Almost always, good hockey teams are especially strong at the center position. Teams that face a regular deficit at that position tend to struggle overall.
Today’s Daily Cup of Joe takes a look at the Canes down the middle at a time when there are definitely some question marks.
The Hurricanes made an off-season move to acquire Erik Haula to fill out the center position entering the season. He seemed to fit nicely as a scoring-capable third center. Sebastian Aho had established himself quickly as a legitimate first line center. Jordan Staal was in his familiar slot as a solid, even if scoring light, second line center. And Lucas Wallmark had established himself as a capable fourth line center who could slot higher if needed. That seemed to work reasonably well out of the gate. Staal seemed to start slow but that was not uncommon for him. And that was overshadowed by Haula’s fast start on the score sheet. But by the midway point of the season, the situation had deteriorated a bit. Haula’s early season scoring was largely on the power play as a finisher, and he never really established himself as a playmaker/catalyst for third line scoring. Staal’s slow start continued making it look like maybe he was just a half step slower and not quite at the same level as previous years. And Wallmark was fine for fourth line center but probably not the guy to bump up into Haula’s slot.
With the team sputtering a bit, General Manager Don Waddell made his second move in five months to try to add a center who could provide a boost and help balance the scoring. That deal saw the Hurricanes part ways with not one but two centers in Wallmark and Haula and bring aboard Vincent Trocheck. Trocheck jumped right into Haula’s slot next to Martin Necas and with a bit of a rotating group on the other wing. Trocheck looked decent upon launch as a Hurricanes player, but the production did not follow. He collected only a single goal and single assist in 7 regular season games before the COVID-19-induced shutdown. He was minus 5 in that time and did not seem to have any instant chemistry with Necas. In 8 playoff games, the results were similar. Trocheck had no goals and only 2 assists. The one spark that line saw was when Brind’Amour dropped Svechnikov down to that line.
Looking forward to 2020-21
I think Sebastian Aho still has one notch to go to truly be elite, but even if he just maintains the level he was at in 2019-20, that is good enough and makes him a legitimate first line center. That starting point is an incredibly good one for being strong down the middle.
But that is also the point where the questions begin.
Below Aho, the Hurricanes need to fill at least two more center slots with players who are productive in some sense. Staal has always been limited in terms of generating offense for his line mates and scoring. But he did have a role and purpose as a very good shutdown checking line center. That can fit in a successful puzzle, but only if the third center can lead a second scoring line. If that does not happen, the Hurricanes offense becomes extremely top heavy which makes can make for tough sledding on the road and also in the playoffs against good teams. So that puts a significant amount of pressure on Trocheck. No matter how good he is defensively, it will not be enough if he is not able to also be part of a decent second scoring line. Therein lies the pressure and potentially a deciding factor on if the Hurricanes can take another step forward in 2020-21. As I have said a couple times, 15 games over 2 separated stints is too little to make a rash judgment, but Trocheck is definitely high on the watch list entering the upcoming season.
At a basic level, he needs to click with someone and form a capable scoring line. My concern with watching Trocheck so far is that his brand of offense generation is light on true playmaking and puck distribution that puts the puck on finishers’ sticks in decent scoring situations reguarly. Rather, his skill seems to lean a bit more toward pushing pace which puts pressure on the opposing defense and creates some number of chances at random. The latter works well for third line type depth scoring. I could see that meshing well with players like Foegele and McGinn in terms of providing depth scoring. But to play with and support finishers requires a bit more true playmaking and puck distribution skills. Again, we are only 15 games deep into Trocheck’s Canes’ tenure, but this is worth watching.
