Tonight the Carolina Hurricanes return to the ice at PNC Arena for the last preseason tune up before the regular season starts next Thursday. As one would expect, the lineup for tonight is heavy on players expected to start the season in the NHL but with some new wrinkles in terms of combinations.
Much of what I am watching today is a result of the series of moves over the past few days to cull the roster to its current state and provide at least some clarity in terms of who is competing for what spots.
Part 1 went a couple layers deeper on the demotion of Matt Tennyson on Wednesday and what it might mean for the Hurricanes blue line. That viewpoint is on display tonight with the announcement that Ryan Murphy (Michael Smith on Twitter) will be out for 3-4 weeks with an injury and Roland McKeown steps into his slot next to Hanifin tonight. I was not privy to Murphy’s injury at the time, but my assessment that the battle was not actually for the #7 slot departed by Tennyson but instead for a #6 roster spot was dead on.
Part 3 this morning detailed the still large number of players on the NHL roster and seemingly in the mix for the last 3-4 slots on the opening night NHL roster. Today’s lineup is by no means a final decision – quite the opposite actually as Bill Peters and his staff looks at a few more things and then balances those with what they have seen previously in training camp. In terms of lineup, tonight’s ‘what I’m watching’ is really heavy on tonight’s forward line shuffling and the try outs that will happen tonight.
Per Michael Smith on Twitter from the morning skate, the lineup tonight is expected to be:
‘What I’m watching’
1) Noah Hanifin / Roland McKeown
The fact that Ryan Murphy is injured provides some clarity on the blue line shuffling of the past few days. Roland McKeown looks to pull a Noah Hanifin/Brett Pesce (and to some degree Jaccob Slavin) and jump straight from below the AHL into the NHL lineup. In terms of style of play at least conceptually, the 2 are a strong fit. McKeown is cut from the Glen Wesley-like safe, sound and simple mold. For Noah Hanifin, at least the version that I hope to see more of this season looks much more like Joni Pitkanen. Hanifin should also do the heavy lifting in terms of moving the puck which relieves some pressure from McKeown as he settles in. The regular season will obviously be a completely different gear, but McKeown’s 2016-17 preseason very much reminds me of Pesce’s 2015-16 preseason. He is not the biggest name, the flashiest or the most likely to stand out, but he is positionally solid, incredibly good with his stick which is 1 of his greatest strengths and gets the idea of making simple but solid plays. That style of play is the best recipe for an ahead-of-schedule transition to the NHL level. So obviously, the chemistry of the duo as a group and McKeown’s play are on my list of things to watch tonight.
2) The forward shuffle part 1 – Lee Stempniak with Joakim Nordstrom / Jordan Staal
After a solid preseason especially in the playmaking regard playing with Skinner/Rask, Lee Stempniak takes his first run flanking Jordan Staal playing in what is usually Andrej Nestrasil’s slot. The upside for this move is the potential boost in scoring. My early impression of Stempniak in a Hurricanes uniform is his ability to actually drive offense versus just being a complementary/capable player. This is a significant difference and at least theoretically has the potential to boost the line’s scoring. Nordstrom/JStaal/Nestrasil was incredibly good defensively and at driving the puck and possession into the offensive zone. Jordan Staal also found a higher gear scoring-wise partly driven by more power play time. But in total, I would rate even the good version of Nordstrom/JStaal/Nestrasil as a little bit light in terms of raw scoring production. Can Stempniak find chemistry and be a catalyst for a higher level of scoring production? That would be huge for the Hurricanes effort to find more offense in 2016-17.
The downside at least potentially is what is lost chemistry/role-wise with the departure of Andrej Nestrasil. More than any other Hurricanes line in the past few seasons Nordstrom/JStaal/Nestrasil as a case of chemistry and roles leading to 1+1+1 = MUCH greater than 3. In my opinion, it was very much a role, chemistry and style of play boost. It goes deeper, but at a basic level Nordstrom had the wheels to make Jordan Staal’s rushes through the neutral zone 2-wide. If the defense converged Staal could pitch the puck to a place where Nordstrom would immediately regain possession in the offensive zone. If the defense did not converge Staal’s head of steam was enough to back up defenders at the blue line and enable him to gain the offensive blue line with the puck still on his stick. Nestrasil provided another big body with the skill (It’s not just about size; there is an art to it.) to play a cycling/puck possession game on the boards with Jordan Staal. Stempniak is a pretty well-rounded player and not one-dimensional but at a 50,000-foot level, the swap is giving up some size and probably ‘on the boards puck possession’ ability for significantly more skill in terms of both playmaking and finishing. I will be on the edge of my seat watching this new line on Friday checking to see what, if anything, is lost in terms of the 2015-16 formula and what is gained offensively.
