Reports heading into the Carolina Hurricanes training camp last September were that both Eric and Jordan Staal were entering camp in the best shape of their hockey lives and ready to roll into the 2014-15. Those plans were destroyed when Jordan Staal twisted awkwardly and broke his leg in a preseason game. The effect on the team was brutal. Already light on depth at forward, the Canes stumbled out of the gate to the tune of an 0-6-2 start and were more or less out of playoff contention about 20 games into the 40 that they expected to be without Jordan Staal.
The team was noticeably better when Jordan Staal finally stepped into the lineup on December 29 at almost the midway point of the season. His six goals and 18 assists in 46 games (43-point pace for 82 games) was nothing to write home about especially when you coupled with the fact that Peters went top-heavy with his lineup pairing the Staals and usually using the best option he could find at right wing. But headline stats aside, it was obvious to anyone watching the team game in and game out that Jordan Staal made the Canes much better.
And therein lies the dilemma with Jordan Staal and where he fits for the 2015-16 season.
He is not a stereotypical first or second line center. He does not possess high end playmaking/puck distribution skills that drive scoring chances for his line mates like a Nicklas Backstrom. He is not a pure finishing type of center like Steven Stamkos. In fact, I think it is fair to say that he is average at best offensively compared to other first and second line centers. But that is not to say that he is not a good player. He is a physical monster at 6-4 220 pounds with skating ability, is elite as a checking line center and drives decent advanced stats to prove it. Bill Peters is tasked with the brain teaser of figuring out how best to use his unique skill set in a way that is best for the team and meshes with his line mates such that it boosts Jordan’s offensive productivity and also complements his line mates.
The possibilities are many:
–Build the best possible first line with Jordan centering a line with Eric (like most of 2014-15). The big brothers have the potential to play a power forward puck possession game, but neither is a pure version of a puck distributor. Who fits with them to add a Ray Whitney or Cory Stillman type playmaking component from the wing? Elias Lindholm is one possibility. There are also a few free agents floating around who might fit the bill.
–Play to Jordan’s strengths a bit and build a line that is elite defensively but with enough scoring too. Could Peters change things up and go with 1A and 1B lines with one leaning a bit more toward scoring and the other a bit more toward shutdown. Maybe it is just because the team just does not have many options at right wing, but I think Lindholm could fit in this scenario. If you filled the left wing slot with a defensively capable forward with enough offensive ability, maybe the line is a little bit light on offense but leaves enough talent for a strong 1A scoring line. It could be something like Skinner/EStaal/playmaking RW, Nestrasil/JStaal/Lindholm.
–Build a size and cycling line. With Nestrasil and maybe a return of Tlusty, Peters could build a line that is big, sound defensively and capable of playing a physical puck possession game in the offensive zone much like the BBC line of old. Maybe their goal scoring is only average, but if you wear other team’s finesse lines down and force them into a miserable game of puck battles far from scoring danger, maybe that is enough.
Regardless, I think the path upward from 2014-15 depends heavily on the entire group of top-end Canes forwards re-finding a higher gear. Part of that is simply playing better, but I think part of that is also finding chemistry and roles whereby players lift each other up.
For Jordan Staal specifically there are multiple options for line combinations, style of play for his line and chemistry, but my instinct tells me that a key will be a playmaking wing who can help him turn puck possession and his ability to drive to the front of the net into goals.
When I write a “What I’m watching” for training camp, the line combinations and how they look for Jordan Staal and others will be near the top of the list.