Earlier this week, I shared my opinion on the existing forward line combinations a bit about the process going forward to sort it out. It is sort of like part 1 for this post. You can read that HERE.
After a slow start in preseason that saw offensive struggles in the first game and then defensive and goaltending collapses in a blowout loss in the second game, the Canes have righted the ship and seem to have it heading in the right direction as training camp is drawing to an end. There are still a few decisions to be made on defense, but things seem to be in order. Both goalies have had good or better outings, so while there is a decision to be made about rotation to start the season, there is no panic to try to solve problems. And the offense has scored at a good clip over the past 3 wins even with a power play that is not clicking yet. This would imply that things are reasonably set at forward. But I am not sure that is the case. The team came out of 2 reasonably solid wins last weekend and then completely shuffled the deck in terms of line combinations with only the fourth line showing much resemblance to the winning combinations from only a few days earlier. And coming out of another win with 3 goals scored on Wednesday night, Peters spoke about issues finding a “rhythm” with the current combinations which suggested that more changes might be in store.
So what gives? The team seems to be producing at a decent pace offensively, but somehow the puzzle pieces still do not seem to fit. How can this be?
I think part of it is fairly straightforward in that when you look at the Canes forwards, they are a still a bit light on top-tier veteran NHLers. If you look back only 1 year ago, I think it would have been fair to characterize Riley Nash, Chris Terry, Victor Rask and to some degree even Elias Lindholm as players entering the season more as fringe AHL/NHL players than pure, proven NHL top 6 or even top 9 forwards. Those players are all now a year more experienced and the hope is that they will take yet another step up with a higher comfort level in the NHL. Can Chris Terry continue to bring his improved level of all around play but also recoup a higher-end scoring touch that he seemed to mostly leave behind in the process? Does Victor Rask have a higher gear offensively to go with his speedy maturation as a solid defense-first center? Can Riley Nash do what he did for the first half of the 2014-15 season for an entire season? What is Andrej Nestrasil’s ceiling offensively? When you work through the Carolina Hurricanes projected top 9, I think this part of the challenge is fairly easy to identify.
But I think there is another factor that maybe is not so obvious. In the NHL players get labels for their style of play. Forwards are sometimes described as ‘playmakers’ or ‘finishers’ scoring-wise or maybe as ‘defense-oriented’ if they are sound defensively but light on scoring. They can be ‘power’ forwards or ‘skill’ players. And so on and so on. But when you look at really good NHL players, they often come with fewer not more tags. Though he is an incredible defensive forward, I do not think anyone would ever call Jonathan Toews a checking line center. And what kind of line does Marian Hossa need to play on? It seems like ‘any’ is a good answer. I think that is because they are just incredibly good all-around hockey players. And when you have a collection of those, the style of play descriptions mostly disappear, and they seem capable of playing on any kind of line and complementing any kind of line mate.
I think the less obvious part of the struggle to find chemistry and build a complete set of lines that work is that the Canes have a high number of key forwards who are more slanted in 1 direction or another in terms of skill set and style of play.
–Jordan Staal. With the Pittsburgh Penguins, he was a third line center asked to be an elite shutdown/checking line center sitting behind lines centered by Evgeni Malkin and Sidney Crosby. He is a good NHL forward. I think he is a legitimate top 6 center. But as far as NHL centers for top 2 lines go, I think it is fair to say that he is below average in terms of playmaking ability to generate scoring chances for line mates and also pure goal scoring finishing ability. This is not catastrophic, but it maybe makes him not the greatest fit for a finisher/sniper type wing who one would want to pair with a player who can help generate scoring chances for him.