3) The forward shuffle part 2 – Phil Di Giuseppe with Jeff Skinner and Victor Rask
I have taken to calling Phil Di Giuseppe as “the forgotten man.” After a strong second half of 2015-16 at the NHL level playing with Skinner and Rask during much of Skinner’s best play of the season, Di Giuseppe has spent most of the Hurricanes training camp wandering around a bit in terms of line slots and spending much of his time with players not likely to be on the roster once final cuts are made. I viewed him as being the #10 forward capable of playing in any of 6 top 9 wing slots and waiting in the wings in the event of an injury.
With today’s shuffle, at least for now, Phil Di Giuseppe has found his way back into the top 9 (at the expense of Andrej Nestrasil) in a familiar. This line is a little less ‘edge of my seat’ in terms of what I’m watching simply because I have a pretty good read on it from seeing it for 30ish games last season. Nonetheless, with a Friday night slot back in the top 9 for Di Giuseppe, I will be watching to see if this line clicks. Skinner/Rask have had a solid preseason and are building nicely toward being ready for opening night, but most of that was logged with Stempniak on the wing. Tonight I watch to see if Di Giuseppe can step into the mix, pick up where he left off in 2015-16 and have Skinner/Rask not miss a beat in the process.
4) The forward shuffle part 3 – The BIG try out for Lucas Wallmark
Potentially the most exciting shuffle on a pretty meaty menu is the insertion of Lucas Wallmark into the C4 slot in place of Jay McClement. I detailed the volume of forward options still on the roster in my post (part 3) earlier today. Best guess was that some combination of Di Giuseppe, Bickell and Stalberg were highly probable in terms of winning the 2 fourth line wing slots. Di Giuseppe obviously moved up instead, but that basic premise looks to hold with Bickell and Stalberg in the lineup. But with 3 possible C4 options in Derek Ryan, Patrick Brown and Lucas Wallmark still in camp, Wallmark gets what could be the biggest 1-game look/try out of his young career.
Most exciting to me is actually less the specifics of Wallmark, if he ultimately makes it or not and the bits and bytes of the final moves to finalize the roster for next Thursday. More exciting to me is conceptually what Wallmark means and the stake being put in the sand tonight. Whether it happens next week or a little bit deeper into the future, Wallmark is a poster child for getting younger, more skilled and faster throughout the entire lineup. Wallmark is a poster child and early signs of results from Ron Francis’ ongoing project to build more talented and greater young depth in the organization. The prospects’ victory in Traverse City was a win in that regard, but players like Wallmark, McKeown and Fleury pushing for NHL slots despite their young age is a sign that the depth is fairly quickly starting to bubble up to the NHL level which is ultimately all that matters.
Wallmark is where he is right now because of 2 things. First, he has shown an ability to play and think at NHL pace. Second and equally importantly, he has demonstrated a Victor Rask-like early maturity to his game in terms of decision-making and positioning at the challenging center position. Tonight I will be watching Wallmark to see if he can maintain his solid all-around play against a slightly higher level of competition and also boost the fourth line above what it is with McClement which to me feels like an attempt at ‘just stay out of trouble and get off the ice.’
5) The newfandangled power play
I lost track of it a bit with all of the player movement over the past few days and the fact that there was no video for Wednesday’s game which saw Faulk back in the lineup after not playing on Tuesday, but I am also looking forward to further inspection of the Hurricanes adjusted power play system that sets Faulk in the middle and sort of has a flexible umbrella flanking him with 2 skilled forwards who shift situationally between playing like a forward on the half wall or second point on the blue line.
The puck drops at 7:30pm at PNC Arena!