At the risk of being accused of getting too bogged down in who is playing with whom when it is all subject to change repeatedly anyway, I am going to venture for the second time this week into the construction of the Carolina Hurricanes lines.
Earlier this week, I voted against any/all line shuffling that included separating Jeff Skinner from a Skinner/Nash/Versteeg combination that looked good Saturday and helped propel Skinner to 2 goals plus another in the 3-on-3 exhibition. If you missed that, you can read that HERE.
For Wednesday’s fifth preseason game against the Washington Capitals, we saw a completely new set of combinations that Coach Bill Peters has mostly been going with in practice this week. Below is a quick evaluation of each line in terms of its play on Wednesday night and also my assessment in general.
Kris Versteeg – Eric Staal – Elias Lindholm
Wednesday vs. Caps: This line was good on Wednesday, and each player seemed to fill a role. Eric Staal had a solid game as a power forward playing down on and below the goal line in the offensive zone in true power center type form. He won a puck and made a crisp pass to Versteeg who then quickly found Lindholm between the circles for a grade A scoring chance and a goal. Staal also picked up another assist from a similar place feeding Gerbe on the 5-on-3 power play goal. The line also mustered a couple other decent chances.
Assessment: I like the line, but I question whether it is a viable part of building out an entire roster. On a team that I continue to think is still a bit light on playmakers who can create scoring chances for others, of the forwards I would probably rate Versteeg #1 and Lindholm #2. I am not sure that Peters can afford to use both of them on the same line. I also like Eric Staal at center, but on a team that is suddenly deep at the center position, he might be the player most suited to try to fill the role of a sniper/scorer from the wing.
Nathan Gerbe – Jordan Staal – Riley Nash
Wednesday vs. Caps: This line was good as well on Wednesday. The trio notched a goal when Gerbe pressured a Caps defender and forced him to cough the puck up right to Riley Nash who was waiting between the circles and buried it. Gerbe also had a goal, but that was on the power play with different line mates. The group created another very similar grade A scoring chance by forcing a turnover on the forecheck that found Jordan Staal (think it was him not Nash) pick up a puck just inside the offensive blue line with a head of steam. Finally, the trio, as one would expect, was pretty sound defensively.
Assessment: If this line stays together, I think Wednesday is the recipe for how it would need to score. There really is not what I would consider an above average/second line type passer/playmaker in the group. I think to generate offense, they would need to do it via getting pucks deep and then forechecking to create chances or cycling to eventually feed the point for shots with traffic in front. Though this worked well on Wednesday, I am skeptical that this line would generate enough offense game in and game out to match good opposing lines of the higher scoring variety.
Jeff Skinner – Victor Rask – Chris Terry
Wednesday vs. Caps: Led by Victor Rask, the line was pretty good in its own end and in general without the puck. They stayed out of trouble but did create a ton of trouble for the opposition. Jeff Skinner had 1 pretty good scoring chance when Chris Terry forced a turnover on the side wall in the offensive zone, but the trio was generally light on scoring chances.
Assessment: I think the key is Victor Rask. His early development reminds me a bit of Justin Faulk. He matured way ahead of schedule in terms of defense and decision-making details. This enabled him to go from off the radar to a pretty good NHL center seemingly overnight. And with this skill set, he is equipped to be a good center on a checking line. But he has not matured quite as rapidly offensively. With generally scoring-capable line mates (saw most time with Skinner and Lindholm last season) and a healthy helping of power play time, Rask managed only 11 goals and 22 assists in 2014-15. With how well he thinks the game and considering that he was an above average offensive player at lower levels, I am optimistic that he will eventually make significant strides offensively. The biggest question in terms of building lines for next week is when. Exiting the 2014-15 season, I would say that he was a below average NHL center in terms of generating offense for line mates. My highest priority for building forward lines is trying to get both Eric Staal and Jeff Skinner going and unless Rask’s time to rise offensively is coming real soon, I think it is premature to put him centering Jeff Skinner unless there is playmaking help on the other wing. Enter Chris Terry. Could he be ready to transfer his AHL scoring to the NHL level? I think it takes either that or a Rask offensive leap to make this line one that boosts Jeff Skinner.
Brad Malone – Jay McClement – Joakim Nordstrom
Wednesday vs. Caps: This line fulfilled its role on Wednesday despite not getting on the score sheet. Jay McClement continues to 1 of the first players of the bench for a penalty kill unit that was amongst the best in the NHL last season and was good again on Wednesday. Joakim Nordstrom also saw some penalty kill time, and Brad Malone was noticeable in a good way banging bodies and playing hard with his ice time.
Assessment: The line is built to fill some niche roles and should be good at doing it regardless of exactly who ultimately wins the slots. Jay McClement will continue to be a leader on the penalty kill, and if in the lineup Joakim Nordstrom will add another penalty kill option from the bottom line that helps keep the scorers fresh. Either Brad Malone or Brock McGinn can bring some energy, and if he wins the slot, McGinn might also offer more in terms of depth scoring. I like the combination of players in contention for this fourth line.
The player complete left out of this discussion is Derek Ryan whose skill set, albeit playing in Europe, is very much the skill/scoring/playmaking that I think the Canes could afford to add. The issue with him is that he adds yet another undersized player to the mix and that he is a natural center which is a position where the Canes are already 5 deep. I am not sure if asking him to transition to right wing is simply asking too much from a player already trying to adjust to the NHL game, but I would be curious to see how he looked at right wing. If not, I fear that he is auditioning to be the first injury call up if the team is hit with injuries at center.
I think the challenge that Bill Peters faces is twofold. First, the Canes are little light on true playmakers. Second, I think the team has a few player combinations that seem round peg/square hole because a few top players (Jordan Staal, Jeff Skinner and maybe even Victor Rask) lean too strongly toward 1 side of “offense-oriented” vs. “defense-oriented” instead of being balanced players right in the middle.
Perhaps if I do not dream up something else for Friday’s Daily Cup of Joe, I will take a shot at putting Skinner/Nash/Versteeg back together and then building out the other lines with what is left. Or alternatively, I will just grumble about what Peters does with lines in practice on Thursday.
If you were building lines, what would they be?