–Victor Rask. With Rask, I think it is incredibly important to say “at this point in time.” He is only 1 year deep in his NHL career, and I think his game could grow by leaps and bounds in some areas. Yesterday I compared his start to Justin Faulk’s. Like Faulk, Rask started out by maturing way ahead of schedule in terms of defensive soundness. Only later did he find a much higher level offensively. But “at this point in time,” I would classify Rask as very good defensively with offensive upside but at least per 2014-15 play below average for a first or second line center in terms of raw goal scoring and also playmaking ability. This again is not disastrous, but on a good team it fits better on a third line just asked for secondary scoring not to hold a top-end score who did not fit on another line or score more like a second line because the actual second line is light on offense and heavy on defense.
–Jeff Skinner. He is an elite offensive talent, and easily a top 6 forward in terms of raw goal scoring ability. But he continues to try to find that next level defensively. Only when Tripp Tracy does not have to microscopically point out every time he makes a good play or a bad play defensively will we know that he is finally past that hurdle. But until then he is not an ideal fit for a first or second line because of his unbalanced level of play offensively versus defensively. And as a pure finisher with 40 goal potential, one would ideally want to pair him with a playmaking center who can get him another couple scoring chances per game and reduce the need for him to do it himself. Again, elite in one area but not as good in another is not catastrophic, but it does dictate the type of line mate he fits best with and it is maybe not Jordan Staal and also Victor Rask at this early stage of his career both of whom lack the playmaking the Skinner needs and are maybe more equipped to lead a defense-first line.
–Riley Nash. He continues to improve each year, but he too is not from the mold of a playmaking center.
–Andrej Nestrasil. He has the skill set of a power forward who can go to the net and score some if fed opportunities, but I am not sure he is really the type who will create a ton of offense on his own.
–Eric Staal. His game is a bit more well-rounded than the other Canes centers, but he is more of a shoot first type of center who finishes more than he generates. His best years all came with a pretty similar formula. He had a skilled playmaker on his left side who could feed passes into his wheelhouse. This was Cory Stillman in his breakout year, Ray Whitney for a period of time and then Alexander Semin for a stretch (but right side for him). And on the right side, he had a power forward who could carry the puck hard to the net, free it up on the forecheck or sometimes just drive the net to leave space behind him for Staal to use. This was Erik Cole for a couple different stretches and also Tuomo Ruutu. I think that Eric Staal’s versatility has increased over time, but I still think he really needs playmaking help on the ice with him to help make sure he gets enough scoring chances.
Then on top of all the player specifics, I think at a basic level the Canes are still light on playmaking. When I look back only a month ago and look at the Kris Versteeg trade, I think Francis had it right. He did not simply need decent forward depth (for which Tlusty or a few other players might have fit the bill). He needed another playmaker. The Derek Ryan addition was also a low risk/high reward shot at adding some playmaking on the cheap.
Every team has some specific skill set type of players and the challenge of figuring out how to puzzle piece them together. This problem is not unique to the Carolina Hurricanes. But I do think that Hurricanes do have a more acute version of this problem from having more players like this than other teams.
–I think Jeff Skinner would ideally be paired with a playmaking center who could regularly put the puck on his stick in the offensive zone in scoring areas. But I am not sure I would really classify any of the Canes centers as a high-end puck distributor.
–So that is fine. Maybe Skinner can get some playmaking help from the wing. Kris Versteeg definitely fits the fill, and Elias Lindholm brings some of this too.
–But the Canes ideally want to pair a playmaking wing with Eric Staal too per my comment above. But they really have only 2 players who meet this skill set requirement.
–And when you start trying to put playmaking with the snipers, you end up with lines like Gerbe/JStaal/Nash or maybe Nestrasil. All of these players drive the net. All of them finish pretty well in close. But again, I think I would rate Nash and JStaal as below average at creating scoring chances for himself and also for his line mates.
–I am not sure Rask is a great center for a scoring line at least until he takes that next step.
When you net it out, I thin the Canes a high on unique puzzle pieces that pair only with certain other types, light on “universal” puzzle pieces that match with anyone and also maybe a bit light on playmakers that might be able to boost scoring for any number of players.
It will be interesting to see how Coach Bill Peters sorts it all out over the next 3-4 days heading into the start of the season.