Yesterday’s Daily Cup of Joe was part 1 of 2 looking back at 2021-22 and then forward to 2022-23. If you missed it, you can find the first part that covered the goalie and defensemen HERE.
Part 2 continues by looking at the forwards.
The structure of the Hurricanes lineup
With the odd exception of the 2020-21 season when Jordan Staal seemingly went down to the crossroads and sold his soul for a year of high-end scoring, the Hurricanes have for a couple years been trying to build a lineup that features two higher-end scoring lines and a third line that leans toward checking. That formula works more easily for a team that has an elite scoring line at the top of the lineup. The Bruins from a few years past made this formula work pretty well. But without an elite scoring first line, the margin for error for getting enough offense from a balanced attack can be challenging. The Hurricanes have generally been able to accomplish this during the regular season with a system that generates chances across all four lines when clicking and/or preying on weaker opponents. But the inability to find enough sources of goal scoring to make balanced work has played a role in recent playoff exits including the 2022 NHL Playoffs.
For balanced to work, especially with a third line that is built to be a bit scoring light, the Hurricanes really need to get decent or better goal scoring from all six of the players on the top two lines.
The 2022 NHL playoffs
Entering the playoffs, I mostly had Aho, Teravainen, Svechnikov and Trocheck considered players who could be counted on to produce offensively. From that starting point, I finihed a playoff preview article entitled, “What decides Canes’ playoff fate?” with:
Tomorrow’s Daily Cup of Joe will likely include a second key to deep playoff success, but if forced to name one thing past the standard goaltending and special teams, I will say that the ability to get offensive production and solid play from two of Necas, Jarvis, Kotkaniemi or Domi would be my choice.
While the standard special teams also played a significant role, the inability for the Canes to get goal scoring six players deep at the top of the lineup was also a huge factor in the team’s struggle to advance in the first round and also the second round exit.
Jordan Staal’s line excelled in its primary role as a checking line but also true to form was a bit light on scoring. Fast and Staal had only a single goal each over the 14 playoff games which is a pace for only six goals over an 82-game season. Niederreiter was a bit better with four goals for a 20ish-goal pace. But in total, the trio was light for third line scoring while excelling in a narrower role as a checking line.
That starting point has the potential to work if a a team can get above average scoring from other places. That is where the Canes fell a bit short in terms of winning with a balanced scoring attack. Aho, Teravainen and Trocheck all had decent playoffs with Aho and Teravainen registering 11 points and Trocheck 10. But Svechnikov’s lack of production in the players left the Canes one short of the four that I was counting on. Coupled with the inability to get goal scoring from two of the options at wing, the Hurricanes were a bit light offensively. Neither Necas nor Kotkaniemi scored a single goal mostly playing together on the fourth line. Domi had an absolutely huge game 7 versus the Bruins but scored only one goal other than that. And though Jarvis impressed me with his gritty play as a rookie, his three goals are more like third line depth scoring on a good team and are light for a top 6 forward.
Looking forward to the 2022-23 season
After spending a sizable chunk of forward budget to add Jesperi Kotkaniemi last summer and then doubling down on that bet which did not yield results in 2021-22 with a huge contract, the burning question at forward entering the off-season is how the team will become deeper offensively.
As much as Svechnikov was disappointing in the 2022 playoffs and Aho and Teravainen are maybe just going to be a notch below the higher-end NHL first scoring lines, I think you double down on all three players. Aho’s development as a two-way player makes him a legitimate first-line center even if (not yet?) an elite one. Similarly, Teravainen’s two-way play makes him a solid complementary player on any line. And as a 22-year old who has made progress and shown a propensity for hard work, coachability and other intangibles that help a player improve, I have no qualms about doubling down on Svechnikov.
Unless the team can somehow land another difficult to find scoring second line center, I would bring Trocheck back. That gets the team back to four capable top 6 forwards and also maintains the depth at center that is a strength.
From there, the burning question is if the team can get enough top half of the roster scoring from the wing to build two true scoring lines. Here is where I think the team needs to add at least one proven scoring wing, ideally a power forward.
That could prove challenging given salary cap limitations and could force the team to make difficult choice with Martin Necas and Nino Niederreiter who are both free agents this summer.
On Necas, I think best for him would be to re-audition him at center. In a short stint at center when first joining the team, he struggled defensively and sorting out assignments which prompted his move to right wing. But as a prospect, he very much projected as a playmaking center who used his skating ability to push back defenses and distribute the puck for scoring chances for line mates. After a couple years to acclimate to the NHL pace and game, if Necas remains a Hurricane, I would take another look to see if his natural skill set can emerge.
On Niederreiter, I like Niederreiter in his 2021-22 role as a complement to Staal as a difficult to play against big body in a cycling game. The difficult question is whether the Hurricanes budget can afford to allocate enough salary to this role to keep Niederreiter when there are other pressing needs to address. He is coming off a $5.25 million salary which could see the team asking him to take a pay cut to stay.
I will save a more detailed discussion for another day, but the decision to re-sign Kotkaniemi long-term for $4.8 million per year comes into play here. Though he mostly played as a fourth-line center in 2021-22, one would assume that the team expects him to play in a higher slot going forward though I question where that is in the lineup. He did not look great at wing on Aho’s line or Trocheck’s line. Is it possible that the team sees him as a replacement for Trocheck in 2022-23 or Staal further down the road? Only time will tell.
The biggest decision for the forward group will be if the team re-signs Vincent Trocheck. On the one hand he is a bona fide second line scoring center whose style of play fits into Brind’Amour’s system. And he has produced. On the other hand, I do not see him as a player who has so much boosted the level of play and production of his line mates. With a revolving door of skilled players on his wings, I am not sure any have really meshed with Trocheck for an extended period of time. With the need to be two lines and a full six players deep in terms of scoring, that is a critical answer to answered. I lean toward bringing Trocheck back simply because he is a legitimate player for the role he is in, and it would be difficult if not impossible to replace him with a comparable or better second line center. From there, the key is finding a combination that truly excels with him, possibly to include a player or two added from outside the current roster.
In addition to the top half of the roster decisions, Derek Stepan and Max Domi are also unrestricted free agents.
My 2 cents: I would lean forward and re-sign Vincent Trocheck even if term and price are a bit more than desired. Unless the team wants to roll the dice and audition Necas and/or Kotkaniemi in that slot (which is possible), I just do not see how the team can replace Trocheck with a player who maintains the current strength down the middle as a foundation at forward. Past that, I would be exploring all avenues to upgrade at wing beyond Svechnikov and Teravainen. I could see Necas or Kotkaniemi (though it would be odd since they just re-signed him) as trade chips. Though I like Niederreiter in his current third line role, whether or not he fits there could depend on salary.
What say you Canes fans?
1) What are your thoughts on Vincent Trocheck and how aggressively (meaning how much $ and term) would you try to re-sign him?
2) Of the other unrestricted free agents (Niederreiter, Stepan and Domi), which would you try to re-sign?
3) More generally, what upgrades/changes/additions do you see as necessary to improve the forward group for the 2022-23 season?