The biggest news on the Hurricane 2017-18 roster-building front in the past few days and since the Justin Williams signing was the acquisition of center Marcus Kruger from the Las Vegas Golden Knights for a fifth-round draft pick in 2017.
I wrote about Marcus Kruger, the trade and where I think he fits in the Hurricanes lineup shortly after the trade was announced.
Then on Wednesday, Jordan Staal’s name popped up in a few places as a trade target for the Penguins. Like it or not, this debate is a harbinger of things to come in the next 4-6 weeks as real hockey news grinds to a halt and ‘we should trade ___ for ____’ speculation ratchets up and increasingly reaches new highs for lack of logic. In the next 4-5 weeks, alleged Hurricanes trades will certainly include all four of the team’s top 4 defensemen and at least four or five of the team’s best forwards.
On Wednesday, I threw some cold water on the Jordan Staal rumblings that represent the first wave of what will likely be a busy next 4-6 weeks fending off unreasonable claims on all of the Hurricanes best players.
And if you missed it, the Thursday Coffee Shop sorting out the depth forwards was a lively one. Amidst all of the great analysis and opinions on the various roster options an absolutely tremendous combination of Hurricanes grocery store analogies buried in the middle caused me to blow beverage all over my computer screen.
Today’s Daily Cup of Joe looks at both of the two players featured in recent articles in looking at the relationship between Jordan Staal and Marcus Kruger.
Jordan Staal and Marcus Kruger side by side
Jordan Staal is a pretty well-known entity in Raleigh, so I will be brief in profiling him but will note a couple important things that relate to the discussion below. Staal got his start in the NHL in a somewhat limited but impressive role in the C3 slot behind Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin during that group’s first Stanley Cup championship. His job at the time was to sit behind two high-end scoring lines, take on a checking role and hold his own with scoring being somewhat optional. To this day, that role makes up Jordan Staal’s core as a true shutdown line center. He is big, fast defensively sound, good in the face-off circle and just all-around difficult to play against. If one leaves offense out of equation, Staal is a regular for Selke consideration and easily in the top 10 if not top 5 in his trade. Staal is not a bad player offensively, and I think it is fair to that his scoring in a Hurricanes uniform has not been helped by his line mates during many stretches. But even if you adjust for situation, Staal just is not at the same level offensively as he is defensively. He has collected 34 and 38 points in 2015-16 and 2016-17 respectively.
Marcus Kruger’s starting point is incredibly similar to Staal’s. Kruger carved out a role in a similar C3 slot sitting behind two elite scoring lines in Chicago on teams that also collected Stanley Cup-level hardware. Just like Staal, Kruger’s primary responsibility was to eat up as many of the hard match up minutes as possible, hold the opponent down and set the table for the scoring lines to earn wins. And just like with Staal, it worked. Kruger has been good defensively but mustered only 17 points in 70 games in 2016-17 and only 4 points in 2015-16 in 41 games. One could adjust for his role, lack of power play time, etc., but no matter what math one does, Kruger still comes out light in terms of scoring fire power and production.
And without putting Marcus Kruger down, I think it is important to start from recognizing that though Kruger’s style of play, role and skill set are similar to Staal’s, he is not the same caliber of player as Staal offensively or even defensively.
Jordan Staal as the starting point for Peters’ strategy and style at home
I wrote about this in some detail in my article rejecting any possible trade of Staal. The short version is that Peters’ approach on home ice where he has the ability to dictate match ups is to give Staal’s line as many minutes as at all possible against the other teams’ most dangerous scoring lines. The Peters plays match ups and cherry picks match ups behind Staal. So on home ice, Peters wanted to play strength against strength with Staal’s line and he mostly was able to do so.
But there were challenges on the road
But the road was a completely different story especially in November and December when the 2016-17 season was being lost. The blue line was shaky. Peters had 24 minutes of Slavin/Pesce to spend but mostly saw opposing coaches just steer their scoring lines away from them. Behind them Peters had a Hainsey/Faulk pairing that was being eaten alive on the road, and a third pairing with a still learning Hanifin and a revolving door of ‘meh’ at best next to him. So as best he could, Peters had to try to use Staal’s line on the road to bolster weaker defense pairings and try to make a unit of five that could hold its own. But again, on the road it is tough for a visiting coach to get match ups he wants. When Peters used Staal to try to bolster Hainsey/Faulk opposing coaches sometimes just held scoring lines back a shift hoping for an even better match up against the third defense pairing with a lesser forward line.
At the end of the day, Peters had too many holes to plug and maybe even spent too much time chasing match ups especially early in the season. During the Hurricanes’ hot streak in March Peters actually had a few road games where he through out what looked like completely random, never before seen line combinations prompting, “What the…?” comments from Canes fans. In actuality, my best bet is that Peters was a little bit trying to solidify specific things and address some deficiencies on a short-term basis, but I also think there might have been an element of doing a bit of random to make it harder for opposing coaches to schedule out and easily get the match ups they wanted. Instead there was a game of cat and mouse trying to constantly figure out who was playing with whom and what the next set was especially for changes on the fly.
Shorter version is that the Hurricanes struggled on the road last year, and it was not just about home cooking. There was a significant element of just having too many holes defensively.
So how does Marcus Kruger fit and change things?
At home, Kruger represents another good player, another penalty killer and help defensively. But at least at home, I do not think he significantly changes Peters strategy nor do I think he changes Staal’s role much.
I have had a few conversations and seen a few comments here and there suggesting that Kruger might take some of Staal’s hard match ups enable Peters to free Staal up for a more offensive role. I am skeptical about that. Staal is in my estimation one of the top 10 if not top 5 checking line centers in the game. His greatest strength and bread and butter historically has been lining up against elite scorers and holding them in check. As I said above, Kruger is a good defensive player, but let’s not confuse him with Jordan Staal. I just do not see Peters taking Staal out of one of the most important roles in the game to try to make modest scoring gains. I just do not see how it makes the team better.
As an aside from the category of freeing Staal to score more, I will be curious to see what Steve Smith does for building his forward pairs for penalty kill. I do think Peters has a preference for using bottom players for the penalty kill when possible. Last year Stalberg, McClement and Nordstrom did the heavy lifting.
But on the road is where things change. With last change, Peters was regularly just seeing opposing coaches delay a shift with their scoring line to steer past Staal and into a much easier match up. And that is where things change. If Peters builds a strong defensive line around Kruger as expected, he then has the ability to roll Staal and Kruger back to back, and he just has more options in general to solidify things. (Hopefully the blue line will not need it as much in 2017-18, but it is still nice to have the help if needed.
What say you Canes fans?
How do you think Coach Bill Peters leverages what looks to be a second shutdown line in the process of being built?
Do you think Jordan Staal’s role changes when Peters can control it, or do you think Staal’s line is still plan A whenever possible against the other teams’ best?
Does anyone else have any Hurricanes grocery store analogies?