If Trocheck can lead a capable second scoring line, it relieves some pressure from Jordan Staal and puts him into a situation that plays to his historical strengths. He then can slot as a third line center and even log a few less minutes in a role where being light on scoring is workable as long as he can get back to being a high-end defensive center. And therein comes the next set of questions and a watch point. Two things stood out to me about Staal early in the season. First, he seemed to lack the strong, quick stride or two needed to get into puck battles even from a disadvantaged starting point and then regularly win those battles. Being a quarter step slow seemed to manifest itself in an uncharacteristically high volume of obstruction/interference type penalties. In addition, he no longer seemed to have his ability to transport the puck from inside his own blue line and up into the offensive zone without much help in many cases. Those two things are critical to Staal’s game. Winning puck battles is what makes it possible for Staal to dominate possession which is the best way to defend (by not playing defense). And his ability to transport the puck went a long way to not playing all that much under duress in the defensive zone. The big question with Staal is if he just had a ‘meh’ 2019-20 season or maybe he is finally losing a partial step with age. If Trocheck (or someone else) emerges as a capable scoring second line center, the hope is that Staal can be successful in a slightly downshifted role below the top two lines.
The Morgan Geekie figures to be the incumbent for the center slot on the fourth line. He started his NHL career shot out of a cannon but looked more human in the playoffs. In a fourth line slot, Geekie has ample offensive ability to provide some offense, and he did not look out of place defensively either. So there is good reason to be optimistic about Geekie being able to at least fill a depth role even if his track record is short. But that said, he is still very early in gaining NHL experience, so best is not to expect too much yet and just count whatever Geekie brings offensively as a bonus.
I am on record as thinking that Martin Necas has the highest ceiling in terms of making the Canes better at center. Playing against players his own age in prospect camp and tournaments, the single thing that most stood out about Necas’ game was his ability to use his skating ability to play with the puck on his stick and create. He truly projected to be an incredibly good NHLer in that regard. But when he started his rookie season at the NHL level in the center position he struggled. He looked lost at times in a secondary role on the forecheck sorting out play behind wings who were first in. And he had intermittent issues sorting things out defensively in his own end. But maybe even worse, against bigger, faster and more dangerous NHL players Necas did not look nearly as comfortable playing with the puck on his stick and creating. The result was a fairly quick demotion to the AHL. There, Necas was moved to right wing and thrived at the lower level. The result was a strong, confidence-building AHL campaign. As makes sense, the Hurricanes started Necas at right wing for the 2019-20 season. He had some ups and downs and quiet stretches, but in total his 2019-20 season was a success. He scored some and looked more comfortable in a role where he could skate and pursue the puck with less responsibilities to sort things out. Based on positive momentum coming out of the 2019-20 season, it makes a lot of sense just to continue for now on the path with Necas as a right wing. But again, I think his ceiling even if risky comes from him eventually moving back to center like Aho did. I would be very surprised to see Necas start the 2020-21 season there, but if injuries arise or if plan A does not pan out, might Brind’Amour re-audition Necas at the center position? Not sure if it is possible, but I think the Holy Grail for Hurricanes scoring could be if Necas moves to center and can serve as a playmaker for Svechnikov with Aho and Teravainen paired and with both of those duos being good enough to boost a third line mate to a decent goal scoring total.
What say you Canes fans?
1) Do you think I am being overly pessimistic in calling out question marks below Aho at the center position? What do you see as the biggest question mark?
2) What are your thoughts on Vincent Trocheck? Is he just overdue to be rewarded more on the score sheet after play that looked better than the scoring results? Or is it possible that he is maybe not the true offensive catalyst that the Canes ideally need? How patient would you be with him if things do not click early in 2020-21?
3) What are your thoughts on Staal, Geekie and the potential for Necas to move back to center at some point?
Plenty of C questions marks.
Staal has to figure out how to get some speed back. Still, he has that right defensive accumen the team needs to have.
Trocheck, hard to begin. In a way it almost seemed like he is a Right shot Staal. We gave up 3 centers for him, Haula, Wallmark, and Luostarinen. We need production out of him and he has to find chemistry with someone.
Geekie I’m kind of excited about. He learned a lot playing against those Bruins. Looked on par with the young centers the Rangers have. I think he can only improve.
Necas I’m not sure gets to be a center. Not because of skill level, but I don’t see that certain nastiness that’s needed to be a C in the NHL. He has the vision and speed, he needs to maybe learn how to dial that back at times so he’s not outracing his line mates. I think learning that Nastiness will still take him a while, so it could be he’s still a few years down the road as an option.
