Last week I went a couple rounds deep looking at the just-completed playoff series against the Boston Bruins. At some point, I will get back to the 2019-20 season to take a look at the regular season, individual players and also the playoffs in total. But today’s Daily Cup of Joe goes in a different direction and starts to look to the future.
With the aim of sparking thought and not controversy, here are three assertions about the future of the Hurricanes.
1) Martin Necas has the best chance to be the second scoring center that pushes the team to another level
Though he was still overshadowed a bit against the Bruins, Sebastian Aho has established himself as a true #1 center capable of leading a legitimate first scoring line. He likely still has one more possible notch upward, but even if he does not take that step, he is already good enough for his role. In recent history, Jordan Staal and his line were a capable and complementary second line. Though they were always light in scoring, their ability to fill a shutdown role worked. But in my opinion to have a true checking line as a second line requires having a second scoring line for the third line. Though the Hurricanes have been able to get by and be successful, such a line has been elusive. In 2019-20, Erik Haula provided some offense in the C3 slot initially, but much of that was on the power play and he seemed to fade as the season progressed in terms of production. Vincent Trocheck was added as a catalyst for another scoring line. His play in a Hurricanes uniform has been odd so far. He has had spurts during which he seemed to be on the verge of breaking out, but he never really did. Remembering that it took Dougie Hamilton about half a season to get acclimated, emerge from some struggles adjusting and find a higher gear. So it is too early to fully assess Trocheck, but from watching him for a bit now I view him more as the type of player who generates offense by pushing pace and putting pressure on a defense to defend under pressure/pace/duress. There is nothing wrong with that skill set, and I could actually see it boosting players like Brock McGinn or Warren Foegele who are not tremendously gifted in terms of raw finishing ability but could similarly thrive playing a hair on fire brand of hockey that scores more via pace and pressure than raw skill. But I think finding a significantly higher level offensively will be more achievable if the Hurricanes can somehow add a true catalyst/playmaking type center.
Enter Martin Necas. That was exactly his skill set as a draftee. His combination of skating ability and skill projected him to be an offense-leaning center who could score but maybe even more so generate offense for his line mates. Necas received a short audition in such a role in his rookie season but at the time clearly was not ready. He struggled with the defensive side of the puck and responsibilities for the center position in the neutral zone and defensive zone. And maybe more significantly, he did not look dynamic with the puck on his stick. So he was sent to the AHL and spent much of that time playing right wing. His 2019-20 audition 2.0 was as a right wing. That transition went much more smoothly such that potential is there to just roll forward with Necas at right wing. But while I think Necas can be a good NHL player as a scoring wing, I really think the bigger win would be if he could move back to center and realize the upside he has as a playmaking center. Maybe it takes surrounding him with a good veteran two-way wing or two like Teuvo Teravainen. Maybe it takes a lot of patience from Rod Brind’Amour and the organization while adjusts, acclimates and learns. Or maybe he takes a huge next step playing right wing in 2020-21 such that he boosts Trocheck’s line and helps fill the need more by complementing someone else. But my thinking is that the way to become an elite team is to have a larger set of elite or at least top-tier players who are playing at their ceiling. Though there is definitely risk in it, I think the highest ceiling for Necas is as a playmaking center.
2) Brett Pesce is the key to the blue line
As the 2018-19 season wore on, I thought the two key drivers to the team’s success both in the regular season and success were the forecheck and the blue line. On many nights the forecheck fueled the offense by generating scoring chances across all four lines such that the team could score in bunches or close just from generating some many good or better transition chances. And once Dougie Hamilton settled in about midway through the season, the blue line was solid three pairings deep.
Despite having similar success in the 2019-20 season and again pushing forward until a fateful Bruins playoff series, I do not think the Hurricanes were as much fueled by specific things. I think the team was maybe a notch better in terms of skilled scoring, but I do not think the defensive and forechecking identity was there to nearly the same degree. At least short-term, the departure of Justin Faulk was a setback. Jake Gardiner struggled in his transition to the Hurricanes and Joel Edmundson filled in admirably but maybe just is not quite an every game #4 defenseman. Then injuries to Dougie Hamilton and Brett Pesce sabotaged the whole effort at a time when Gardiner was getting his feet under him and the team seemed really close to reestablishing a top-tier blue line. The injuries forced General Manager Don Waddell’s hand, and he added Sami Vatanen as short-term help but more surprisingly spent a first-round draft pick to add Brady Skjei. In my opinion, Vatanen is very unlikely to return. The Canes have younger, less expensive depth. But Skjei is under contract for four more years and very clearly intended to be a long-term addition.
I was not high on Skjei’s play in his short regular season stint with the Canes but thought he was generally very good in the playoffs. But even the good version of Skjei can have moments where decision-making and positioning are ‘iffy’. He very clearly has the physical skill set to be a capable top 4 defenseman, but I exit the 2019-20 season questioning whether he is sound enough. Enter Brett Pesce. Pesce is the definition of sound defensive play. Might he mesh perfectly with Skjei who can add more offensive jump but could also maybe benefit from having a safety net behind him sometimes? And if not Skjei, the Hurricanes are currently on the hook for three more years of Jake Gardiner. Might the version of Gardiner that looked better starting at about the midway point of the 2019-20 season work with Pesce? Finally if neither of the more established players with big contracts works particularly well, Haydn Fleury used the playoffs to try to show that he was ready to slot higher in the lineup. Despite maybe a lack of a sure thing, the Hurricanes have multiple options for a fourth top 4 defenseman. I think Pesce meshing with one of these players could be the key to the entire blue line for 2020-21 and beyond.
What say you Canes fans?
1) Despite Martin Necas’ step forward in 2019-20 playing right wing, do you think he could find his way back to center? If so, could he be the offensive catalyst that the Hurricanes need to drive a second scoring line?
2) Do you agree that Brett Pesce is the key to building a capable second pairing? Of the three options I mentioned, who do you think pairs best with Pesce and why?
3) Who has a Canes assertion or two of his/her own for 2020-21 and beyond?