Unlike other major sports where a portion of the roster plays a minimal role in teams’ success, hockey is a sport where each and every player matters. Players at the very bottom of the roster still play regular minutes and often fill important roles on the penalty kill. So an important disclaimer to today’s Daily Cup of Joe is to say that all slots are important and that this article presupposes that core players at the top of the lineup continue on their current trajectory.
Disclaimer aside, today’s article identifies two slots that I think could be most critical to the Carolina Hurricanes’ success during the 2020-21 season.
Second line center
Whether it is with regular partner Teuvo Teravainen and whether it includes Andrei Svechnikov or another wing aimed at a more balanced lineup, Sebastian Aho’s first line figures to be capable or better in a primary scoring role. That line has been good enough or better for two consecutive seasons, and Aho could still have a modest amount of additional upside. Further down the lineup, Jordan Staal is best-suited for more of checking type role. He struggled a bit during the front part of the 2019-20 season and now at 32 years old is likely trending toward a slightly narrower role than he played as a work horse a couple years ago.
If you count Aho’s line as a legitimate top scoring line like it was in 2019-20 and agree with my assertion that maybe Staal is more of a third line center with a checking focus at this stage of his career, the question is the line that fits in between those. Especially if Brind’Amour gives Staal some defensive support in Jesper Fast, the Hurricanes really need a second line that can score. That has proven elusive for the Hurricanes. Staal previously slotted there and was elite defensively but never really a playmaker or scorer. The 2019-20 season started promisingly with Erik Haula playing a finishing role early in the season. But ultimately, that second scoring line faded, and Haula was packaged up with Lucas Wallmark to land Vincent Trocheck at the trade deadline. Trocheck at times looked to be on the brink of breaking through in a Hurricanes uniform, but never really did. In two short stints interrupted by the long layoff, Trocheck did not produce offensively and did not really seem to find chemistry with any of the options for his wings.
I think the second line center slot that Trocheck figures to start the season is could be the key to the forward lines and offense. The Hurricanes have enough pieces that ‘could’ be part of a productive second line, but none were really that in 2019-20. Ryan Dzingel averaged 25 goals in his three previous seasons but never really found his way in his first year with the Hurricanes. Nino Niederreiter has been a capable power forward goal scorer intermittently in his career but lapsed back into quiet mode in 2019-20. Martin Necas’ first full NHL campaign was a mostly positive version of sporadic offensively; he would figure to have upside as a 21-year old entering his second full season. The upside is there, but so is the uncertainty coming out of the 2019-20 season.
If Trocheck and two out of three of the primary options at wing have peak seasons, the Hurricanes become two lines deep offensively and a match up problem with teams unable to focus all efforts on shutting down a single scoring line. If the second line struggles offensively, the Hurricanes become a bit one-dimensional offensively and could struggle to produce enough offensively, especially on the road.
I am on record as thinking that the Holy Grail for the Canes offensively would be if natural center Martin Necas eventually moves back to center like Aho did and can be the playmaker that he projected to be when drafted. But Trocheck will (rightfully) get first crack at that slot.
The #4 defense slot
The other key slot in the Hurricanes lineup is the fourth slot on defense. In 2019-20, Dougie Hamilton and Jaccob Slavin meshed to form a formidable first pairing. When his injury derailed his season, Hamilton was one of the best offensive defensemen in the NHL and playing well defensively too, and Slavin was doing his thing as a defensive stalwart. But the second pairing was a challenge from the get-go. Brett Pesce made for a nice anchor, but Jake Gardiner who figured to replace Justin Faulk struggled mightily upon launch in a Hurricanes uniform. Joel Edmundson played well early and proved to be a capable stopgap. Gardiner did play better in the latter half of the 2019-20 season, but much of that was in a third pairing role, and it might be that that is where he belongs. Haydn Fleury came on strong late in the season and in the playoffs, but notably most of that was in a somewhat sheltered third pairing role. And the Hurricanes also spent heavily (a first-round draft pick) to add Brady Skjei. Even with the departure of Joel Edmundson and Trevor van Riemsdyk to free agency, the second defense pairing looks a bit like the situation for the second forward line with multiple promising options. Brett Pesce figures to be the anchor. Brady Skjei figures to get the first shot, but Fleury also has the potential to push his way into the conversation if he can continue his upward trajectory from the latter half of the 2019-20 season. The second half of Gardiner’s 2019-20 campaign also resuscitated hope that he could fill that role.
Assuming Brett Pesce rebounds from his shoulder injury, I think that fourth defense slot is critical. A lot of things went right for the Hurricanes down the stretch in 2018-19 when they finally pushed up into the playoff, but I think the foundation of the success was built upon the blue line that was solid and steady three pairings deep down the stretch. Without a solid second pairing, it becomes easier for opponents to pick the Hurricanes apart, especially on the road, like in years past.
Skjei easily has the physical tools, but my first impression of his play during the regular season was that he very much reminded me of Noah Hanifin and his struggles as a physically gifted player who just made too many mistakes. Skjei did score higher in my book in the playoffs which was encouraging. Fleury played well in the latter part of the 2019-20 season and clearly enters 2020-21 on an upward trajectory, but there is a sizable step up from being a capable third pairing defenseman and a second pairing defenseman who has to regularly play against other teams’ best lines. And finally there is Jake Gardiner. Based on what I saw in 2019-20, I am skeptical that he has the lateral mobility and north-south quickness to be a good, regular top 4 defenseman, but he was exactly that only a couple years ago. I would expect Skjei to get first try next to Pesce, but with other options Brind’Amour may tinker a bit if he does not click early on.
What say you Canes fans?
1) What are your thoughts on the two Canes lineup slots that I have identified as most critical? Who do you think wins these roster slots, and how do you think they will perform in 2020-21?
2) What other slot(s) do you see as most significant in building the 2020-21 Carolina Hurricanes lineup?