goalie even for just a couple games can decide a series. And on the flip side, a hot goalie can sometimes steal a series. I think the Hurricanes have reached a level such that they do not need their goalie to steal a series against a better team. The Hurricanes are good enough to beat anyone if they play well. But whether it is Mrazek, Nedeljkovic or Reimer, the Hurricanes do need their goalie to be steady and solid just like any other team in the playoffs.
Mrazek has been easily good enough thus far in the 2020-21 season, but the question is if he can rebound quickly for the second time this season.
As a rookie capitalizing on an opportunity caused by an injury, there is definitely an air of Cam Ward in Nedeljkovic’s 2020-21 season. He is playing incredibly well and has a big game pedigree as a younger player. If given the opportunity, could he follow in Ward’s tracks as a rookie goalie excelling under the bright lights of the playoffs?
What say you Canes fans?
1) Of the five players (counting the collective ‘goalie’ as one) that identified, who do you think is most critical to the Hurricanes playoff success?
2) Who would be on your list of the 4-5 most important players for the Hurricanes success?