After Wednesday’s round of roster cuts, my daily post for Wednesday featured a fairly detailed discussion of the implications of Matt Tennyson being sent to Charlotte that went past the basics of it opening up another defenseman roster spot.
Thursday’s round of roster cuts led to part 2 that recapped that round of cuts and highlighted the remaining players involved and the roster spots to be won.
That sets up this part 3 that will delve into the myriad of possibilities for filling out the forward roster slots. Part 2 had Skinner/Rask/Stempniak, Nordstrom/JStaal/Nestrasil and Aho/Lindholm/Teravainen as foregone conclusions to start the season barring a late injury. I think that is as safe of a bet as you can make as far as NHL line combinations go.
That leaves 3 more players for the lineup and an extra to be the #13 — 4 slots total.
I think the default is Bickell or Di Giuseppe/McClement/Stalberg. That combination incorporates the 3 veterans who are on 1-way contracts and also Di Giuseppe who ranks highest in terms of NHL experience among the others and also had a strong second half of 2015-16 at the NHL level. If I had to bet on only 4 players and wanted to pick the highest probability option, that would be it.
But is it the best option?
Whether you look at eye test, statistical analysis or just about anything else, Jay McClement and the fourth line that he centered in 2015-16 struggled mightily. In my recent “If I was Bill Peters…” article, I suggested exploring other options to build a better fourth line.
What are the objectives?
When building an NHL line, especially a fourth line, it is not as simple as just picking the 3 best players not already used on the 3 higher lines. There is obviously the issue of positions, but it also goes deeper than just picking the best left wing, center and right wing.
Key considerations for building a fourth line include:
Not losing games: It is a little bit old school, but there is still some validity to the case for building a fourth line with the primary goal of staying out of trouble and not losing games. For a team to be successful in the long run, its top players are going to need to drive the bus. If a team needs too much from its fourth line, it is destined to fail regardless of how good that fourth line is. Even in today’s NHL where coaches can stock a fourth line with players instead of enforcers, there is still an element of leaving games to be decided by the top half of the roster.
Ideally help fill out the penalty kill: Also ideal is to have a penalty killer or better yet a forward pair that comes from the fourth line. With lighter minutes, they should be fresh and ready to pour energy into the more arduous minutes shorthanded and also free top half of the rosters to save energy and play in more favorable scoring situations.
In 2015-16, the Hurricanes fourth line fared poorly for not losing games with a rough shot and goal differential and fair not great for helping with the penalty kill. Jay McClement and a mix of Nathan Gerbe and Brad Malone logged penalty kill time with mixed results.
Player by player comments
Most experienced NHLers and front runners
Jay McClement: For whatever reason, he seems to be cemented into the C4 slot at least until he suddenly isn’t. He help that position throughout an extended struggle and a revolving door of line mates in 2015-16. Some combination of experience and his role on the penalty kill has so far made him a fixture on the fourth line, but with a growing number of people questioning whether he is part of the Hurricanes best 12 forwards, might coaching be thinking the same?
Viktor Stalberg: He theoretically was a fairly direct attempt to improve the fourth line. As a veteran with sound 2-way play, mobility and size, he complements McClement’s lack of mobility well. He brings minimal offense but at least brings pace/skating that matches today’s NHL and Bill Peters’ system.
Bryan Bickell: As a player who failed to ever really crack the Blackhawks NHL roster in 2015-16, he entered training camp as a wild card. Could he regain NHL form with a change of scenery? Or was he simply the cost of obtaining Teuvo Teravainen and to be written off? He could easily be considered a write off by this point in the process but instead has had a strong preseason and made a case for being considered as a going concern at the NHL level in 2016-17. He brings size and okay fourth line offensive potential but comes with the same mediocre at best mobility as Jay McClement.
Phil Di Giuseppe: I have taken to calling Di Giuseppe ‘the forgotten man.’ After a strong second half of 2015-16 at the NHL level and playing a complementary role in Jeff Skinner’s scoring outburst, he rarely gets mentioned in any of the line combinations expected to fill the NHL lineup and spend most of his preseason ice time similarly playing with players likely to start the season in the AHL. I think he brings a good combination of skill, skating, 2-way play and experience. Until enough players prove otherwise in real games, I refuse to believe that Di Giuseppe is not among the Hurricanes 12 best forwards.
The new guard with offensive upside
Sergey Tolchinsky: He entered the NHL training camp with a head of steam from the Traverse City tourney and a strong performance on the front end of training camp in the prospect-heavy Red-White scrimmage. He has not been horrible in preseason games, but he has yet to show the offensive spark that is his strength and potentially his ticket to the NHL. It is just speculation on my part, but my best bet is that he is still in Raleigh not for consideration for 1 of the open fourth line slots, but rather to continue working in the system and with the NHL coaches and roster to gain familiarity and comfort for the possibility of returning if the Hurricanes have injuries in the top 9 in more scoring-oriented roles that Tolchinsky might be able to step into later in the season.
