For anyone stopping by to see notes/comments from the Canes 7-3 loss against the Penguins, you will have to wait. I could not get video to work (like most I think) and saw it only through the eyes of Chuck Kaiton. My hope is to get to bed early for once and do an early Canes breakfast watching the tape delay of the game from NHL Network.
A common and certainly correct refrain this time of year especially after a 7-3 doozy is “It’s only preseason.” I completely agree that it is important not to overreact, but especially with the compressed couple-week preseason, it is also important to process what happens in the games, learn from it and use that to quickly build toward the best possible roster and combinations. So with a 3-day run of games (counting Sunday’s Red-White scrimmage which was pretty much preseason game conditions), here are my initial thoughts on what the team has learned and what I would do next.
At a basic level, I would try to do 2 things with the forwards. First, I would seek to find combinations that get Eric Staal and Jeff Skinner some playmaking help and to get both of them going offensively. If both of those players do not score much more this season, it just seems too hard for this team to be even average in terms of goal scoring. Make it a priority. Second and maybe somewhat related, I would take the couple fringe/bottom half of the roster players who are offensively skilled and playing well and get them ice time on higher lines to see if there is another scoring-capable top 9 forward to be found by finding the right situation for them.
So more specifically…
From the category of trying to build better scoring situations for Skinner and EStaal:
1) Try Kris Versteeg across from Jeff Skinner. (See theme from #1) I saw enough of Skinner/JStaal a couple years back to never try it again, so though some will propose that this summer, I will refuse to believe it can work until I see it do so for at least 3 weeks. So that leaves me liking something like Skinner/EStaal/Versteeg.
2) (If not #1) Consider trying to build a prototypical Eric Staal line that matches the formula that seemed to most consistently boost his scoring. The formula is to put him at center where he has some freedom and wandering room and then put a playmaker on his left side (i.e. Cory Stillman, Ray Whitney) who can feed 1-timers into his wheelhouse when he flares a bit right and a power forward on his right side (i.e. Erik Cole, Tuomo Ruutu) who can drive to the post and make space. For the right side, I think the Canes have 2 decent options in Elias Lindholm and Andrej Nestrasil. Lindholm is not a pure power forward but he skates fairly well, can forecheck hard and is capable of playing a straight line game to drive and push back defenders. Nestrasil, while not a pure top 6 player, might actually better be able to match what Cole and Ruutu did with a big body with enough speed and enough skill to hang with Eric Staal on the rush. On the left side, it might be interesting to see if Chris Terry could be a decent fit. He obviously is not at that level yet, but his game is actually somewhat like Cory Stillman’s in that he is a pretty versatile and heady offensive player with both playmaking and scoring ability despite not being the speediest.
From the category of trying to find bottom half of the roster/fringe players who can help in a higher role:
3) Get Derek Ryan some trial time with core NHL forwards. (This actually meets both goals.) I thought Ryan looked very good on Sunday and also decent on Monday. He has a nose for the net, good quickness in small spaces in the offensive zone, and a track record for playmaking. I have been saying all summer that I think both Eric Staal and Jeff Skinner will benefit from playing with a playmaker who can help them get more scoring chances without having to create them all. Be it in practice scrimmages or preseason games, I would get Ryan some ice time with Skinner or EStaal. Something like Skinner/Ryan/Nestrasil could help really balance scoring if Ryan turned clicked with Skinner and Nestrasil brought some size and someone to go to the net. Something like EStaal/Ryan/Versteeg.
4) Get Chris Terry some run time on a scoring line. (See also #2) The lack of video for the Pens game today makes me feel like I am flying a bit in the dark on players like him, but my impression from the Red-White scrimmage on Sunday was that he was very sharp receiving pucks, moving, passing pucks and shooting. At least per radio, he seemed quieter today so perhaps Sunday was just a function of lesser competition. Could Chris Terry take a big step up I after gaining some experience and comfort last season and play a Cory Stillman-like role on a EStaal line. If you wanted a big body, maybe Nestrasil plays RW. If you wanted that forechecking component but a bit more skill, maybe Lindholm fits better. I could also see him being a heady 3rd for Rask/Lindholm. Regardless, I think it is time to get Terry some reps with NHLers.
5) Give Sergey Tolchinsky a shot. I am on record as calling him a longshot to make the NHL to start 2015-16. But I am also on record as being incredibly impressed not just with his skill but how well he thinks the game. I am not sure he is ready, but because of his skill level and stellar play against similar age players this summer, I think it is at least worth having a look at what he can do with skilled line mates who also think the game well. How about Tolchinsky/Rask/Lindholm to have a look-see?
6) (This one is more just based on openings.) Consider trying Riley Nash at right wing. Unless Bill Peters is certain that Eric Staal is going to wind up at left wing again, I would give Riley Nash a look at right wing. If Eric Staal moves back to center that position is full (EStaal, JStaal, Rask, McClement). Nash skates well enough to play wing and cover the full rink. He is defensively sound enough to play on a checking line. And as a right shot, he could be a complementary wing for penalty kill or even important defensive zone draws late in games as a right wing next to Rask or McClement who are both left shot centers. And if he falls to the 4th line, which is possible, his skill level/scoring potential are strong for that low slot.
It is not the intent of this blog, but I think another takeaway is that at this early juncture, I am looking at Derek Ryan and Sergey Tolchinsky as wildcards to inject more pure skill into the top 9.
I am also looking at Chris Terry and Andrej Nestrasil as options to find the right role/chemistry to fit in the top 6 despite not naturally slotting that high. Bill Peters has 3 rounds of game-like play to evaluate and an important 3 days to figure out what to do with it before round 2 of preseason games this weekend. It will be interesting to see what he does heading into the weekend.