At the forward position, the Canes surge from early December through February was led by Jordan Staal’s line of Nestrasil/JStaal/Nordstrom. They did the heavy lifting initially with incredibly strong defensive and puck possession hockey and gradually with more and more scoring. In the shadows was ‘the other top line’ of Versteeg/EStaal/Lindholm or Di Giuseppe. That line actually boasted even stronger Corsi and other shot/possession stats for many games during the same stretch, but garnered fewer headlines. The scoring that was hoped for from a line theoretically built with more offensive skill just was not there and the duo played more of a second fiddle role to the surging Jordan Staal line. When they departed at the trade deadline, both Eric Staal and Kris Versteeg had an identical 33 scoring points in 63 games for a modest low 40s scoring pace over 82 games.
Canes hockey post Eric Staal and Kris Versteeg
But after watching 3 weeks of Canes hockey minus this duo, it is becoming increasingly clear what they brought to the Canes success. Their ability to control and cycle the puck in the offensive zone suppressed opponents’ scoring chances when they were on the ice and very often resulted in offensive zone shifts that ended with the opposition dumping the puck for a change and therefore starting the Canes next shift again in possession of the puck. With Jordan Staal’s line doing the same thing, the result was the ability to regularly create steady stretches of hockey that saw 1 line drive play to the offensive zone and then hand off similar to the next line. The result was that even when the lines were not getting much in terms of shots or scoreboard production, they were still playing break even hockey in terms of puck possession because they gave up very little.
If you look at the post-trade deadline Canes, the Corsi and possession stats have largely flipped. Even in playing winning hockey after the break, the formula was not as pure. The Canes were getting good goaltending and had a knack for the “scramble and find a way” type of wins (or at least OTL losses). But that recipe is generally not sustainable over long periods of time. And of late the Canes have been outshot by wide margins on a fairly regular basis.
Looking forward to 2016-17
The result is not unexpected. The Canes lost 3 of their top 6 forwards (Eric Staal, Kris Versteeg and also Andrej Nestrasil to injury at about the same time) and replaced them with depth players on try out from within the system. It is not surprising that the team’s forward play took a modest step down with the transition. That is nothing of significant concern. But the result does highlight the need to fill a couple holes at forward this summer. I do not think simply bumping everyone up a notch is the answer and building a new third line underneath it with youth and cheap free agents is a winning-capable answer. I think the Canes need to get both deeper and better at forward at the same time. The way to do this is to push current third line players down to the third and even better fourth line and add a new line to help round out the top 6. Where exactly the players slot would be determined in preseason and on an ongoing basis during the season, but the idea is to have 9-11 legitimate top 9 forwards with the ability to mix and match and ride hot hands. Even past that, I think ideal is to build another line that has the same element of puck possession in the offensive zone as part of its capabilities. That was clearly a focus point of Bill Peters’ system during its best days this season and something to build on.
I will put up game previews for Saturday and Sunday but take a day off the daily post for Easter Sunday.