Important to note is that two games into the 2017-18 season is too early to start cementing down any decisions for the entire season. That said, much of my basis for my thoughts on this topic do consider Jordan Staal’s track record that dates back multiple years now and also a full season with the Hurricanes for Sebastian Aho.
History and skill sets
Jordan Staal’s foundation as an NHLer was developed playing as a shutdown line center on a third line behind Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin on a Cup-winning team in Pittsburgh. It is not Staal cannot score. It is just that the areas of his game that is elite are the defensive part and also his incredible ability to start in the defensive zone, win the puck and often single-handedly move it from the defensive zone to the offensive zone. Staal does those things at an elite level, whereas scoring-wise he is probably at best an average top 9 forward. To be clear, Staal is certainly a valuable part of a winning Hurricanes team in 2017-18 and beyond. But his skill set that leans defense does have implications in terms of who he fits with line combination-wise and how he can be best utilized.
Sebastian Aho’s history as an NHLer is shorter at only one season, but there is enough there to get a reasonably strong understanding of Aho’s skill set. At his core, he oozes offense. He finished with a solid 24 goals in 2016-17 despite a slow start in that department, and his 49 points while not eye-popping were easily respectable especially on a team that was below average scoring-wise. From watching Aho play a full season, he clearly has the ability to produce offensively by passing or shooting like virtually all elite scorers do, but I actually think he leans slightly in the playmaker department over finisher. More on it below, but I actually think his goal scoring trumping assists in 2016-17 was at least partially a function of his line mates.
Ideal role, slot and complementary line mates
Jordan Staal is ideally suited to play in a shutdown role that stymies the opponents’ best scoring line when the Hurricanes are at home and still takes as many of those minutes as possible on the road. Given that it is impossible to completely shut down elite NHL scorers, it is critical that a checking line built around Staal have at least some ability to counter punch with their own scoring. But the line’s strength is likely to be creating a low scoring situation across the board and breaking even in the process. What’s more is that Staal seems to have the ability to drive such a line successfully regardless, within reason, or who his line mates are. His strong run flanked by Joakim Nordstrom and Andrej Nestrasil is proof of that.
Sebastian Aho is ideally suited to be part of a pure scoring line that has a good combination of physical finishing ability and hockey smarts. My plan A enter the summer was that he would be a great complement for a higher-end offensive center like Matt Duchene, Alex Galchenyuk or similar. But with no such center added and the other elite offensive talent on the team in Jeff Skinner being more of an entity in and of himself, the Hurricanes entered training camp not really having the personnel to build a high octane scoring line that included Sebastian Aho.
The rationale for putting Staal and Aho together?
With a lineup that is light on elite scoring but becoming better in terms of scoring balance at least nine forwards deep, I can see the merit in playing Aho on Staal’s wing and with Lindholm on the other side. With neither Staal nor Lindholm being an offensive catalyst, I think the rationale is that Aho can provide playmaking that helps boost the scoring totals for Staal and Lindholm. And with the need to score enough goals without a bunch of high-end players, getting Staal and Lindholm going was important to make balanced scoring work. So in taking his first shot at the forward lines with Aho/Staal/Lindholm, I think Peters was hoping that Aho could boost Staal’s scoring and do the same for Lindholm with a wild card that he could still have untapped offensive potential. In addition, Staal’s ability to drive the puck into the offensive zone gives Aho the chance to spend more of his ice time where goals happen.
How does it look so far?
I give Staal’s line mixed reviews so far. The line is doing a decent job with its bread and butter pushing play into the offensive zone and also winning the possession and shot battles. And Aho has two assists in two game to go with a couple cerebral playmaking efforts that are highlight reel-worthy.
The downside for me is that the more I watch Aho with Staal and Lindholm the more convinced I become that Aho’s playmaking ability is being underutilized. In Saturday’s 5-4 shootout win over the Minnesota Wild, I noted at least two passes where Aho fed Staal in front of the net for good scoring chances, and I also noted a couple decent Lindholm scoring chances created by Aho passes off the rush. Exactly none of those chances have found the back of the net. Instead, Aho has assists on a Victor Rask goal on a partial line change and a pass to Noah Hanifin finishing off the rush.