We still have Suzuki as a future possibility, Drury, Rees but I wouldn’t mind at least one more prospect with an offensive leaning C
Good post, Matt!
I definitely agree with your question marks here.
I think Staal has been a soldier for this team for years and finally his wear and tear is catching up with him, so I would not expect him to see a second stint of youthfulness in his stride next year.
I’m not judging Trocheck yet, though I am concerned. Maybe I am optimistically influenced by the Hamilton factor (how he really came into his own the second half of his first season) and Trocheck having a history of being better than he showed with the Canes, but it would be better to try and bring another center into the fold for the upcoming season (letting Necas try it out in small doses before taking on the gig).
Lawrence had a fantastic season with Charlotte, but he’s probabl more in the mold of a third or forth line center (wit a ceiling of a younger Jordan Staal).
I hope the Canes could sign someone who could serve as a capable center for the next year, then possibly walk.
Maybe someone like Max Domi might be a great fit for this role and rumors have it that the Canadiens are shopping him.
Take it for what it’s roth, I haven’t done my homework.
1) I don’t think you are being pessimistic. I have read a good bit of commentary on Canes-related sites about the team’s need for toughness, but it was pretty obvious that the difference in the Boston series was Krejci. He is not a particularly rugged player. Krejci produced 8 points in five games. Had the Canes had a player not on the first line with similar production, they likely win or take the series to 7 games. So you are correct—after Aho the Canes don’t have much production from their centers.
2) I lean toward the latter. Trocheck had one outstanding season. Otherwise, he is a 54-point player. That is solid, but not a true difference maker. There seems to be a pattern where the Canes are trading/signing players and hoping they recreate their very best seasons. Niederreiter and Haula looked to be doing that, then both reverted to the players that their clubs were willing to move. Gardiner and Skjei have not lived up their promise yet. I think Trocheck will follow this pattern. As to patience, I am not sure the Canes have other options to start next season.
3) Geekie, after earning extra ice time in his two regular season games, was lightly used in the playoffs. He averaged less than 11 minutes. Those minutes were tied to the Canes least productive forwards. What I found most promising is that Geekie looked defensively responsible in whatever role he played. I think he at least deserves some preseason time playing on the second line.
I agree on Necas. He is young and still has a long runway. Eventually his ability to breakdown defenses with his combination of skating and stick handling should translate to center. It is not unusual for offense-minded speedsters to struggle with two-way responsibilities (Barzal was in Trotz’s doghouse last season for that reason). If Necas can take the next step, he will be the second scoring center that helps Carolina become a Cup threat.
I’m a little more optimistic than everyone else. I think we’re solid down the middle with the centers we have now; the bigger issue for me is depth.
As for Staal, I was worried about him while he was injured last season and we started our run (and looked like a much faster team) without him and questioned how much he was worth. It’s clear to me now that our team is being built for playoff success and he is built for the playoffs; I am not worried about his low level of offensive production; it’s always been frustratingly low. So, assuming we get to the playoffs, I’m very happy having someone like Staal around to eat big minutes against Crosby, Backstrom, Barzal, Bergeron, etc. We need someone like that on this team.
As for Trocheck, it’s too early to come to any conclusion and I’d give him half of another season to settle in. He’s produced before with good players on his wing, so there is reason to believe he can produce again with good players on his wing. His leg injury, which was the big question mark, seems to be behind him. Let’s just put good players on his wing and see what happens. Trocheck/Necas/Svetch (if that’s how it goes) would be a tough line to play against for most teams.
I’m not as far along as others seem to be on Necas ever moving back to Center. Maybe he does, maybe he doesn’t, but the real template for Necas for me is Teuvo: fast, creative, complimentary, defensively responsible, can play with anyone, high scoring. For whatever reason no one talks about Teuvo enough and he’s not given nearly enough credit for all the ways he helps this team, and having another high-scoring player like that in Necas would be incredibly valuable. I think our bigger need is another high-end scoring wing more than a better center, and the odds that Necas becomes that player on wing are better than the odds of him being a C1/C2.
