End off offseason / Beginning of new season coffee drive
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If you are a Canes fan who is enjoying a reprieve of positivity and optimism with the strong preseason start and does not want to mess with that until regular season results clearly dictate either reinforcement or a reversion to the mean, please look away now.
To be clear, I do not in the slightest way dispute that the first three games of the preseason have been positive. Sure the wins do not really matter, but playing well always counts for more than playing poorly. I also think that the volume of competitive depth that the team has at the forward position is legitimate and a positive thing. And finally, I think even the winning counts a bit for a team that is seeking a bit of a reset and attitude change. (I wrote to that effect at the outset of my game recap for Friday’s win.)
But I also think the winning, scoring especially on the power play and almost across the board positive results have overshadowed a lurking problem that I think could prove to be an Achilles’ heel of significance.
Putting it bluntly, barring a change in trajectory (which is possible given the young players involved), I think the Carolina Hurricanes team as constructed right now has significant challenges at the center position at least to start the 2018-19 season.
The measuring stick that many are working from when considering the group of young centers moving up to the NHL level is if they look like they can handle it. “Can handle it” is loosely defined as not being in over their head, being able to constructively learn on the job and not regularly being a significant minus. The gap is massive between “can handle it” and being capable of filling a second or third line center slot on a team that wins regularly enough when opponents trot out Crosby/Malkin, Matthews/Tavares, Backstrom/Kuznetsov, Stamkos/Johnson, Bergeron/Krejci and similar.
My optimism about how the Hurricanes will fare in matching up at the center position in the future is largely unchanged. The talent is there even if it is young. But from watching the preseason unfold thus far and watching the Hurricanes young centers in detail beyond looking for reasons to be optimistic and counting ‘wow’ plays, my early read is that the the timing of the group emerging looks more like later rather than sooner.
Assessing the group
Jordan Staal will be fine and makes for an anchor for a second line that can play and hold its own against anyone. But unless Brind’Amour goes back to the TSA line, I do not see Staal’s line generating enough offense to do more than break even and put the ball on the tee for a scoring line to win games.
Potential upside: I have Staal pegged as an elite defensive center but really no more than a third-liner in terms of generating offense, but Brind’Amour was similarly a defense first center who also scored in bunches. Can Brind’Amour help Staal similarly find a higher gear.
After that, I think it gets dicey.
Right now, Sebastian Aho surprisingly looks uncomfortable at times even with the offensive part of the role that should be his strength. Right now, he looks really uncomfortable handling the puck in the middle of the rink and pushing into the teeth of a defense and instead prefers to carry to places on the periphery first to buy time and space to assess the situation. The result has been some hesitancy and a preference for ‘pulling over’ and looking for a safe place to hang out until the traffic clears. Setting up in his office on the boards just inside the blue line to distribute to secondary players behind the rush works okay at the wing position with a center driving the center lane, but when he heads that direction with the puck as a center it tends to make it too easy for the opposition to bottle things up at the blue line as team mates give up speed to time entry and move laterally to adjust into different lanes.
He thinks the game well enough to be competent defensively, but that part of his game will also need a bit of time to develop.
Sebastian Aho is still a great player. He has the skill set to become a great scoring line center. But indications admittedly from a small sample size are that he has a transition period in front of him and a ways to go.
Potential upside: If I was coaching the Hurricanes, I would reunite Aho and Teravainen ASAP, and here is why. As a duo, neither Aho nor Teravainen are the type to make space entering the offensive zone with speed or power. Instead, they have a knack for working together to make space and advance the puck inside the blue line with short passes and sometimes criss-crossing to create just enough time and space while the opponent sorts it out. Especially when playing with Ferland and Maenalanen what stood out was Aho’s hesitancy to gain the offensive blue line with space and pace when pushing into the defensemen. Perhaps more so than the scoring element, Aho needs Teravainen’s help to advance the puck.
Martin Necas is still just incredibly raw. He is still at the 101 level in terms of center play without the puck when he ends up being F3 on the forecheck and needs to figure out how to defend the neutral zone and help the defensemen behind him. He still has a bit too much of the basic ‘when in doubt go to between the face-off circles’, ‘get back into the neutral zone’ (generically) and other basics that are still a level away from quickly sorting out specific responsibilities at the NHL level. What is more, for as much as he shows flashes of quickness and puck-handling, he really is not converting it to playmaking and scoring chances at a high rate yet. Even playing with Teravainen and a mix of capable wings, I would not say that he has looked dynamic in preseason action thus far.
At some point, the burning question becomes whether Necas is better-served trying to learn on the job at the NHL level even if he is a little raw still or if his long-term development is better served refining his game for a bit at the AHL level. Rask’s injury makes the numbers game hard not to start Necas at the NHL level, but I still lean toward doing what is best for Necas’ development. The history of committing to Lindholm at the NHL level before he earned it and then stubbornly sticking to it despite good reasons not to set his development back. Hopefully the team learned from that mistake.
Potential upside: Necas is incredibly early in his NHL experience and surely still on the steep part of his development curve. The potential exists for him to make huge strides that make him a different player in a matter of weeks. Here is hoping he is a fast learner.
Lucas Wallmark likely has the lowest ceiling of the group, but his game is probably also the most NHL-ready in terms of maturity and well-roundedness. He reminds me a bit of Victor Rask in the sense that he makes up for lack of foot speed by reading situations, angles and responsibilities. In that regard, when one looks specifically at early October 2018, he is probably the soundest of the three young centers in terms of two-way play, but as note above, that is significantly different than saying he is ready to line up across from elite centers and win regularly. The question with Wallmark is given his lack of foot speed or flashiness how much of his scoring/offensive ability translates to the NHL level.
Potential upside: He had an incredibly good 2017-18 season at the AHL level. The question is just whether, how much and when he can translate that to the NHL level. With a pair of skilled wings, could he transition quickly and to a high level?
Netting it out
When one puts Aho also in the ‘learning on the job’ category, this team looks really thin at the center position. It becomes Jordan Staal followed by a pick your poison type question mark. And whereas, I think teams can sometimes hide inexperience and looseness at the wing positions, that is much harder to do for centers. I do not see the team looking outside the organization to add a basic depth center though I suppose there is still a chance that a larger deal sees Faulk traded for forward help.
What say you Canes fans?
1) Do you think there is something to my negative assessment of the Carolina Hurricanes at the center position, or do think I am looking too hard for problems based on paranoia from the long run of playoff misses?
2) What do you make of Aho’s ‘meh’ start? Would you write it off to typical preseason rustiness, or do you think he is legitimately struggling to adjust to a new position?
3) Do you think Martin Necas belongs at the NHL level to start the 2018-19 season? If so, what would make you rethink this position?