Suddenly, we are 46 games into the 2019-20 NHL season. Though I still feel like the Hurricanes are still a work in progress in many ways, Head Coach Rod Brind’Amour has a good amount of run time with the current group. The team is in much better position than it was at this time last season, but with the Metropolitan Division’s success, it does not appear that the Canes will be exempt from another dog fight down the stretch. And with the stretch run right around the corner, the time is now to figure out how to get the most from this group in the final 36 games.
No doubt, priority one will always be to win the current game, but I also think Brind’Amour has some work to do sorting things out in the coming weeks.
Below is a short list of things that I think Brind’Amour is considering right now.
James Reimer has done an admirable job in the backup role spelling Petr Mrazek regularly and being productive in the process. But as the season progresses, I have to think Brind’Amour will be watching to see if Mrazek can find a rhythm, hit a higher gear and take on a greater share of the starts just like he did in 2018-19 when the team surged up into the playoffs. By no means are we at the point, where one goalie can just run the schedule, but at the point where Mrazek gets hot (if he does), Reimer could be shifted to only playing in back-to-back sets.
The big watch point on defense continues to be the #4 slot next to Brett Pesce. Brind’Amour has been incredibly patient holding out hope that Jake Gardiner would acclimate, reach a higher level of play and assume that role after a really tough start in a Canes uniform. Gardiner has been in that slot for a couple weeks without standing out in a bad way, so perhaps Brind’Amour is being rewarded for his patience. After seeing what the downside for Gardiner can be, I think Brind’Amour would be thrilled to have Don Waddell add a player like Alec Martinez or Sami Vatanen closer to the trade deadline, but for right now it is for Brind’Amour to figure out with what he was on the current roster. If Gardiner hits another tough stretch, Brind’Amour will be forced to consider the possibility that the steadier Edmundson trumps the risk/reward with Gardiner. Regardless of additions or how Brind’Amour handles it, that #4 slot as the potential to be a fatal flaw for the 2019-20 season.
At forward, the combination of Justin Williams’ signing and a couple players yet to really click in 2019-20 makes the task figuring out the line combinations that get the maximum from the group. I think doing that involves a couple interrelated projects.
The top line
Thus far, Brind’Amour has also shown incredible patience with Nino Niederreiter. The initial struggling version of Niederreiter was brutal. He was not converting on scoring chances and then seemingly with his heart in the right place trying to help elsewhere, he had a horrible propensity to take bad obstruction type penalties trying to win puck battles or forecheck. But more recently Niederreiter’s game has been better even if not incredibly productive on the score sheet. On the one hand, it sometimes feels like he is on the verge of a break out. But in a results business, Brind’Amour can only wait so long, especially with having other options. Williams finished the 2018-19 season strong playing the slot Niederreiter is in on the top line. And if Brind’Amour wanted to go a bit more top heavy, adding Svechnikov has the potential to make a juggernaut. The top line has been a bit stagnant of late. Brind’Amour has options to consider to try to jump start it.
Justin Williams and the dominoes
Williams could start on the fourth line to ease his way into the lineup with lighter minutes, but at some point he figures to slot into the top 9. Where he lands could have a couple domino effects that are not what many might expect. If Williams bumped Niederreiter off the top line, could he actually slide all the way to healthy scratch. The third and fourth lines seem to have good chemistry, so I am not sure inserting Williams necessary sees each player step down a rung on the ladder.
The tough question for Brind’Amour with regard to Niederreiter if he gets bumped is if his (yet unrealized) offensive upside could bolster depth scoring or if maybe he just is not a great fit for the slots on the lower lines.
Brind’Amour also needs to decide how much he likes Dzingel/Haula/Necas and McGinn/Wallmark/Martinook as is versus swapping in a displaced player.
My 2 cents
In goal, I do not think there is a rush to tilt the crease time in Mrazek’s direction. I think this can wait a bit with Reimer earning points with his starts, but I do think if Mrazek gets hot that I would ride him a bit more after the All-Star break.
On defense, I would give Gardiner his chance to win and keep the #4 slot. I think Edmundson is steadier and still the fall back if Gardiner struggles again, but I think because Gardiner’s ceiling is so much higher that he is ideally the guy. More than anything, I would be hoping that Waddell spends his last trade bullet to get me a good plan B for the #4 defense slot.
At forward, I would first and foremost be trying to build the best top scoring line I can. The team has enough depth that doing so does not handicap the rest of the lineup. Unless Niederreiter breaks through soon, I would consider trying Svechnikov and/or Williams on the top line. What works best for maximizing the top line would then have a waterfall effect to the lower lines.
What say you Canes fans?
1) If you were Rod Brind’Amour, what would you be watching most closely and/or working on right now to try to get the most from the current group?
2) What would you be doing for line combinations at forward?
3) What would you be doing on defense?