Part two does similar for the Hurricanes forward group.
Carolina Hurricanes forwards
Sebastian Aho — 1st line/driver for scoring line: Aho is on target to finish with 60-65 points as a 20-year old in his second season in the NHL. While not elite, that production qualifies as first line-worthy in today’s NHL. I continue to think that the next level for Aho will be achieved when a third scoring forward is added to a line with him and Teravainen. Staal and Lindholm are both capable players who bring something to any line, but neither is truly a first line player offensively. In addition, I think ultimately Aho’s point total will take another step up when he plays with two higher-end finishers such that he reverts back to his playmaking foundation similar to his role playing between Jesse Puljujarvi and Patrik Laine on that lights out line for the Finnish world juniors team.
Jordan Staal — 2nd line/driver for shutdown line: Despite not scoring at an elite level, Jordan Staal is every bit capable of being a top 6 center on a winning hockey team. But critical is that he play opposite a complementary center who is more scoring-oriented. In such a scenario, Staal’s role would be to anchor a match up line that takes as many shifts as possible against the other teams’ best players. The line must score too but not at a first line rate.
Teuvo Teravainen — Top 6 forward/scoring line: I go back and forth on whether Teravainen is truly a scoring top 6 forward, but the numbers do not lie. He is playing at that level or very close. Especially if the Hurricanes add another forward who complements the Finnish duo, Teravainen’s chemistry and offensive production playing with Aho make him a good option to fill out a scoring line with Aho as as a leader.
Elias Lindholm — #6 forward/shutdown or balanced line: The positive spin is that Lindholm has grown to become a good all-around forward who is capable of playing on any line. The negative spin is that despite being well-rounded, I do not think Lindholm is elite at anything. I think he fits neatly onto a second line and can bring some assets to a second line of any kind, but I see him as a complementary player and not a driver who makes a line go. This could fit well on Jordan Staal’s shutdown line. Lindholm is capable of playing on a scoring line, but on a good team, I think he is slightly out of position in that role.
Jeff Skinner — Elite scorer/potentially challenging fit: Jeff Skinner scores at a first line rate, but defensively still is not a player that a team ideally wants matched up against the opposition’s top scorers. Partly because of his defensive play but also partly because of his style of play at times being a one man show keeping the puck, the challenge is figuring out where he fits in the lineup.
Justin Williams — Top 9 forward: Williams is good player but more of a complementary player than a driver or a catalyst. He is a bit like Lindholm in that he can bring something to any line but maybe is not a great fit on a pure scoring line if there are other options available. If Lindholm stays at the center position, Williams is capable as the right side of Staal’s line where he has been of late, or he could be a key component on a third line that balances the forward lines.
Strong depth with the ability to contribute offensively
On a deep team, ideal is to push at least a couple scoring-capable players down to the fourth line of a healthy roster. That provides depth scoring and also has players at the ready when injuries occur and/or when the coach wants to shuffle lines to try to spark the offense. Strong efforts by Rask/Ryan/Stempniak in the two-game winning streak illustrate the value of having scoring depth lower in the lineup, but ideally the goal is to fill these slots with less expensive players which usually means younger players on entry-level or sometimes second contracts. Also worth noting is that it is possible to have a #10 forward or two playing in the top 9, but too many pushing up to that level on a healthy roster is a telltale sign that team is light on offensive fire power.
Brock McGinn — #/9#10 forward: Brock McGinn has had a strong 2017-18 season, and with a 14-goal and 29-point scoring pace without much power play time to go with a consistent physical edge and forechecking game, McGinn has been serviceable and often better in a top 9 role. But ideally, a player like him spends at least part of the season in a fourth-line role and bumps up when an injury necessitates it or a spark is needed. It is all about offensive production. In a top 9 role, 25-30 points is light, whereas as a fourth-line forward the same point total represents strong depth scoring given the role.
Lee Stempniak — #9/#10 forward: Though with a slightly different skill set, Stempniak is similar to McGinn in that he is capable of playing in the top 9 but incredibly good if pushed down to the fourth line, as he has been recently. With an expiring contract, Stempniak seems likely not to be re-signed to open another slot for youth, but his skill set fits as a solid #9/#10 fringe forward.
Victor Rask — #9/#10 forward: As a capable two-way center, Rask is similar to McGinn and Stemniak in that he is capable of filling one of the last top 9 slots or filling in in that capacity if injuries require depth. But the 2017-18 version of Victor Rask that is on pace for 34 points is a bit light offensively especially on a team that lacks a pure scoring line at the top of the lineup and needs as much scoring help as possible from lower in the lineup. The issue with Rask in terms of slotting down to the fourth line is his $4 million salary. Especially as new contracts pressure the Hurricanes salary upward, that rate does not fit into a fourth line role.
