Sebastian Aho has been so lights out offensively, that his defensive play (which has been fine) rarely makes it into conversation about him. Jordan Staal continues to do his thing as the best money can buy for a checking line center. The complementary one-two punch down the middle is eating up 39 minutes of ice time per game. But that still leaves the Hurricanes needing about 21 minutes from the bottom two centers. That part of the lineup is a bit of a work in process and also a game of musical chairs so far.
Lucas Wallmark as a ‘serviceable’ #3
Lucas Wallmark has been a mainstay in the lineup initially as the fourth center but more likely really more in the third line shot. He has been a serviceable all-around center thus far but has yet to really find it offensively at the NHL level. Wallmark posted great offensive numbers at the AHL level in 2017-18 but only a single goal and no assists in 11 games at the NHL level in 2017-18. Thus far in 2018-19, he again has a single goal and no assists. That production is light even for an old school checking line center, but more significantly, it just will not cut it in today’s NHL that requires production 12 players deep. Wallmark’s scoring pace is no better than Kruger, Nordstrom and Jooris from last season who were jettisoned because of it. My starting point for any center at the NHL level in today’s NHL is whether they have at least some playmaking ability. Without that, the result is almost always a checking line that will struggle to score. For now, the Hurricanes are light on options and Wallmark has been capable defensively, so he will continue to hold his spot, but the burning question long-term is whether he can find a higher gear offensively once he acclimates to the NHL.
Musical chairs at #4 — Martin Necas, Clark Bishop and Nicolas Roy
The other center slot has more or less become an open try out. During the summer, the hope was that Martin Necas was ready to parachute into the NHL and be ready. He was not. Four or five games into his NHL trial, it became clear to me that he just was not ready yet and would be better-served playing a ton of minutes at the AHL level. That happened which paved the way for Clark Bishop to make his NHL debut. He was not bad but was nowhere close to noticeable in his first game, but Bishop and his line were better, especially early, in his second game. Then this week the team announced that it had sent Clark Bishop back to the AHL and had recalled Nicolas Roy. So only ten games into the 2018-19 season, the team will try its third player in the open center slot that theoretically was Victor Rask’s before his hand injury.
Let’s consider what each brings to the table…
At least in terms of projections, Necas brings speed and playmaking to the lineup. The issue was that Necas just was not able to deliver. Not surprisingly, Necas’ game is a bit raw defensively. But what jumped out me during his audition was the fact that the playmaking and offense that project to be his strengths was equally unrefined. As such, it is uncertain right now if or when he is part of the NHL equation for the 2018-19 season. As a young talented player, he could make rapid strides and be a going concern at the NHL level when the calendar turns, or he could spend the entire season in the AHL working to hone his offensive craft and round out his two-way play. More succinctly, Necas is an unknown for the 2018-19 season.
Bishop brings speed and capable two-way play. His pace also fits well with how Brind’Amour wants to play. But even the good version of Bishop figures to be limited offensively. His skill set is more that of a checking line forward. He was not a point per game player in the high scoring QMJHL and put up only 28 points in 68 games in 2017-18. Put simply, his strength is not offense.
I talked about this in some detail in my crystal ball-ish Daily Cup of Joe for Tuesday that discussed the limitations with Bishop and the possibility of seeing Roy.
I am torn on Clark Bishop centering what I am calling the fourth line right now. On the one hand, I voted multiple times to get Martin Necas more ice time in Charlotte. He just was not ready for the NHL yet which is not a big deal considering he is 19 years old and in his first professional season. And I think Brind’Amour’s decision to go with Clark Bishop hinged on just being something sound and stable for the short-term. There is merit in going that route short-term, but I continue to believe that the path forward is to be four lines deep with scoring ability, and I think that is tough to do with a center who is limited offensively (reference Marcus Kruger in 2017-18). So as the 2018-19 season plays out, it will be interesting see which direction this goes. Janne Kuokkanen is arguably the most NHL-ready player in Charlotte right now and was drafted as a center, but for whatever reason the Hurricanes organization seems to have him pegged as a wing. Nicolas Roy is the other option who is off to a fast start. He would not classify as a pure playmaking center, but his offensive ceiling is probably higher than Bishop’s. Victor Rask theoretically adds another center, but his time line seems to be a ways off. Is it out of the question that the Hurricanes add via trade now that the probability of Necas being the answer in 2018-19 is reduced? Regardless, what the team does with this center slot is worth watching as the season rolls on.
Enter Nicolas Roy who will likely make his 2018-19 NHL debut and play in his second overall NHL game on Friday. Roy is a bit like Bishop in that he is a solid two-way player. One of the things that has jumped out about Roy’s game playing at a prospect level over the past couple years is how mature his game is. He is not dynamic nor does he necessarily excel at anything specific, but he is pretty well-rounded for his age. Roy should be fine in the face-off circle and capable defensively somewhat like Lucas Wallmark. But two questions will define his try out. First is whether he can match NHL pace and do more than keep up in the process. Roy has made gradual progress which is encouraging, but his starting point as a prospect was needing to make significant gains skating-wise. He has made strides, but the question is whether it is enough. Second is whether he can contribute offensively. As far as AHL play goes, he projects to be a step up from Bishop, but at the same time he would be a step down from Wallmark who has yet to figure it out offensively. So Roy offensively is more of a dice roll that could work than a sure thing.
So based on that, my watch points for Roy’s audition are twofold. Can he match NHL pace or does he look to be in over his head in transition events? Can he bring something offensively to help his line contribute something for depth scoring?
With Necas still projected to be the answer down the road and Victor Rask hopefully helping later in the season, the team is unlikely to get desperate in the trade market. So at least short-term, the Hurricanes will continue to explore internal options.
What say you Canes fans?
1) What were your impressions of Clark Bishop’s two-game audition? Do you think he could be the answer at least short-term in the fourth center slot?
2) What are you expecting/hoping for from Nicolas Roy likely starting on Friday?
3) How long would you hold out hope that Lucas Wallmark is just acclimating gradually and is due to break out offensively at any time now?