An important starting point is to say that a one game sample is obviously not enough information to suddenly make decisions set in stone for the rest of the season. Trying to maximize production for a lineup is an ongoing process that spans the entire season and has wild cards thrown in at random when injuries shake things up.
That said, when you have one game of information, it is important to at least consider it, and as long as it is not completely knee-jerk, making decisions based on modest amounts of data generally yields better results than just ignoring it.
Last week, I made a foray into line combinations including rationale prior to the start of the season. That is is my starting point and in many cases where I still stand.
For those who did not have pen and paper handy to keep track of Coach Bill Peters’ early round of line juggling only partway into game one, here is a quick recap.
Carolina Hurricanes lineup on Saturday
The Hurricanes started with:
Coming out of a couple penalty kills, Peters switched Kuokkanen and Williams. The volume of special teams play switched things up a little bit here and there, but for the most part the lines were reasonably consistent after the Williams and Kuokkanen switch.
Brock McGinn and the fourth line
My original lineup had Josh Jooris in the slot that Brock McGinn occupied on Saturday. The fourth line is an early season reminder that looking at basic statistics for a single game without considering context can sometimes be misleading. Despite notching a goal, they were a minus for the night. That was almost completely a function of having the misfortune of being on the ice for a couple blue line break downs. I thought the line in total was good, and I thought McGinn had a strong game bringing his usual every shift consistency in terms of intensity and physical play. The one thing to watch with this group is their ability to help the defense move the puck out of the defensive zone and through the neutral zone. Whereas Jordan Staal and Victor Rask regularly create a third option to move the puck from deep in the defensive zone, the fourth line at times had a tendency to flee the zone and leave the defensemen with a tougher set of choices that did not include a short, safe 15-foot safety outlet.
I liked his game in general. He showed great mobility with the puck. But as a touched on in my article on the forward lines last week, I am not sure Kuokkanen is a great fit for Skinner’s line simply because one puck is not enough to go around. Kuokkanen basic style leans playmaking center who plays with the puck and then distributes. A key ingredient in Skinner’s scoring binges tends to be him playing a ton with the puck on is his stick in the offensive zone.
The logical question that follows is whether Martin Necas might be a better fit on Skinner’s line. I am on record as seeing Necas as even more of a cut from the cloth playmaking center who is at his best in the middle of the rink with the puck on his stick. That said, because of the sheer upside potential of Necas, I would be inclined to try to get him a game or two to see if just maybe there is lightning in a bottle. My best bet based on what I have seen thus far is that Necas is better-served long-term playing the center position in all situations at a lower level to continue his development and that he is not enough better than other options in the Hurricanes lineup to consider compromising on that route.
Jeff Skinner and Justin Williams
I am not sure that Williams and Skinner are a great fit either. Williams brings a puck possession game, all-around play and the ability to tilt the ice into the offensive zone. That boosts any line, but at least in a short regular season look, I did not think that Williams and Skinner clicked. Williams had at least two instances where he flung pucks to open areas but did not find a line mate there.
Sebastian Aho and the potential lack of finishing
Sebastian rightfully won the first star of the game in Saturday’s win and collected two pretty assists as part of the effort. Lost beneath the headlines and scoring points maybe is consideration that his playmaking might be underutilized with the current lines. Aho’s assists came on passes to Noah Hanifin and Victor Rask as what I think was a partial change. Along the way, Aho also put the puck on Staal’s stick twice for prime scoring chances in the offensive zone and also on Lindholm’s stick twice for good chances off the rush. None of those passes netted a goal for Aho’s natural line mates on Saturday. As long as the Hurricanes are scoring and winning, maximizing Aho’s playmaking ability might not be a big issue, but at the point where the Hurricanes hit a dry spell offensively, I have to wonder if some combination of players like Williams, Rask, Kuokkanen and/or Teravainen might prove to be better finishers. Important to note is that there were also positives with the line. Aho and Lindholm showed great chemistry together supporting and moving the puck together, and Staal continues to be the best forward on the team at getting the puck from the defensively zone where goals for cannot happen to the offensive zone where they can and do happen.
The thing that jumps out most at a higher level when considering the Hurricanes forward lines is the increased depth. Two years ago, the Hurricanes were trying to get by with six or seven true top 9 forwards and a few maybes playing about their true level. Fast forward to today and the Hurricanes are suddenly a legitimate nine deep in terms of top 9 forwards with a number of young players like Kuokkanen, Necas and others who are knocking at the door. This is obviously a good situation.