Almost always, good hockey teams are especially strong at the center position. Teams that face a regular deficit at that position tend to struggle overall.
Today’s Daily Cup of Joe takes a look at the Canes down the middle at a time when there are definitely some question marks.
The Hurricanes made an off-season move to acquire Erik Haula to fill out the center position entering the season. He seemed to fit nicely as a scoring-capable third center. Sebastian Aho had established himself quickly as a legitimate first line center. Jordan Staal was in his familiar slot as a solid, even if scoring light, second line center. And Lucas Wallmark had established himself as a capable fourth line center who could slot higher if needed. That seemed to work reasonably well out of the gate. Staal seemed to start slow but that was not uncommon for him. And that was overshadowed by Haula’s fast start on the score sheet. But by the midway point of the season, the situation had deteriorated a bit. Haula’s early season scoring was largely on the power play as a finisher, and he never really established himself as a playmaker/catalyst for third line scoring. Staal’s slow start continued making it look like maybe he was just a half step slower and not quite at the same level as previous years. And Wallmark was fine for fourth line center but probably not the guy to bump up into Haula’s slot.
With the team sputtering a bit, General Manager Don Waddell made his second move in five months to try to add a center who could provide a boost and help balance the scoring. That deal saw the Hurricanes part ways with not one but two centers in Wallmark and Haula and bring aboard Vincent Trocheck. Trocheck jumped right into Haula’s slot next to Martin Necas and with a bit of a rotating group on the other wing. Trocheck looked decent upon launch as a Hurricanes player, but the production did not follow. He collected only a single goal and single assist in 7 regular season games before the COVID-19-induced shutdown. He was minus 5 in that time and did not seem to have any instant chemistry with Necas. In 8 playoff games, the results were similar. Trocheck had no goals and only 2 assists. The one spark that line saw was when Brind’Amour dropped Svechnikov down to that line.
Looking forward to 2020-21
I think Sebastian Aho still has one notch to go to truly be elite, but even if he just maintains the level he was at in 2019-20, that is good enough and makes him a legitimate first line center. That starting point is an incredibly good one for being strong down the middle.
But that is also the point where the questions begin.
Below Aho, the Hurricanes need to fill at least two more center slots with players who are productive in some sense. Staal has always been limited in terms of generating offense for his line mates and scoring. But he did have a role and purpose as a very good shutdown checking line center. That can fit in a successful puzzle, but only if the third center can lead a second scoring line. If that does not happen, the Hurricanes offense becomes extremely top heavy which makes can make for tough sledding on the road and also in the playoffs against good teams. So that puts a significant amount of pressure on Trocheck. No matter how good he is defensively, it will not be enough if he is not able to also be part of a decent second scoring line. Therein lies the pressure and potentially a deciding factor on if the Hurricanes can take another step forward in 2020-21. As I have said a couple times, 15 games over 2 separated stints is too little to make a rash judgment, but Trocheck is definitely high on the watch list entering the upcoming season.
At a basic level, he needs to click with someone and form a capable scoring line. My concern with watching Trocheck so far is that his brand of offense generation is light on true playmaking and puck distribution that puts the puck on finishers’ sticks in decent scoring situations reguarly. Rather, his skill seems to lean a bit more toward pushing pace which puts pressure on the opposing defense and creates some number of chances at random. The latter works well for third line type depth scoring. I could see that meshing well with players like Foegele and McGinn in terms of providing depth scoring. But to play with and support finishers requires a bit more true playmaking and puck distribution skills. Again, we are only 15 games deep into Trocheck’s Canes’ tenure, but this is worth watching.
If Trocheck can lead a capable second scoring line, it relieves some pressure from Jordan Staal and puts him into a situation that plays to his historical strengths. He then can slot as a third line center and even log a few less minutes in a role where being light on scoring is workable as long as he can get back to being a high-end defensive center. And therein comes the next set of questions and a watch point. Two things stood out to me about Staal early in the season. First, he seemed to lack the strong, quick stride or two needed to get into puck battles even from a disadvantaged starting point and then regularly win those battles. Being a quarter step slow seemed to manifest itself in an uncharacteristically high volume of obstruction/interference type penalties. In addition, he no longer seemed to have his ability to transport the puck from inside his own blue line and up into the offensive zone without much help in many cases. Those two things are critical to Staal’s game. Winning puck battles is what makes it possible for Staal to dominate possession which is the best way to defend (by not playing defense). And his ability to transport the puck went a long way to not playing all that much under duress in the defensive zone. The big question with Staal is if he just had a ‘meh’ 2019-20 season or maybe he is finally losing a partial step with age. If Trocheck (or someone else) emerges as a capable scoring second line center, the hope is that Staal can be successful in a slightly downshifted role below the top two lines.
The Morgan Geekie figures to be the incumbent for the center slot on the fourth line. He started his NHL career shot out of a cannon but looked more human in the playoffs. In a fourth line slot, Geekie has ample offensive ability to provide some offense, and he did not look out of place defensively either. So there is good reason to be optimistic about Geekie being able to at least fill a depth role even if his track record is short. But that said, he is still very early in gaining NHL experience, so best is not to expect too much yet and just count whatever Geekie brings offensively as a bonus.
I am on record as thinking that Martin Necas has the highest ceiling in terms of making the Canes better at center. Playing against players his own age in prospect camp and tournaments, the single thing that most stood out about Necas’ game was his ability to use his skating ability to play with the puck on his stick and create. He truly projected to be an incredibly good NHLer in that regard. But when he started his rookie season at the NHL level in the center position he struggled. He looked lost at times in a secondary role on the forecheck sorting out play behind wings who were first in. And he had intermittent issues sorting things out defensively in his own end. But maybe even worse, against bigger, faster and more dangerous NHL players Necas did not look nearly as comfortable playing with the puck on his stick and creating. The result was a fairly quick demotion to the AHL. There, Necas was moved to right wing and thrived at the lower level. The result was a strong, confidence-building AHL campaign. As makes sense, the Hurricanes started Necas at right wing for the 2019-20 season. He had some ups and downs and quiet stretches, but in total his 2019-20 season was a success. He scored some and looked more comfortable in a role where he could skate and pursue the puck with less responsibilities to sort things out. Based on positive momentum coming out of the 2019-20 season, it makes a lot of sense just to continue for now on the path with Necas as a right wing. But again, I think his ceiling even if risky comes from him eventually moving back to center like Aho did. I would be very surprised to see Necas start the 2020-21 season there, but if injuries arise or if plan A does not pan out, might Brind’Amour re-audition Necas at the center position? Not sure if it is possible, but I think the Holy Grail for Hurricanes scoring could be if Necas moves to center and can serve as a playmaker for Svechnikov with Aho and Teravainen paired and with both of those duos being good enough to boost a third line mate to a decent goal scoring total.
What say you Canes fans?
1) Do you think I am being overly pessimistic in calling out question marks below Aho at the center position? What do you see as the biggest question mark?
2) What are your thoughts on Vincent Trocheck? Is he just overdue to be rewarded more on the score sheet after play that looked better than the scoring results? Or is it possible that he is maybe not the true offensive catalyst that the Canes ideally need? How patient would you be with him if things do not click early in 2020-21?
3) What are your thoughts on Staal, Geekie and the potential for Necas to move back to center at some point?