Only a couple weeks ago one of the party lines about the Carolina Hurricanes was raving about the team’s depth at forward. But since then, the team has lost Justin Williams who was certain to occupy a top 9 slot and seemingly also Saku Maenalanen who at a minimum could have been a competent fourth-liner.
If you work through the current forward roster, the team now has only 11 forwards on one-way contracts. Even if you assume a spot for Martin Necas, the team is at 12 forwards. That leaves room for at least more and even more if the team encounters an injury.
So though a couple weeks ago it looked like things were decided, there is very much an open competition for the #13 slot and possibly even stealing Necas’ slot if he does not look ready in preseason games.
Today’s Daily Cup of Joe takes a look at that competition but first offers a quick catch up on the past articles on the forward ranks.
Yesterday, we reopened The Coffee Shop with a set of polls on building out the forward lines around centers Sebastian Aho, Jordan Staal, Erik Haula and Lucas Wallmark. You can vote if you have not or see the results HERE.
Last week, I worked through three steps in building out forward lines:
I mostly stand by my lines from part 3 except that I had Saku Maenalanen on the right side of Staal’s line. I would replace him with either Foegele or Kuokkanen, and if it ends up being Foegele moving up, then I like Kuokkanen back filling that slot.
So that leads into today’s topic which considers the battle for at least one forward spot at the bottom of the lineup.
Most people seem to have Martin Necas as an automatic. He is arguably the top forward prospect in the system right now and had a strong second half in the AHL which could suggest that he is ready for the NHL. But at the same time, he is a player who had a seven-game NHL try out to start the 2018-19 season but did not look ready. Important to note is that though the learning curve on the defensive side of the puck was a factor, he was too often invisible offensively too which probably expedited his trip to the AHL. Another year older. stronger and wiser will obviously help. What might be more significant is an expected move to right wing (where he primarily played in Charlotte) where he can mostly pin his ears back and hound the puck on the forecheck and not be as encumbered with the defensive responsibilities of the center position. But at the end of the day, Necas needs to be a significantly better player than he was at this time last season to make a strong case for NHL ice time. He is still waiver-exempt, so if he does not look to be one of the 12 best forwards, he is not guaranteed a slot.
Odds he sticks at the NHL level are high. I would call it 80+ percent. But at the same time, I do not see Necas starting in the NHL as a foregone conclusion. He has to earn it.
As noted above, even if Necas does stick there is still room for one more forward at least to fill the #13 slot if/when needed. Though the Hurricanes regularly went without healthy extras last season when they were not necessary. Especially with the team up against the salary cap, I would expect the same this season. But for fun, let’s assume there is a #13 slot or that something could open up because of an injury.
At a basic level, I sort the options into three categories. The first category includes proven players who have a decent amount of NHL experience. This group is safer and sounder but mostly without the upside of some of the young guns. I view that group as including Clark Bishop and Brian Gibbons. Bishop does not bring much offensively, but he is defensively sound and fits Brind’Amour’s system as a fast and aggressive forechecker. Bishop also has 20 games of NHL experience. Resume-wise, newcomer Brian Gibbons reminds me a bit of Greg McKegg as a veteran who has split time in the AHL and NHL with 169 games of NHL experience.
The second category includes players with potentially higher ceilings offensively and but minimal if any NHL experience. The group is led by Janne Kuokkanen and Julien Gauthier who could be ready for an NHL audition and also includes Morgan Geekie and Eetu Luostarinen. From this group, Kuokkanen and Gauthier are worth watching. Kuokkanen is the most mature and well-rounded player of the group, and I think could hold his own at the NHL level. Gauthier has been gradual in his development but is intriguing as a hulking power forward with agility, skating ability and a scoring touch.
The last group are players who are likely not roster contenders for the 2019-20 season and are therefore deep dark horses. This group includes Jacob Pritchard, Spencer Smallman, Steven Lorentz and Max McCormick. It would require a massive showing in preseason for one of these season to climb the depth chart up into the NHL.
Handicapping the field
If Brind’Amour needs a #13 who is not intended to play or a player to slot into the lineup and prefers safe and sound, then the most likely bets are Clark Bishop, Brian Gibbons or possibly Janne Kuokkanen.
To vault over this safe and steady group, a player like Julien Gauthier, Morgan Geekie or possibly Eetu Luostarinen would have to have a strong preseason and present like they could score at the NHL level.
The player I really like from this group is Kuokkanen. He is a bit of a forgotten player right now because he missed the second half of the 2018-19 with an injury. But I think he can match the veterans Bishop and Gibbons for hockey smarts and two-way play such that he also qualifies as steady and sound. But I think he could also offer a modest amount of scoring upside especially over Bishop.
Based on how Brind’Amour utilized players last year and made choices on call ups, his leaning at the bottom of the roster seems to be for safe and steady. As such, I think it takes a really strong training camp to convince him to go younger at forward to start the season.
What say you Canes fans?
1) Do you consider Martin Necas to be a sure thing? If not, what must he do in training to keep the spot that seems to be his to lose?
2) Of the other players available who do you like to fill an injury opening or the #13 slot?