I have in process a somewhat formal preseason preview series that I drafted last week and then shelved temporarily late last week with the news of Justin Williams being named captain and the potential Hurricanes impact of Erik Karlsson being traded.
My hope is to tie up loose ends and have this preview posted before the team takes to the ice for preseason action on Tuesday against Tampa Bay.
On Thursday just before the start of the Carolina Hurricanes first training camp practice, the team announced that Victor Rask would require surgery on his fourth and fifth fingers which were injured in a kitchen accident earlier in the summer.
Then on Sunday Rod Brind’Amour declared that Rask’s injury would keep him out for “months”.
Rask injury will be “months,” Brind’Amour said. It was a major surgery that included repairing tendons.
— Cory Lavalette (@corylav) September 16, 2018
Looking backward to Victor Rask’s 2017-18, his injury might not seem like a big loss for the team on the ice. Rask had a sub-par season. His production and play in general was sluggish out of the gate and well into the season. He did rebound modestly in the second half of the season, but in total the season was not a good one for Victor Rask. His scoring plummeted from 46 points in 2016-17 to a mere 31 in 2017-18 even after a modest push late in the season.
With Sebastian Aho moving to center and Martin Necas hopefully on the way, Rask entered the offseason as a fourth line center if everything else worked out as hoped. As such, he would not seem to be a significant loss nor hard to replace.
Looking forward to the Carolina Hurricanes 2018-19 season
But I think that overly simplistic analysis that slots him as a fourth line center and then jumps to the conclusion that he is easily replaceable fails to consider the more detailed structure of the Carolina Hurricanes projected 2018-19 lineup. In an article on August 29 entitled, “Three players who I am higher on than the consensus”, I talked about Rask’s importance and role despite his challenging 2017-18 season.
Jordan Staal will anchor the center group and take as many of the hard minutes and match ups as Head Coach Rod Brind’Amour can get him on the ice for.
But after that, things quickly become uncertain. Sebastian Aho has two years of NHL experience and an impressive trajectory early in his career. Because of his comfort level in the NHL in general and his hockey IQ, Aho figures to successfully transition to the center position and continue on his current path upward. But having played only a short stint at center late in the 2017-18 season, he is effectively a rookie at the position in the NHL and will inevitably have some growing pains as he adjusts.
Martin Necas enters training camp as the odds on favorite to win the third center slot and center another scoring-capable line. Necas ceiling is incredibly high, and he does project to be a good top 9 center if not more. But he enters the 2018-19 NHL season with exactly one game of NHL experience as a wing.
So that pecking order would, theoretically, slotted Rask as the fourth-line center. But given the inexperience down the middle, I think the utilization would have been much different than a run of the mill fourth line that plays limited minutes and is steered away from tough match ups. I actually think a fourth line centered by Rask and including a couple defensively responsible wings would have been deployed as a second defensive unit behind Staal’s line. Aho’s line will obviously get its minutes and be used in various situations, but utilization would lean offense. And depending somewhat on who else was on the line, I think Necas line at least early in the season would be used opportunistically as well and sheltered to some degree. Especially on the road, that would make a defensively-capable line centered by Rask sort of a 2B line behind Staal’s to take defensive zone draws and the lion’s share of the tough match ups.
If the team does not make a trade to add another center, training camp is now an open competition for the fourth center slot.
Lucas Wallmark would figure to be the front runner in my book, but Janne Kuokkanen can also play wing or center and could factor in. And with no experienced option on a one-way contract, the door is also wide open for a dark horse like Nicolas Roy to leap frog a couple other players and find himself in the NHL in early October.
Assuming the Hurricanes do not make a trade for an experienced center, the team now figures to enter the 2018-19 season with two rookie centers and Sebastian Aho very early in his transition to the position. As such, Brind’Amour really loses the ability to try to shield inexperience a bit and instead would need to just challenge the young players to make development strides quickly and grow into these roles. The skill level of the players battling for roster spots is high enough that an ahead of schedule transition is possible, but it is also asking a lot for players like Necas, Wallmark, Kuokkanen and/or Roy to line up across from Crosby and Malkin one night and then Matthews and Tavares another and then Bergeron the next and play break even or better hockey.
So as is with the current roster, the situation offers a sink or swim for young players that will either see them find a rapid development path at the NHL level or possibly push the 2018-19 season into one of development, growing pains and more or less rebuilding.
Could the Hurricanes look outside the organization?
I have long been on record as think the last desired deal for the offseason is to trade Justin Faulk for a scoring-capable forward and just revisited this on Friday.
That was the case before the Rask injury, and I believe it to be a high enough priority that the team has already been exploring options available. So while theoretically Rask’s injury could increase the urgency to convert Faulk to a forward, I am not sure that is any different than prior. And as far as targeting a center over a wing now, I am not sure much really changes. In a beggars can’t be choosers vein, I think the team would take any good top 6-capable forward of comparable value right now just to get the deal done and move forward.
So at a basic level, I do not see Rask’s injury much affecting what was already the case. I guess the small change could be that the Hurricanes become just a bit more aggressive in terms of what they would include to get a deal done.
How does it end?
I think the possibility of adding a player from outside the organization in a trade for Justin Faulk is still a possibility but far from a certainty. If there was a good deal to be had, I think it would already have happened regardless of Rask’s injury. From the category of ‘him again?’, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins is interesting. He could play center short-term or long-term, but he could also slot at left wing replacing Jeff Skinner with a versatile, proven, offensively-capable left wing who could play on a checking line with Jordan Staal or on a scoring line with Sebastian Aho and Teuvo Teravainen.
My starting point is figuring that Aho continues his transition to center and also that Necas wins an NHL slot. Those two plus Staal still leave a hole where Rask used to be. Barring a trade, I think the internal competition comes down to Lucas Wallmark and Janne Kuokkanen with an edge to Wallmark because of legalese and timing. Though I like Nicolas Roy’s development path, I do not see him as NHL-ready yet. Without consideration for the contract stuff, I would consider Kuokkanen and Wallmark an even battle. But with Wallmark 23 years old (3 years older than Kuokkanen, having done all he can do at the AHL level and maybe most significantly needing to clear waivers to return to the AHL, I think the team will have a significant bias to give Wallmark the first run of games in the open center slot.
So if I had to wager right now, I would bet on Lucas Wallmark stepping into Rask’s slot. Ironically, I see Wallmark’s skill set as somewhat similar to Rask’s but possibly with a bit more upside offensively. Like Rask, Wallmark is good in terms of decision-making and positioning in his two-way play but is below average in terms of mobility therefore making that decision-making/positioning critical.
What say you Canes fans?
1) Do you think the Victor Rask injury increases the urgency to deal Justin Faulk for forward help?
2) If the slot is filled internally, who do you think wins the open center slot for opening night? (Also list the other three centers since there is some potential variation there too.)
3) How significant of a setback do you see the long-term loss of Victor Rask being in terms of icing a competitive hockey team for the 2018-19 season?