The recent history under Bill Peters
After a 2016-17 season that saw Coach Bill Peters challenged to find combinations and rotations of forward lines that worked on the road. The formula at home for Peters has generally been pretty simple. Jordan Staal’s line, often with Slavin/Pesce, generally marks the other teams’ best lines.
In 2015-16, Staal found chemistry with depth forwards Joakim Nordstrom and Andrej Nestrasil and the trio was the cornerstone of a too little too late surge from December through the end of February when Nestrasil was lost to a season-ending injury and trade deadline departures by notables including Eric Staal upset the team’s rhythm.
In 2016-17, Staal played with wider variety of line mates, especially early, but again settled into a rhythm that boosted the team starting about mid-season. Staal spent time with Sebastian Aho and Teravainen and also had a long run with Elias Lindholm on his right side.
But the formula did not translate to the road. When away from home, opposing coaches with the last change could easily steer scoring lines away from Staal’s line and instead force them to muck and grind with offsetting checking lines. And in 2016-17 specifically, the Hurricanes’ combinations behind Staal were full of holes. Peters tries supporting the Hainsey/Faulk pairing that struggled on the road with Staal’s line and then using Slavin/Pesce to help the other forward lines who had to play against other teams’ scoring lines. Peters really did not have a second set defensively either in terms of forward lines or defense pairings. The result was a porous defense on the road especially during the middle part of the season when the team’s playoff hopes mostly died.
In 2016-17, the Hurricanes played at close to target playoff pace at home (2/3 of the points), missing by only 2-3 points. But the team missed the road playoff pace (1/2 of the points) by a wide margin with a 13-19-6 record that fell 6 points short. All of the minus 6 on the road came in the first three months of the season when the team struggled to a 4-10-6 mark.
The team played better in the second half of the season, but some of the success was also a result of Peters’ smoke and mirrors strategy during the team’s late season surge. What looked like completely random in-game line shuffling on the road to the fan base was actually Peters resorting to a high amount of random to make it challenging for opposing coaches to read and react to patterns to get the match up they wanted. Peters would send the wing from one of the lesser lines over the wall first for a change which would prompt the opposing coach to send his scoring line. Peters would then follow with Staal or similar for a makeshift line that at least partly matched the other team’s best the way he wanted. Though Peters’ “random is impossible to match against” strategy worked to some degree, having to constantly shuffle forward combinations was not an optimal long-term solution for improving the road hockey that played a significant role in dooming the 2016-17 season.
The Hurricanes entered the offseason with a bit of budget and a couple high priority needs. Francis addressed the first and arguably biggest need when he added Scott Darling and parted ways with Eddie Lack. He then added Justin Williams as his bigger salary forward addition.
But along the way, Francis also completely revamped the bottom half of the roster. He added Trevor van Riemsdyk to solidify the third pairing that was an Achilles’ heel during pretty much the entirety of the 2016-17 season. Francis also reworked the fourth line, adding proven checking line forwards Marcus Kruger and Josh Jooris to replace Jay McClement and Viktor Stalberg.
When the dust settled on the offseason, Peters now had at his disposal the makings of a third defense pairing that would not be as big of a liability defensively and also a newly-minted veteran checking line capable of being plan B behind Staal’s line for the tough match ups, especially on the road where opposing coaches could easily steer around Staal’s line.
Deployment during the 2017-18 season thus far
Peters’ comments, line combinations and usage during preseason showed the direction he was going. He basically wanted to build a fourth line that he could trust to take shifts behind Staal’s line on the road and also coming out of power plays such that opposing coaches trying to steer scoring lines around Staal would instead run directly into plan B, a solid checking line centered by Marcus Kruger. The general idea was that Peters now had a second option that he could trust defensively.
In addition, similar to the 2016-17 season, the Hurricanes penalty kill would largely be filled by the fourth line as well. Nordstrom and Kruger have been regulars on the penalty kill, and Josh Jooris has also logged a decent amount of time in that role.
But is it actually working?
At a 50,000-foot level, the Hurricanes have fewer holes in their lineup especially on the road where they cannot dictate match ups. Perhaps the biggest contributor in that regard is Trevor van Riemsdyk who has helped solidify the third defense pairing which struggled last season. Justin Williams also added another solid two-way forward capable of playing against anyone.
But back to the matter at hand…Has Peters’ approach using the fourth line to build out a reliable checking line paid dividends thus far?
I have written about the fourth line twice recently and settled on the word “torn” to describe its role and level of play. First, on December 29, I talked about the line at a high level and touched on their lack of scoring. Then on January 3, I did a reasonably deep dive on the Hurricanes penalty kill highlighting the fact that the fourth-liners have struggled at least in terms of goals allowed while they were on the ice.
When I net it out for the fourth line, it is like this:
1) Whether they are good or better defensively just is not enough with their meager scoring rates. It just is not possible to 100 percent shut out opponents, so if a line cannot score, it is inevitably a minus. Kruger, Nordstrom, Jooris and Di Giuseppe have a combined pace that projects to only 4 goals scored per 82 games played. That just does not cut it in today’s NHL.