For all of the skills that Staal does have, receiving and finishing just is not one of Staal’s strengths. I noticed in 2016-17 how often Staal was slightly off and/or just unable to finish quickly when receiving passes in prime scoring chances, especially off the rush.
Aho’s incredible rush up the ice with about two minutes to go in the third period is a perfect example. Aho did the heavy lifting blowing through the Blue Jackets’ defense and then dishing to the front of the net. I think a pure finisher times the pass perfectly, receives it cleanly and has a reasonably decent chance of finishing from that close. In Staal’s case, he seemed a step slow stepping into the hole to receive the pass. The he was unable to do much more than shovel the puck toward the net.
Should Coach Bill Peters change the lines immediately?
I am torn on this question. Since the Hurricanes do not have a pure playmaking center who would fit well with Aho. As such, maybe trying to add offense to a line with two good players who are likely to play in the offensive zone a lot is the best utilization for Aho until the team adds more offense.
I think Peters’initial line of reasoning could stick as part of a balanced lineup. But at the point when the Hurricanes start having trouble scoring all bets are off. Peters is likely to do some line tinkering anyway, but I think the magnitude grows if the team starts slow offensively.
The shorter version is that I am okay with patience especially give the lack of options available to build a raw scoring line.
What might work better?
In an ideal world, I think Aho needs two things. First is that he needs to have help gaining possession of the puck and keeping it in the offensive zone. Staal and Lindholm actually grade well in this regard. Second is that Aho needs to have one or ideally two players who can finish. And that, I think, is where Staal and Lindholm come up short.
I really like the idea of pairing Aho with Victor Rask. I think Rask is an interesting case. He is a center but not at all the ‘puck on his stick’ playmaking variety. Rask seems equally comfortable playing with or without the puck. And on top of that, at least relatively speaking from a Hurricanes’ standpoint, think Rask’s finishing ability is at least on par with Staal’s. Finally, Rask has an element of headiness to his game that seemingly help him and Aho be on the same page. For right wing, I think Justin Williams could be an interesting trial. I would not call him a pure finisher, but Williams does have an element of that to his game. Williams’ well-rounded skill set is also strong defensively and in terms of driving puck possession. I would not be averse to trying Lindholm on the right side of an Aho/Rask combination.
Staal then ends up centering a 1B type line that is lighter on scoring but strong defensively. The question might be whether Peters can build a strong checking line around Staal without Aho.
Victor Rask as the wild card scorer?
After a sleepy second half of the 2016-17 season, one of the discussions heading into the 2017-18 season is whether Rask can re-find a higher gear. I really like the idea of Rask playing with Aho and also the potential for that duo to yield a significant scoring boost. With Rask already pushing up near 50 points in previous years and also having decent finishing ability, could Sebastian Aho be the catalyst that helps Rask take a giant leap forward offensively? I think it is possible.
A silver lining financially
Another side effect could be a favorable effect on future salary. Sebastian Aho has another full season on his current contract, but best guess is that he will be re-signed next summer. If he hits an injury setback and/or just makes only modest gains to say low 50s maybe for points, his next contract would likely price out at $4-6 million per year. If instead Aho finds chemistry and two scoring wings and finishes with 70 or 80 points, his salary could be more in a $7-9 million range annually.
What would I do?
As long as the Hurricanes are winning, I would continue to ride the current lineup, but as soon as an opening exists to tinker, I would give Aho a short run of games to play with Rask.
One wild prediction
If Aho and Rask get paired up, I do not think it is out of the question that Rask could surge to become the team’s second leading goal scorer only to Jeff Skinner.
What say you Canics?
1) What are your thoughts on Sebastian Aho and Jordan Staal both individually and together?
2) Do you feel like the Hurricanes have left goals on the table with regard to Aho’s playmaking ability during the first two games of the 2017-18 season?
3) What do you think are optimal lines for Jordan Staal and Sebastian Aho?