Derek Ryan — Fourth line forward: I said recently that Derek Ryan is the latest in a long line of underdog heroes turned scapegoats because of being overslotted in the lineup. When Francis failed to add a top 6-capable playmaking center during the offseason, Derek Ryan suddenly found himself slotted into a third line center role. What is more is that with the first two slots occupied by scoring-lite top centers in Staal and Rask, the Hurricanes really needed offensive pro
Capable deep depth
The #13 slot is one that a team ideally wants to fill with an inexpensive veteran. Even if there are better young players capable of filling this slot, they are better-served playing 18-20 minutes per night in the AHL versus sitting in the press box at the NHL level. As such, it makes sense to have one inexpensive veteran capable of filling the #13 slot.
Joakim Nordstrom — #13 forward: Joakim is everything one could ask for defensively. He is a capable penalty killer. He is fast and aggressive on the forecheck and competes in all three zones on every shift. The issue with Nordstrom is the lack of offense. On a team that is loaded with fire power in the top 6 maybe Nordstrom quietly fits on the forth line, but more and more so in today’s NHL a decent amount of offensive ability is required for any regular forward slot. As such, Nordstrom comes up short with only 2 goals and 2 assists in 66 games.
Phil Di Giuseppe — #13 forward: Phil Di Giuseppe has matured nicely as a defensively trustworthy forward who finishes checks and hounds the puck. But somewhere along the way his offensive upside evaporated. With a meager 1 goal and 2 assists in 33 games, he is the second of three forwards that I slot as good, capable #13 forwards who can step into the lineup and be safe, sound and predictable but who do not produce enough that a team ideally wants them be regular forwards.
Marcus Kruger — #13 forward: As an experienced checking line center who played well in a difficult match up role in Chicago, Marcus Kruger is a capable depth forward. As with Di Giuseppe and Nordstrom, the issue is that today’s NHL just does not have room for players who do not score at all, and that is about where Kruger has checked in for the 2017-18 season with only 1 goal and 5 assists in 56 games. Also out of line for his role is the $2.3 million that he is scheduled to earn in 2018-19. (His cost was only $1.5 million in 2017-18 despite a higher cap hit because Chicago paid the bonus part of his before shipping him to Las Vegas.)
Netting it out
While the Hurricanes depth has improved over the past couple years, arguably the team is still short a couple true top 9 forwards. But more significant than debating whether a certain player is a #9 or #10 forward is the fact that the team is light in terms of raw offensive production both in terms of players who do slot into the top 9 for sure and also with the players who might play up into that role.
If I slot the current roster based on 2017-18 play, my depth chart goes like this…
#13–Nordstrom, Di Giuseppe, Kruger
What also jumps out is that it is unclear how the team’s top 3 forwards Staal, Skinner and Aho fit together in a top 6. He is a top 6 talent-wise, but I just do not see him slotting next to Staal on a line that matches up against other teams’ best scoring lines. One way to get Skinner into the top 6 and playing with scoring-capable line mates is if the team adds a center this summer, but as a player whose game is to play with the puck on his stick, not receive and finish, I am not sure Skinner meshes with a playmaking type center that traditionally carries and distributes the puck. The TSA line is fine, but I think it takes a more offensive center (or Aho moving to center) for Aho and Teravainen to push another level higher offensively.
If the Hurricanes find themselves out of the playoff chase before the end of the season, I would be anxious to invest at least a few games with Aho centering Skinner and Teravainen. In terms of building a pure scoring line that would be it, but I am skeptical that the trio would mesh with Skinner’s tendency to keep the puck despite being more finisher than distributor. But at a minimum, it is worth giving the team’s three best offensive players a run of games together to see if they can figure it out.
Also worth noting is that Victor Rask is capable of rebounding and being a capable even if not spectacular third line center, but he has not adequately filled that role in 2017-18 because of his lack of scoring.
What say you Caniacs?
1) Do you agree with my assessment that the current forward group is still light 1-2 top 9 scoring forwards?
2) What configuration would you try, if any, to get Jeff Skinner into a slot with more higher-end offensive players on his line? And more broadly, how would you slot the current forward roster?
3) Which, if any, of the players that I have slotted at depth forward couple play a more significant role?