2) Through 41 games, the Hurricanes’ penalty kill ranks 24th in the NHL. That takes away any argument that the value of the fourth line is its excellence in this role. On top of that, the goals allowed rates (per the penalty kill article linked to above) are worst for fourth-liners Kruger and Nordstrom.
Based on the results above, I do not think building a veteran-based fourth line has yielded the results desired and expected initially.
So is it as simple as improving the fourth line’s play either with the current players or new ones?
A next logical jump is to figure that the Hurricanes simply need to improve the fourth line still building it with the same purpose. That could be accomplished with some combination of the current players stepping up. Or it could be accomplished with new personnel.
But in a 2018 NHL in which teams do not need to stock one or two enforcers who maybe can barely skate and in a 2018 Hurricanes organization that is gradually becoming deep at the forward position both at the NHL level and below, we might be on the brink of seeing a ‘new NHL’ fourth line for the Hurricanes.
The potential to stock the fourth line with young skill players
Oftentimes, fans want to give up the checking line style altogether and just build a scoring-capable fourth line from skilled, young players. Conceptually, that sounds wonderful, but in reality it is tricky to implement in a way that has a positive effect as measured by goals for but equally importantly goals against.
There is a reason why some forwards are first line or second line versus fourth line. Top line players are better. Even on a good team with depth, there is significant difference between players like Crosby, Stamkos, McDavid and others who man the first line and the players who fill the fourth line. Going with a plan that takes a team’s 10th-12th best forwards and tries to beat Crosby’s line by outscoring them is fraught with problems. That plan becomes even more precarious if the 10th-12th best forwards are also inexperienced and prone to make more mistakes than veterans.
Basically, if a team wants to build a fourth line with young skilled players who lean offense over defense and/or are still learning the ropes and prone to making a good number of mistakes, then that line will not be a good fit for being used as an old school, checking type of fourth line.
Enter Victor Rask and Justin Williams
So IF the Hurricanes were to build a fourth line with young skill players, Peters would need another alternative to be capable of being two deep defensively at forward.
The general idea would be to use Staal’s line and then another higher line to do the heavy lifting and ideally catch as many of the tough match ups as possible even on the road. Then a young skill line could be used opportunistically to try to generate offense. Instead of using a fourth line selectively in defensive situations looking to hold the other team down, Peters would use the fourth line selectively trying to prey on favorable match ups against lesser defenders.
But to do that, the Hurricanes would need another line that Peters could trust nearly as much as Staal’s. Enter Victor Rask and Justin Williams who have played together a decent amount since Kruger went down with his injury. Sure, they are higher-end than Nordstrom/Kruger, but Peters has used them in a similar manner 5-on-5 at least.
It makes sense, for whatever issues Rask has in terms of offense and scoring, he continues to be a pretty solid defensive forward who has enough size to match up against power forwards. Justin Williams’ strength is similarly his two-way play. While there are different combinations that could accomplish the same thing, Rask and Williams as a pair are interesting. The TSA line seems to be sticking together, and many of the other forwards are not as good of a fit for a role that leans slightly toward “defense first” with “offense too” coming second.
What 2018-19 could look like at forward
My hunch is that we will need to wait another season until the situation unfolds. Many of the players who could potentially hop into the NHL lineup are in their first year as professionals at the AHL level and could use more time to develop. In addition, the 2017-18 is rapidly approaching crunch time such that it is not a great time for trial and error if the Hurricanes remain in the playoff chase.
But looking forward to 2017-18, could see Peters transition away from having a lower-end fourth line focused on defense to having a fourth line that opportunistically aims to score.
Match up line #1: Aho/Staal/Teravainen
Match up line #2: McGinn/Rask/Williams
Opportunistic scoring line #1: Skinner/Ryan/Lindholm
Opportunistic scoring line #2: Some combination of Martin Necas, Warren Foegele, Aleksi Saarela, Lucas Wallmark, Valentin Zykov, Nicolas Roy, etc.
Critical to making this work is having enough capable penalty killers without stocking a fourth line with that type of player. That seems workable for the Hurricanes. Jordan Staal is the team’s best forward penalty killer in 2017-18, and McGinn, Ryan and Lindholm have all played on the penalty kill with decent results. Foegele also projects to be a capable NHL penalty killer based on what he has accomplished in that role at lower levels.
If this were to materialize, the Hurricanes would suddenly have two capable checking lines but in the form of lines that could also score. That becomes even more true if McGinn’s slot were filled with a left wing capable of producing more offense. In addition, the Hurricanes other two lines would both be built to score. Skinner’s line would play regular shifts and fill power play slots. The young fourth line could be used a little bit more opportunistically and dictated by match ups.
There would inevitably be some growing pains going in this direction, but I really think that this is exactly where the good teams with organizational depth are headed, and the Hurricanes suddenly have an organization that might support such a transition.