Through a week of practices with a scrimmage and 2 preseason games in the middle, I am not sure Hurricanes Coach Bill Peters had made much, if any, progress building forward and defense combinations. Sure Victor Rask and Elias Lindholm seem shackled together. And I think there is a high probability that Ron Hainsey and Justin Faulk will be reunited to be the top D pair. But past that we had seen random tinkering for the first 2 preseason games and then more or less a complete shuffling of the deck for practice on Wednesday. The team is still 11 days from its first regular season game, so there is still time and no reason for panic. But at some point, Peters does need to figure it out and making some progress sooner than later would gain some run time to build some chemistry with new players and new combinations in the mix.
So Saturday’s preseason game against the Islanders was the first real test for Wednesday’s newly minted combinations. And while it is a bit premature to call things solved or final based on one game, the team might have made significant strides in terms of figuring some things out.
On defense, the Noah Hanifin/Ryan Murphy combination was eye-openeing. The duo picked up both of the assists on Nordstrom’s rebound goal when Hanifin fed Murphy and Murphy then rifled a puck on net that left a rebound for Nordstrom to finish. Jeff Skinner’s game-winner also featured a pass from Hanifin. And in the unofficial 3-on-3 overtime exhibition, Hanifin again assisted on a Skinner goal. What was also obvious from listening to the radio broadcast was 3 things.
1-The volume of shots they took. My guesstimate says that they probably logged 5-6 shots on goal and another bunch of misses or blocks. Shots are a measure of offensive zone time and offensive zone possesion. And shots on goal are generally a decent measure of having the puck with time and control in the offensive zone which is obviously a good thing.
2-The number of times the puck moved from one of the 2 to the other. This suggests a reasonably cohesive game between the 2 and a good amount of supporting the puck and reading off each other.
3-From Chuck Kaiton’s call, they seemed to steer clear of mistakes. They did not get flagged by Chuck for any ‘big oopses,’ and they seemed to play a pretty clean game in terms of turning the puck over.
If it continues to click, I think this could be a perfect third pairing to start the season. It leaves the 4 veterans to play together and do the heavy lifting in terms of minutes if they need to. It gives Coaches Bill Peters and Steve Smith a chance to shelter them a little bit or select minutes on a night when they are having a ‘learning night.’ At the same time it offers a skating, offensive pairing that you could turn loose in the third period if down a couple goals. It also gives Hanifin a low-key entry into the lineup. Everyone would obviously be thrilled if he pulls an Ekblad and plays his way up the depth chart after getting his feet wet, but upward movement can occur as appropriate not because it is forced.
Even above Skinner’s 2 goals (plus another in the 3-on-3 exhibition), the play of the Hanifin/Murphy pairing was the most exciting thing to emerge from Saturday’s preseason game. The only thing that could make it better is if 1 or more players from Brett Pesce, Jaccob Slavin and Trevor Carrick who should all play Saturday recomplicate the blue line depth chart.
And if Hanifin/Murphy works, Peters might mostly have the defense figured out with Hainsey/Faulk, Liles/Wisniewski, Hanifin/Murphy with Jordan as an extra or substitute.
At forward, Jeff Skinner and his offensive outburst were the story of the night. I would love to get my hands on video of the game to dig a bit deeper, but from the radio broadcast, he and Riley Nash seemed to work well together. Kris Versteeg was also on this line. I recently wrote a Hurricanes blog that talked about the next step in Jeff Skinner’s growth as an offensive player which I think comes from learning to play without the puck a bit more and take help from a playmaking line mate. You can read that HERE. While he is not a pure playmaker, Riley Nash actually makes some sense next to Skinner. He skates well enough to match or create pace and can help drive possession. And if he skates the middle lane on the rush he can push back defenders and leave a ton of open space behind him for Skinner to find open places to receive the puck and shoot. The key for the Canes at forward is to get the top dogs (Skinner, EStaal) going and also find chemistry that enables a few of the 2-way players like Nash to find a higher level offensively. It is only 1 game, but just maybe Skinner/Nash Versteeg is 1 such combination.
From the files of ‘If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’ I would expect that we will see Skinner/Nash/Versteeg again. I also think that McClement is set to take Malone and whoever does not fit higher up on his fourth/checking line. So if those things hold, that leaves Peters trying to find chemistry for the other 2 lines.
It takes more than 1 game to prove it out, but the trend in terms of piecing together a few of the puzzle pieces is better coming out of Saturday’s preseason game.