Suddenly with not much working offensively or defensively and a 5-game losing streak in tow, Bill Peters has been trying some different combinations at forward hoping to find a spark, defensive stability or anything else that will lead to a win.
On Twitter today, Chip Alexander from the News & Observer reported practice line combinations that had Derek Ryan back at center between Jeff Skinner and Lee Stempniak. Jordan Staal stays with Sebastian Aho and Elias Lindholm. Lindholm has been primarily playing with Staal for some time now, and Aho joined them just before the All-Star break. That leaves a third line that sees Teuvo Teravainen back in the top 9 but on right wing next to Victor Rask and across from Brock McGinn. Presumably the fourth line (which Chip Alexander did not mention probably goes back to Joakim Nordstrom with Jay McClement and Victor Stalberg.
When you add it up, you get forward lines of:
There is an element of trial and error to this, and Bill Peters is obviously better at figuring these things out than I am, but here are a few random comments on thinking through it.
1) Why not try Sebastian Aho with Jeff Skinner?
I think you could make a decent case that the duo represents the 2 most skilled offensive players on the roster despite Aho only being halfway through his rookie season. The Skinner line generally slots as a scoring line, why not full boar go for it? The move would require Aho to move from the left wing position that he has manned almost exclusively this season, but Aho is a natural center and has played all forward positions. A move back to center or to right wing does not seem like too much of a stretch. If it was me, I like the idea of putting Victor Rask between them. Rask is such an incredibly good read/react player and does not really need to play with the puck on his stick to be effective. As such, I think he could be a great complementary 2-way centerman for such a combination. It might also be interesting to give Aho a game or 2 at the center position to see if with a half season at the NHL level he can make that transition easily.
2) Get Jordan Staal back to his roots
The best extended stretch of hockey that the Hurricanes have played under Bill Peters was last winter. That extended run of strong hockey had Jordan Staal slotted in a pretty defined role as the leader of a shutdown line. He was incredibly effective at it. Staal’s line was effective at gaining/keeping possession and tilting the ice into the offensive zone for their shift and oftentimes the next 1 too. The result was decreased pressure on the defense and Peters having a something he could count on to settle things down when necessary. The farther Staal gets from that shutdown core, the more he begins to look out of sorts at times (partly because of line mates). The extreme version of this was when he played with a less defensively mature Jeff Skinner a few years back. The line created chances and scored at a decent rate but gave up chances and goals at a rate that seemed like double that. I think the dizzying and fun week of high-scoring home wins has Staal straying from his greatest strength, and I think Peters could do well to rebuild a shutdown line that he can use similarly to last winter during the home-heavy February schedule. Especially if Aho moves to play with Skinner, maybe it is as simple as replacing him with Nordstrom.
The February schedule with significant rest in the first half of the month and then a run of nicely spaced home games in the second half of the month is friendly for shortening the bench a bit and riding the team’s best players. At least for February, I say build the best scoring line possible and build the best shutdown line possible, ride both heavily and play match ups similar to last winter’s success. The remaining parts should sort pretty neatly into a skilled, opportunistic scoring third line and a defense-leaning fourth line. Those to lines could then be used opportunistically based on match ups and situations.
Though a couple scoring bursts have shown the Hurricanes temporarily to be 4 lines deep at forward, I think the team has gradually reverted back to the reality that it still just does not have the forward depth to build 4 balanced lines and allocate ice time in a similarly balanced manner. With the playoff hopes slowly slipping away and a home-heavy schedule for which Peters can dictate match ups looming, I think the time is now to transition back to more of a top heavy and role-based forward lineup.
3) Time to try something different in the top 4 on defense
Now 48 games into the 2016-17 season, I am ready for better or worse to at least try something different on defense. I just have not seen enough even spotty evidence that Hainsey/Faulk can find a high enough gear to make the team a playoff contender in March. I wrote up my reasoning for at least trying Hanifin/Faulk in more detail in Monday’s Daily Cup of Joe, but I am ready to take a game by game look at Hanifin in the top 4 next to Faulk. Am I sure it will work? No. Do I feel comfortable that Hanifin is ready. No. But I think it is time to take at least a short gamble that Hanifin’s level of play increases with a big challenge. While there are no guarantees, this might be the best bet that the current roster has of finding the higher gear necessary in the second defense pairing to rise up the standings.
Shorter version: At forward, the schedule is favorable for building 2 high-end purpose-built forward lines (1 pure scoring; the other shutdown) and riding the team’s best forwards as much as possible in February. On defense, I am ready to punt on Hainsey/Faulk (at least to try something different) and though it is a bit of a gamble, I think Hanifin/Faulk is the logical first try.
With the HUGE game on Tuesday against the Flyers, the game preview is up early.
In addition, the third entry in the MIDTERMS series on Hurricanes prospects below the AHL level features 2016 first round pick Jake Bean.
What say you Canes fans?
Are you happy with Peters’ latest try at finding working line combinations? If not, what would you do?
And what are your thoughts about putting a big challenge in front of Noah Hanifin and throwing him into the deep end for a trial in the top 4 next to Justin Faulk?