Derek Ryan: I think he is similar to Tolchinsky in that I think he is unlikely to win a fourth line slot. Rather, I think he is in the category of ‘waiting in the wings’ if the Hurricanes offense struggles to score again and Ron Francis and Bill Peters want to reach to Charlotte to try to inject some offense. If my memory is right, he did log some shifts on the penalty kill which could indicate that I am wrong and that he is being considered for McClement’s slot.
Lucas Wallmark: He is 1 of the players who most rose from being a relative unknown in the fray to being on the radar. He had a strong preseason with offense and scoring potential as the headline but reasonable underpinnings in hockey IQ and 2-way play. I think he is a long shot to make the opening day roster and a bit in the same category as Tolchinsky and Ryan as ‘waiting in the wings’ potential offensive help. But if he gets into the lineup on Friday and is centering a line with some mix of NHLers (Di Giuseppe and Stalberg as an example), I lean to the edge of my seat to see what he can do in 1 last chance to change Francis/Peters’ originally course significantly. I think the same could be said for Derek Ryan if he skates in Friday’s preseason finale.
Brock McGinn: He is a little bit less of offense-leaning variety than the 3 players noted above, but I loosely put him in this same category. With Bickell playing well and bring more size and Stalberg also bringing more size and speed, I think it takes McGinn finding some higher gear in the next few days probably coupled with an injury to a wing for him to stay in Raleigh.
Arguably the best stereotypical fourth-liner
Patrick Brown: Of all of the AHLers trying to move up, I like Brown’s chances the best. First off, he has had an incredibly good preseason especially in the all-important games. He is probably the most sound of the AHLers defensively. He has good NHL size at 6 foot 1 inch tall and 210 pounds and also decent skating ability. He is not cut out of the pure wrecking ball mold of fourth line wing but does have a degree of ruggedness in his game. And to top it all off, he showed a surprising amount of offensive ability with production (a goal and an assist) to boot.
The wild card
Warren Foegele: Then there is the curious case of Warren Foegele. He is supposed to be back in juniors by now except that every time he gets into the lineup he makes plays, hounds the puck and is noticeable in a good way. I still put his odds at making the 2016-17 opening day roster as very long, but his odds of making a future Hurricanes roster have risen significantly over the summer and NHL training camp. I do not have time to sort out the legalese, but as a 2014 draftee I think it is correct that the Hurricanes could sign him and send him to the AHL. The alternative is a return to Canadian juniors. If this is correct, there is at least a chance that Foegele’s stay was to allow time to get him under contract to route him to Charlotte instead of Kingston of the OHL when he departs.
So might make it and why?
I continue to think that the Hurricanes brain trust sees the same thing as everyone else with regard to Jay McClement and decides to take some small amount of risk with the aim of getting better. In replacing McClement, I think Peters would be seeking all-around better play and maybe even a small offensive boost, but he must also get defensive soundness and find a way to replace McClement’s penalty kill minutes.
Of the younger set, Patrick Brown is probably wins the ‘safe and sound’ ranking, has been a regular part of the preseason penalty kill and though he has also played forward could step into the center slot. If Peters says ‘screw the whole fourth line/defense thing’ and just looks to build another good line that is where the other centers Derek Ryan and Lucas Wallmark enter the fray. With Stalberg a proven NHL commodity, Bickell having a solid preseason and Di Giuseppe still looking for a landing spot on the roster, I really do not see Peters shaking things up at wing to start the season. I think that leaves McGinn and Tolchinsky on the outside looking in at least to start the season. Foegele has played wing and more recently center. For his sake, I wish preseason had 2 more games to give him even more of a chance to try to just undeniably win a roster spot despite its improbability. But more likely Foegele is also a riser for later.
I really think the bottom line hinges on Peters willingness to bump veteran Jay McClement who I do not see as being among the Hurricanes 12 best forwards. That slot holds Wallmark, Ryan or Brown. At wing, I think Stalberg is nearly a lock based on more than preseason, and I think the last slot comes down to Bickell or Di Giuseppe. Despite liking Bickell’s play in preseason, I just think Di Giuseppe is a better player with more upside. Note that Brown could also enter the mix at wing if not considered for center.
‘If I was Bill Peters…’ I would go with Di Giuseppe / Brown or Wallmark / Stalberg with McClement and possibly Bickell as the extras at the NHL level.
Who would you keep for the fourth line and #13 forward?
We should get another clue when the team posts the lineup for tonight and we see the lines at the morning skate.