With the completion of the Carolina Hurricanes’ 27th game of the 2019-20 season, we are suddenly one-third of the way through the regular season schedule.
In 2018-19, Rod Brind’Amour was incredibly patient with line combinations early in the season mostly sticking with what he had. Thus far in 2019-20, the same has not been true. Brind’Amour has tinkered with combinations significantly more and does not appear to have found much that he likes enough to keep yet.
Today’s Daily Cup of Joe ponders the current lineup and combinations.
Here, Brind’Amour has been a bit more settled. Jaccob Slavin and Dougie Hamilton have spent the vast majority of the season together. And minus a short stint away from each other Brett Pesce and Joel Edmundson have also spent most of the season together. And in the third pairing, Jake Gardiner has been a regular with Haydn Fleury and Trevor van Riemsdyk sharing the other spot.
The burning question on defense is how Gardiner has managed to maintain his place in the lineup despite struggling and easily being the team’s seventh best defenseman so far. I occasionally see comments on Twitter and elsewhere that suggest Brind’Amour is unaware or stubborn. He is not unaware, and if stubborn is the right word it is for a purpose. The Hurricanes have a lot invested in Gardiner. He was a capable even if a bit inconsistent defenseman for multiple years in Toronto. Right now, Brind’Amour is investing ice time and paying with errors that Gardiner can and will eventually settle in, find a higher gear and be at positive #5 or better. Interestingly, Hamilton took a similar hard path last year before emerging in the second half of the season and then pushing up from there in 2019-20. In essence, Brind’Amour is betting that patience will again pay off.
As for the top 4, the current configuration is working reasonably well, so why mess with a good thing.
At forward, things are far from settled. The line combinations seem to shuffle game by game and have a bit of randomness to them.
If I were in Brind’Amour’s shoes, I would build with a couple themes.
Tap untapped offense
With the Hurricanes a bit top-heavy offensively with Erik Haula out of the lineup, I would be seeking ways to get more from a few underperforming players. Top of that list is Nino Niederreiter. He was a vital part of the offense during the second half surge in 2018-19 but has yet to get started. As part of a broader effort to find more offense, I would consider getting Niederreiter ice time with Sebastian Aho and/or Teuvo Teravainen who I view as the team’s two best playmakers. The same is true to a lesser extent with Ryan Dzingel. He has been productive as a playmaker but has more to give goal scoring-wise. The Hurricanes are somewhat limited in terms of playmaking centers, but I would try to get both players ice time in situations with the potential to spark their scoring.
Aim for two scoring lines
The goal is to have at least two lines that can be going concerns scoring-wise most nights. Doing this likely requires breaking up Svechnikov/Aho/Teravainen. That top-heavy first line does not leave enough playmaking to fuel another scoring line. Especially on the road, the potential result is too little balance to score on nights when Aho’s line is held in check. I think moving Teravainen from that line could benefit the team in two ways. First it adds a place with Aho and Svechnikov for someone like Niederreiter or Dzingel. Second it adds more playmaking to another line which could help balance the offense.
Using Jordan Staal to his strengths
Against Florida, Brind’Amour leaned on Staal as a match up centerman with a specific purpose. Historically, Staal has excelled in this role, but Brind’Amour has more often aimed for balance versus role-based lines. I think at least short-term Staal could benefit from leading a checking-focused line that plays to his strengths. His best offensive streaks have often been fueled by strong defensive play that boosts Staal’s confidence and carries over to other areas of his game. In addition to thinking Staal could benefit from a more defined job description short-term, my thinking is also that the team lacks enough offense at center without Haula to try to be three lines deep offensively anyway.
An old school fourth line
I really like what I have seen from Martinook/Bishop/McGinn. A good test will be if they can stay out of trouble against some quality competition on the road. If they can, they can be a good old school fourth line that boosts energy and physicality and generates some offense via the forecheck.
I am not a fan of making a big fuss about changing starting goalies during the season. The situation and ice time should always be fluid anyway such that it is subject to change. That said, I think timing could be right to give Reimer a bit more ice time. At least in the past few games, he was been the better goalie and is riding a short three-game hot streak right now. Interestingly, if Reimer could maintain a higher gear and take a few more starts, this season starts to look a bit like 2018-19. Mrazek was similarly inconsistent during the first half of the 2018-19 season before finding a higher gear in the second half. Some may forget that Curtis McElhinney was the goalie who held things together when the team was struggling in the first half of the season. Could Reimer fill a similar role in December for 2019-20? I think it is possible and worth giving him a bit more ice time near term to see if he can maintain his recent high level of play.
What say you Canes fans?
1) What do you think about my initiatives with the Hurricanes lineup?
2) If instead you were in Brind’Amour’s shoes, what, if anything, would you be doing/trying with the lineup right now?