In talking about building forward lines Coach Bill Peters has often talked about “pairs.” Obviously a line needs 3 players but Peters’ approach seems to focus on first finding 2 players who work well together and then tinkering a bit to find the best third player.
Thinking about the current forward roster and a few of the early hints that Bill Peters gave us, here is a wild guess for starting pairs:
Since Victor Rask arrived on the NHL season to start the 2014-15 season, Skinner and Rask have played quite a bit together. Rask has grown offensively during those 2 years (33 points in 2014-15 followed by 48 points in 2015-16). Jeff Skinner also had a solid 2015-16 season with 28 goals and 51 points while also improving the defensive part of his play. With Skinner the hole left by Eric Staal and Kris Versteeg’s departures, the Skinner/Rask duo seems like the best bet to step into a bigger role as a scoring line.
For this set, I think Peters more clearly has the third. With Nestrasil in tow, this group was incredibly good defensively from the beginning of December through the end of February (when Nestrasil was injured) and became progressively better offensively along the way. I will be surprised if Peters does not start the season with this trio reunited. In picking twos, Nestrasil/JStaal would be another good option. I gave Nordstrom the slight edge because I think his speed and puck retrieval were a vital ingredient and that Nestrasil’s cycling ability might be slightly more easily replaced.
At the ‘State of the Canes’ address at prospect camp, Coach Peters talked in some depth about Lindholm and Teravainen and their ability to interchange at center or wing depending on situation or where a face-off was. The idea was not so much that they would change roles game by game or even period by period but rather shift by shift. I like the idea of trying these 2 together. Both are young, heady players with first round pedigree but still trying to find a higher gear in terms of offensive production. Lindholm has had turns with just about every Canes player who has been around for the past couple years without really finding chemistry that boosted him to another level. It makes sense to have a look early on to see if perhaps the duo can find chemistry and boost each other.
Playing with a variety of heat-seeking missile type forecheckers in Nathan Gerbe, Brock McGinn, Brad Malone and to a lesser degree Chris Terry, Jay McClement struggled at even strength in 2015-16. The problem repeated regularly was the scenario where inability to move the puck stick to stick to maintain possession often led to dump ins or otherwise giving up the puck. Then whenever a McClement wing forechecked aggressively without getting to the puck (which happened too often), the combination of speed and numbers was a really bad match for McClement’s lack of mobility. The result was usually retreating, giving up the neutral zone and putting the defenseman behind him in a tough spot constantly defending speed coming through the neutral zone off the rush.
For McClement to be better 5-on-5 in 2016-17, I think his complement needs to be a wing with speed and positional awareness who can do 3 things better than McClement’s regular line mates last season. First is to be fast enough to just to more pucks on the forecheck to force pressured passes which are ideally turnovers or at least not the kind that spring a forward at the defensive blue line. Second is to understand angles on the forecheck especially at times when attacking a little bit late. To a man, McClement’s line mates seemed to lack the Tuomo Ruutu-like awareness to pick lines and angles on the forecheck that come through/take away passing lanes such that even if you do not get to the puck soon enough there still is no easy outlet. Third is to provide more help defending the neutral zone. Part of this is sheer speed but part of it is positional awareness again. In terms of skill set, Victor Stalberg fits the bill. He is big and fast which enables him to both bang bodies and also cover ice when necessary. And he has a reputation for defensive acumen that might be the key differentiator from McClement’s 2015-16 wings who seemed to forecheck at a go/don’t go level without enough broader awareness.
Who is left?
If you take those 4 pairs, the remaining forwards are Lee Stempniak, Andrej Nestrasil, Sebastian Aho, Phil Di Giuseppe, Bryan Bickell and the AHL group trying to push up to the NHL level.
I like like Stempniak as another good offensive player with Skinner/Rask.
I like Andrej Nestrasil reunited with JStaal/Nordstrom as already noted above.
I like Sebastian Aho as another skilled young player with Teravainen/Lindholm.
And I like Phil Di Giuseppe to get as much depth scoring in the lineup as possible next to McClement/Stalberg.
That leaves Bryan Bickell as the extra if everyone is healthy.
What say you Canes fans? Who do you like for pairs?