An important starting point is noting that this post is NOT some kind of evaluation of the Hurricanes start nor is it a knee-jerk reaction to the tough outing offensively on Tuesday. Rather, it is part of an ongoing process to consider all options to make the team better and also continue a project that Ron Francis was working on over the summer.
The quick history
During the post-season press conference in early April, Francis spoke about improving the team and specifically mentioned adding scoring help. The general expectation and hope was that Francis would add a playmaking center capable of fueling a scoring line that complemented Jordan Staal’s first or second line which leaned defense.
With Matt Duchene clearly on the market and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and Alex Galchenyuk also likely available, the options seemed to be there. But probably for the right reasons nothing materialized in terms of adding an offense-leaning centerman. Instead, Francis added Justin Williams as his headline and higher-budget addition and went the route of adding another defense-leaning center in Marcus Kruger.
At a basic level, the team improved at the forward position. But the interrelated questions still looming are whether the improvements are enough and also whether the potential still exists to make a meaningful improvement by adding one more offensively-leaning player.
A VERY early glimpse at the 2017-18 team but IMPORTANTLY with historical perspective
Making any kind of rash judgement on the 2017-18 Carolina Hurricanes is premature. And identifying problems that have great urgency to them based on two games seems bizarre given that the team is 1-0-1. But trying to learn from even small amounts of actual games trumps just ignoring it, and maybe more significantly the two games carry more weight if they are considered with the context of the entire 2016-17 season.
I wrote about Sebastian Aho and Jordan Staal in more detail a few days ago, but at a basic level, here are a couple of things I see…
After a ho-hum preseason, Sebastian Aho has been the somewhat quiet version of phenomenal through two games in terms of generating scoring chances. My count just from what I remember is three point blank chances that he created for Jordan Staal and at least two more for Elias Lindholm to go with the two magnificent assists he does have feeding Noah Hanifin and Victor Rask on pretty playmaking textbook plays.
Aho has two assists in two games which projects to an 82-point season. There is nothing shabby about that. But also worth noting is that despite setting up both players multiple times, Aho has exactly zero assists feeding his line mates despite multiple assist-capable passes to each.
The sample size for 2017-18 is tiny and finishing can be finicky, but when I consider Jordan Staal and Elias Lindholm’s skill set looking at a much broader set of games and also consider the reasonably significant volume of time that the trio played together in 2016-17, I think the two-game read on the situation is pretty representative of the long-term reality.
As I said in the prior article, I think Jordan Staal is a great player and is easily part of the equation for building a winning hockey team in Raleigh, North Carolina. But his strengths do not even come close to including receive/finish type goal scoring skills. Lindholm is a trickier case. He seems to show flashes of having a higher gear in terms of finishing ability, but if I look only backwards, I would put Lindholm is a somewhat similar category to Staal. A key difference is that Lindholm does have a better knack for reading where exactly to be and how to get himself in position to receive a pass and then shoot quickly. Lindholm’s problem seems to be more that of just not being able to pick spots like true snipers can. The results is a decent number misses, a decent number of shots into the goalie’s chest and a below average number of shots into a corner of the net for a goal. But regardless of specifics and potential future upside, historically I would rate Lindholm as average at best for a top 9 forward in terms of receive/finish skills.
This is a problem. Sebastian Aho is quickly establishing himself as the best playmaker on the 2017-18 Carolina Hurricanes. And until they prove otherwise, the Hurricanes are a team that needs more goal scoring. If you take those two things as true, a team that needs more scoring is likely leaving a good number of goals on the table by playing its best playmaker with sub-optimal finishers.
It is possible that the team’s scoring balance will ultimately win out and that Aho’s ability to at least modestly boost Lindholm and Staal’s goal scoring. But it is also possible that there is significant untapped potential scoring that Coach Bill Peters and General Manager Ron Francis should be looking to tap.
Back to Aho
In general dating back through 84 games of NHL action but also very specifically through two games of the 2017-18 season, here is what I see from Sebastian Aho…
He has shown an ability to find open spots and help create scoring chances for himself when playing without the puck.
