Moving Eric Staal to Wing: Good Idea?

Carolina Hurricanes forward Eric Staal has always been a "shoot first, ask questions later" kind of player. Would it serve the team better to have him play at wing? (photo by LTD)

Carolina Hurricanes All Star center, Eric Staal, is on the road to recovery and could rejoin the lineup within the week.  The question of the day?  Where exactly does Staal fit in when he returns and what will the lines look like afterward?

When Staal joined his teammates for the pregame skate Saturday morning, he was skating as a winger on Brandon Sutter's line.  There has been some talk that the team might try moving their leading goal scorer for the past four years, to wing. 

Should they risk it?

This is a move that should not be taken lightly.    Staal has scored 153 goals over the previous four years for an average of 38 goals per year.  Only Alex Ovechkin, Ilya Kovalchuk, Jarome Iginla, Vincent Lecavalier, and Dany Heatley have lit the lamp more times in that same period.

But the center has not been able to match his career best numbers he put up in 2005-06, the year that playmaking forward Cory Stillman was on his line.  Could he have even better results playing alongside a prototype, playmaking center?  Would it be better for the team if he moved?

If you examine Staal's game, his skill set seems to match those of a scoring forward more than a typical center.  The "prototype" center usually is a playmaker, along the lines of Sidney Crosby, Joe Thornton, and Jason Spezza.  These players usually have considerable more assists than goals.  But Staal not only leads his team in shots on goal, he is also a league leader in shots and was second only to Ovechkin last season.  Most of the time he looks for the shot first while the pass seems secondary. 

This "shoot first" philosophy appears to more closely resemble that of wingers like Rick Nash, Marian Hossa, Ovechkin, Kovalchuk, and Heatley.  And there is nothing wrong with that.  Every team needs a sniper who is looking to score.  But usually these "goal scorers" need a playmaker alongside them in order to excel.

Ray Whitney would be the teammate who could come closest to fitting that description, and while he and Staal have had some success on the same line, things could be better because Whitney's speed is not what it used to be.  

Now with the recent emergence of Brandon Sutter as a scorer, this might be the perfect time to rock the boat and try Staal out on his wing.  Of course there is risk involved.  Maybe the change will hurt Staal's game more than help it?  Maybe Sutter will cool off from the hot streak he has been on since his recall? 

Sutter was not necessarily known as an offensively skilled player with scoring instincts, up until recently.  While he has nine points, (5G 4A) in 13 games this season, last year he finished with six points in 50 games.  (1G, 5A).  Although in fairness to the youngster, he played fourth line minutes with no powerplay time last season.  But even in juniors, he was not known as a prolific scorer.

Sutter has shown some passing ability as he perfectly fed Tim Gleason for an excellent powerplay goal against Toronto, and also had a nice pass to Ray Whitney that just missed.  But 13 games does not a superstar make. 

One of Staal's biggest attributes is that he can control possession of the puck behind the net because of his long reach, and then can either try wrap around chances or can feed to players cutting in front of the net.  If he changes positions, would he still be able to use that skill set as often?

If Staal is moved to wing, here are some of the possible line combinations:

  • Sutter, Whitney, Staal
  • Cullen, Ruutu, Jokinen
  • Yelle, Samsonov, Cole
  • Brind'Amour, Kostopoulos, LaRose

or...

  • Sutter, Cole, Staal
  • Cullen, Ruutu, Jokinen
  • Yelle, Whitney, Samsonov
  • Brind'Amour, Kostopoulos, LaRose

When Scott Walker comes back, it opens up another can of worms. 

If people were to ask me what my guess is, (and they have),  I would say that after some experimentation, eventually Yelle would get moved to the press box.  I don't feel that he is a long term option for third line center.  Staal would move to first line center and Sutter would anchor the third line.

  • Staal, Whitney, Cole
  • Cullen, Ruutu, Jokinen
  • Sutter, Samsonov, LaRose
  • Brind'Amour, Walker, Kostopoulos

Paul Maurice has stated that he is very happy with the Cullen line and it's doubtful that group gets changed anytime soon.  But eventually, the team would like Jussi Jokinen to center Ruutu and Samsonov, remaking the "All Euro" line which was so effective during the playoffs last year.  The coaching staff really likes Jokinen at center. 

If Brandon Sutter can continue his surprising scoring abilities, it could make for an interesting time ahead.  Can you imagine the speed and skill of a future line comprised of Sutter, Staal, and Zach Boychuk?  That might be the quickest line in the NHL.

What do you think?  Should Staal be tried at wing?  How would you set the lines? 

_____

We will have a game day preview up for tonight's game after lunch.

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