Geekie looks like he has the goods in a small sample size. Physical, hard-working and crafty – his line against the NYR was outstanding. Even if he all he does is fill the C4 position next year like he did this year it’s a big win for the team.
Again, the real question for me is depth after these four guys.
Thre’s Lawrence and Ryan Suzuki (who had a good second half OHL season after a bad injury and trade).
I suspect Suzuki needs a year seasoning in the AHL before be rlied upon or even tried out for more than a handful of games with the big club.
He’s got good potential, speed, play making and scoring, but how does that translate to the NHL?
Beyond these two I don’t really know of any prospects, meaning it’s time to explore the draft.
Could Turbo play as the 2C, with perhaps Necas on one of his wings? TT is such a smart player, great playmaker, and has a strong 2 way game. Not great with faceoffs though.
I think you have to find out more about Trocheck in the next season, and if he’s not scoring points, then it’s worth trying Necas. Necas-Svech pairing makes a ton of sense to me.
The other thing to consider would be Necas playing up with Aho-Turbo and a Svech-Trocheck-x becomes the second scoring line. If Dzingel or Nino aren’t traded, one of them might get their scoring touch back here. Foegele would be another possibility.
If Staal has really lost a step, RBA has to consider reducing his minutes. It’s not crazy to think that in 5×5 play, Staal might be playing more of 4th line role and Geekie is more the 3C.
I really like elements of what darthcanes (you are not Darth Caniac, are you? LOL!) and ct. Actually, everybody above makes some good points – kudos to dmilleravid for better describing the Turbo-Necas similarities than I have attempted in the past.
I really think Staal is beginning the end of his career. He has definitely lost a step and he is not the great shutdown center he was a few years ago. I cannot see him starting to get 4th line minutes – but I had a conversation two summers ago at a Bulls game with Big Rig, and amongst other topics we talked about the possibility of Staal being traded after the 2019/20 season – or maybe next season. Let that concept sink in and marinade a bit – and imagine what it opens up.
1. We have huge question marks after Aho, with no legitimate 2C yet identified. I think Geekie is underslotted at 4C My comments on Staal are above, and I want to believe in Trocheck finding his way into the system and chemistry with Necas.
2. Re: Trocheck – see my comments in 1. I really don’t think we have a choice but to be patient; who do we have to step in? But he has to be pushed – he can’t go into the season as presumptive 2C. I used the word “complacency” in your trades post. Maybe have Geeks play some 2C in whatever passes for a preseason. Let Trocheck know it is not a lock for him.
3. I think i have already answered that. I am a huge fan of Staal – he is just one of the great people in the sport; I love Geekie and Necas for what they bring. But #JustSayNoToNecasAtCenter! LOL!
I think we trade him before he sinks to 4th line minutes with the Canes – and there are plenty of teams that would love to have him. He could even find his back to MIN and playing with his brother again.
To me that is the great unknown. And we keep talking as though Staal is a lifelong Cane – which, for now, I suppose we have to.
Ideally, the team could find a player who is a serviceable C and can also play on the wing.
I mentioned Max Domi, probably a bit of a longshot. Now Tor is trying to shop Nylander, andother possibility in a similar mold (Canes can trade Gardner and picks (heck, they could even cover 1.5 mill of Gardner’s cap hit as an incentive), or even pick up Anderson and Mylander for Reimer (Canes can take on maximum cap hit with Anderson) and a pick so Tor can go after their D man. After all, the Leafs owe us a salary dump favor since the Marleaux thing.
Nylander could fit right into the Scandinavian contingent of the Canes forwards and is capable of playing at center or on the wing.
In this article, the HB blogger for the Canadiens is suggesting they would like to make either one of Max Domi or Phillip Denault available on the trade market:
I would take a look at these as a possible 2C for the Canes, at least in the short-term. Both can score, Denault can also be an effective shutdown center, though we don’t desperately need more of those.
The Sens just signed Galchunuk for just over 1 mill. While that guy has fallen from grace, almost as much as Yakipov, I’d still take a gamble on him for that price as a third line C. It would require a minor miracle to see him back on form, but that kid really had all the skills and was a top 3 draft pick, he has a lot to prove.