But by far and away, the area of the game where he has been lights out dynamic has been playing with the puck on his stick and even a little bit of room to maneuver, buy time, break down the defense and ultimately find a team mate for a grade A scoring chance. Also worth noting is that a reasonable majority of these plays have occurred carrying the puck through the neutral zone, gaining the offensive blue line and ultimately putting the puck on someone else’s stick for a scoring chance.
That, almost by textbook definition, is what one would expect from a playmaking center. Feeding team mates for scoring chances…Receiving the puck either in the defensive zone neutral zone from a defenseman and moving it forward…playing with the puck on his stick either in the middle the ice or behind the net in the offensive zone.
He has had to be a bit liberal with his role to do so, but despite showing up as a “Left Wing” on the scoreboard graphic, Aho’s dynamic plays thus far in the 2017-18 have been every bit that of a playmaking center. The issues are that Aho has to take turns with Jordan Staal whose game is also that of a puck-carrying center and that his playmaking is underutilized without true finishers on his line.
So is it time to move Sebastian Aho to center?
Coach Bill Peters is on record as preferring to be patient in terms of moving either Aho or Lindholm to center though he did say at the front part of the summer that he did eventually see Aho playing the center position. Part of the reasoning is the defensive responsibility. Part of the reasoning is that learning the NHL is a bit easier at wing where the situational reads and decision-making are somewhat less complex. And part of the reason might even have been that Peters expected that Francis would ultimately net another playmaking center before the 2017-18 season began. But Francis did not net a playmaking center this summer, and Aho’s play albeit very early in the season suggests that he might be ready to jump back to his natural center position.
While I do not think the move is necessarily urgent, I think based on how well and just simply how Aho is playing (like a playmaking center), the possibility of moving Aho to center has to at least be near the top of the list of possibilities that Bill Peters has at his disposal.
The Hurricanes are fairly full at the center position, but I think the way it could work by moving Derek Ryan to right wing and putting Victor Rask in a fairly familiar slot next to Jeff Skinner. I would then flank Aho with the two player that I think have the best chance of finishing what he creates. My first try would be Justin Williams and Teuvo Teravainen.
Is there an alternative?
I think the somewhat simpler way to accomplish similar would be to leave Aho at left wing and put him with Rask and Williams. I think Rask and Williams represent a step up from Staal and Lindholm in terms of raw finishing ability and both players should fare well playing without the puck which hopefully creates a model similar to when Ray Whitney and Cory Stillman provided playmaking from the wing on Eric Staal’s line.
If I was coach…
I would look for an opportunity to get Aho some ice time next to Rask.
I go back and forth on whether the two could click. On the one hand, they could be a great complementary pair because Rask is comfortable playing a read/react game without the puck and has more receive/shoot skill than Staal. On the other hand, I am not sure that Rask is necessarily enough of a pure offensive player either and therefore might not make a difference.
As the season progresses, I would bump moving Aho to the center position up the list of possibilities that I would consider in my tinkering trying to spark the offense.
I think Sebastian Aho has been by far and away the team’s best playmaker through two games.
I also think that his set ups have been underutilized and likely will continue to be playing with Staal and Lindholm who I do not view as great options for pairing Aho with finishers who can capitalize.
The ‘wow’ plays that Aho has made have been every bit that of a pure playmaking center carrying the puck through the middle of the ice and then dishing for a scoring chance.
At a minimum, I would try Aho with Rask to see if maybe the two click, and Rask can provide more finishing.
I also think moving Aho back to his natural center position has to be moving up on the list of possibilities.
What say you Caniacs?
1) What are your thoughts on Aho/Staal/Lindholm thus far? Do you think Staal and/or Lindholm can provide the finishing ability necessary to capitalize on Aho’s playmaking?
2) Would you consider moving Aho at this early juncture of the season? If so, would you try a different line (still at left wing) or would you consider a more significant move to the center position?
3) Who is of the mind to be patient and give the line combination more time especially if the team continues to win at a reasonable clip?