Check out also today’s ‘Checking In with Brandon Stanley’ who assesses AHL-level prospects Jake Bean, Clark Bishop and Trevor Carrick.
The 2018-19 Carolina Hurricanes finished the regular season with a solid 99 points. In most seasons that would be a good 4-5 points above the playoff cut line. So a repeat in 2019-20 would likely again be good enough for a playoff berth, and the 2019 playoffs proved yet again that one the Hurricanes get into the playoffs, anything can happen.
But the goal this time of year is always to improve. Some of that can come from additions, but ideally a big contributor is simply players improving. With the youthfulness of the Hurricanes roster, step-wise improvement from within is definitely a possibility. Today’s Daily Cup of Joe considers what could be a next leg up for multiple Hurricanes players.
Lucas Wallmark was a success story in 2018-19. When Victor Rask was sidelined before the season, Wallmark had a spot on the NHL roster. And when Martin Necas proved not to be NHL-ready in his early-season audition, Wallmark’s role as a center became even more important. And then when Jordan Staal was sidelined for an extended period of time, Wallmark was pushed into an even more significant role filling in for Staal lining up against many of the NHL’s best in a checking role.
And Wallmark performed admirably. I would characterize his play during the 2018-19 season as steady and mature beyond his experience level. He was rarely dynamic or dominant, but he was equally rarely out-manned or bad.
So Wallmark gets high marks for parachuting into an NHL role and and being serviceable as a two-way defenseman in any role. But his offensive production left something to be desired. With a decent volume of ice time and a reasonable volume of ice time with Andrei Svechnikov, Wallmark mustered only 10 goals and 28 points. That represents tremendous depth scoring if one slots Wallmark as a fourth-line center but underwhelming production for a top 9 forward with a reasonable volume of favorable ice time.
Where Wallmark goes from here will be interesting. On the one hand, he very much reminds me of v1.0 of Victor Rask who similarly was far ahead of his experience level in terms of sound two-way play. He also reminds me of Rask in the sense that he has a decent tool bag of offensive abilities but just is not really great any anything specific. And the downside of the Rask comparison is that he similarly lacks acceleration/speed or anything else dynamic that directly generates offense with individual plays. So that version of Wallmark projects probably to be the medium version of Rask who is competent defensively and serviceable offensively. But despite similarities to Rask’s early development (which is a positive despite the ultimate ending), Wallmark’s story is still unwritten. He was a very productive player at the AHL level. With a full year of NHL experience now under his belt, could Wallmark hit a higher gear offensively in 2019-20?
The current version: The 2018-19 version of Wallmark is a great fourth-line center easily with the capability to fill in on a higher line. As a fourth-liner mid to high 20s for points is solid depth scoring, and he is serviceable both on the penalty kill and power play. That is a great depth forward.
The next level: The next step up for Wallmark would be if he could look more like the scorer he was in the AHL and become a much more productive player offensively.
With head coach Rod Brind’Amour wavering in preseason on whether Sebastian Aho was better utilized as a wing or a center, Aho stepped into the center role and never looked back. His transition was smooth, and his production was there from the beginning. He did have a few too many instances where his attention to detail slipped enough in the offensive zone to remind him of the need to identify and handle specific assignments versus occasionally floating a bit and loosely defending an area. But the struggles were modest and easily overshadowed by what he was able to do offensively. Aho started well and was even better in the middle part of the season when the team surged and pushed up into playoff position. His point per game pace and ability to be the driving force on a scoring line easily made him a worthy catalyst for a first or second scoring line.
The current version: The 2018-19 version of Aho is someone who could be penned into a first or second line center slot for most of the next decade. So there is no dire need for Aho to improve from what he has already accomplished.
The next level: That said, I do think there is a higher gear for Aho in two regards. First is that (again) though it is not necessary, there is still one more tier for him climbing into the tier of players who are truly elite. That would require pushing up closer to 100 points. In addition, the tail end of the season and playoffs do leave room for improvement. Possibly due to being dinged up, Aho’s best hockey came in the middle third of the season, and he was not quite as good down the stretch. Similarly, Aho was good but not great in the playoffs. Stanley Cup Championships are usually won by teams whose best players are dominant in the playoffs. Aho was that for stretches during the regular season, but he never really was in the playoffs. So the next time the Hurricanes see playoff hockey, there is another level potentially there for Aho.
What say you Canes fans?
1) What are your thoughts on Lucas Wallmark? Has he mostly peaked as a capable depth forward, or do you think he will find a higher gear in 2019-20 with a full year of NHL experience under his belt?
2) After posting a point per game in a top line role in 2018-19, is it reasonable to hope that he has another level yet? Or is it enough to just hope for an extended run of 2018-19 type seasons?