Though the exact combinations are subject to change and then change again before we get real hockey in October, the 1st practice on Friday did highlight the basics of where the Canes are in terms of building out the forward lines.
Most of how we think of things as fans of a specific team is from an internal view. It tends to carry a bit of optimism (just look what Leafs fans propose for trades on any message board) and be based on players’ roles and performance on our team. My aim in this post is to offer a balanced outsider’s view of the Canes that maybe leans skeptical without being unreasonably negative.
In practice on Friday, Coach Bill Peters had 3 NHLish lines sprinkled about the 3 practice groups and a few other likely NHLers here and there.
Jeff Skinner/Victor Rask/Elias Lindholm – With Skinner’s raw scoring ability, Lindholm’s good 2014-15 season and upward trajectory and Rask’s solid all-around play, I think people who are hockey knowledgable and outside of Canes territory would agree that this is a pretty good set of young players. But I think they would also fairly make the argument that it is getting ahead of things to call them a true 1st or 2nd line on a deep, playoff-bound NHL team. Ideally, a high-end team would push this group down the 3rd-line and hope for 2nd-line type production. Nonetheless, I think even an outsider would not quibble much with saying that all 3 of these players are top 9 forwards.
=>If you could slot this as a 3rd line with 2 solid veteran lines above it, I think you would have to be thrilled.
Nathan Gerbe/Jordan Staal/Kris Versteeg – Jordan Staal is not a top-end scorer, but I think most would agree that he is a legitimate 2nd-line center and capable of scoring enough if you can find him some chemistry and playmaking. Enter Kris Versteeg. Versteeg was pushed out of the top ½ of the roster on a deep Chicago team, but is easily a 3rd-line forward and probably a 2nd-line forward on many teams, even good ones. That leaves Nathan Gerbe. I think outsiders would argue that he is a borderline top 9 forward on good teams. I think it all comes down to scoring. If Gerbe can push closer to 20 goals, I think that sounds like top 9. If he hits more like 12-14, that sounds more like a very good 4th-line forward. At the end of the day, I think outsiders would argue that Gerbe is not a pure top 9 forward on a good team, and while I think I can make an argument that says otherwise, I do not think they are outlandish in their position.
=>I think this line is a little too light on raw scoring to be a true 1st line, but I think if the chemistry works it can be a reasonable 2nd line across the NHL.
Zach Boychuk/Eric Staal/Chris Terry – Eric Staal in a good year is a legitimate top line center, and even in a down year, I think slots easily as a top 6. But after that it gets debatable. I think Chris Terry and Zach Boychuk both made significant strides in 2014-15. Each improved their 2-way play enough to earn a good chunk of NHL ice time in Peter’s system which demands accountability. That, in itself, is progress from their struggles in prior years to get to and stick at the NHL level. But neither of the high-end AHL scorers was truly able to pack up their offensive skill set and also bring that with from Charlotte. Chris Terry, who has been near a point per game in a couple seasons in the AHL, managed only 20 points in 57 games with the Hurricanes in 2014-15. Zach Boychuk had only 6 points in 31 games at the NHL level last season. No doubt part of it was due to much less ice time, less power play time (especially for Boychuk who received very little) and also different roles often on lower lines with less scoring fire power.
As of right now, I think outsiders would fairly argue that as of right now, Boychuk and Terry are fringe AHL/NHL players who have not proven that they can produce on a scoring line at the NHL level. Therein lies a huge amount of upside potential in the Canes lineup. With another year of experience and in roles/with players with more offensive potential, are these 2 players ready to make a huge jump scoring-wise at the NHL level? Last summer Ron Francis bet that the organization would be better spending ice time on young players with the idea of building them up. Is this the season that he reaps rewards from his 2014-15 investment in Terry and Boychuk?
=>I think Eric Staal is still fine at age 30 centering a top NHL line, but Boychuk and Terry have not reached that level yet.
Past the 3 lines noted above, Coach Bill Peters also had Andrej Nestrasil, Jay McClement, Riley Nash and Brad Malone sprinkled throughout the practice squads. Jay McClement and Brad Malone slot as 4th-line forwards. Last year spelled that out pretty well. In the 1st half of the season when pushed into higher roles by Canes injuries, both players struggled a bit. When they ultimately made their way back to their proper 4th-line slots (along with Patrick Dwyer) they played incredibly well. Outsiders would also argue that Andrej Nestrasil was not even good enough to stick in Detroit last year (Canes claimed him off waivers), which makes him 4th line at best. Riley Nash is another player who probably slots somewhere between 3rd and 4th line on a team deep at forward.
So when you net it out, I think what you get when you net it out is that an outsider would argue that the Canes have 6 proven top 9 forwards and that there are more than enough options to build a good 4th line. The path to making it work is the top players stepping up and helping make line mates better and also a few players taking a big step up to a be good in a bigger role.
With Francis’ commitment to players in the system, the upside for 2015-16 largely rests with those players at the forward position taking another step up in terms of development to establish themselves as top 9 NHL forwards.