What were the Hurricanes' best lines and defense pairings this season?

March 30, 2012; Raleigh, NC, USA; Jeff Skinner delivering a drop pass to Tuomo Ruutu, a popular combination this season. Mandatory Credit: James Guillory-US PRESSWIRE

In the coming age of advanced stats in hockey, one of the most helpful tools is the WOWY charts because it provides a way to show how dependent certain players were on each other. I have done this with scoring chances for the Hurricanes' players this season and it's shown some interesting findings about quite a few players A way to expand on this is breaking down scoring chances by line combinations and defense pairings to see who were the best units the Canes had last year in terms of generating scoring chances.

With the Jordan Staal trade and more moves on the way, there will likely be some changes to the Hurricanes lineup next year, so seeing which units were Carolina's strongest and weakest last year is a good way to help figure out what the line combinations for next season could be. This also gives insight into which centers on the team can carry weak linemates and make them effective. Eric Staal is regarded as an elite center in the league so he should be able to do this, right? We will find that out after the jump.

This is all even strength data

LW C RW CF CA Pct. Diff.
Bowman Staal LaRose 20 8 0.714 12
Ruutu Jokinen Skinner 63 41 0.606 22
Tlusty Staal LaRose 51 40 0.560 11
Tlusty Staal Samson 24 19 0.558 5
Tlusty Staal Ruutu 57 46 0.553 11
Bowman Sutter LaRose 18 15 0.545 3
Skinner Staal LaRose 24 20 0.545 4
Ponikarovsky Jokinen Ruutu 33 28 0.541 5
Skinner Jokinen LaRose 41 38 0.519 3
Ruutu Staal Skinner 50 47 0.515 3
Staal Sutter LaRose 12 12 0.500 0
Bowman Jokinen Skinner 26 26 0.500 0
Tlusty Staal Stewart 13 13 0.500 0
Ponikarovsky Sutter Dwyer 15 18 0.455 -3
Nodl Sutter Dwyer 53 64 0.453 -11
Tlusty Sutter Dwyer 42 51 0.452 -9
Bowman Sutter Dwyer 21 28 0.429 -7
Ponikarovsky Staal Ruutu 15 21 0.417 -6
Stewart Brent Sutter42 8 14 0.364 -6
Ponikarovsky Jokinen LaRose 14 25 0.359 -11
Joslin Brent Stewart 11 29 0.275 -18
Nodl Brent Stewart 5 16 0.238 -11

To answer the question in the introduction, yes Eric Staal was able to have a very positive influence on whatever line he was placed on. He centered five of the team's best lines and all but one of the lines he centered were able to control at least 50% of the even strength scoring chances they were on ice for. That includes the shortly-lived line of him, Jiri Tlusty and Anthony Stewart, two players who are very poor at controlling puck possession. Something I pointed out in Tlusty's exit analysis was that he was very successful when he played with Staal and this data backs it up. He and Staal were able to work very well together and it could possibly give the team some motivation to keep them together next season.

While there is no doubt that Staal was great at making due with what he had, he was not part of the team's best forward line this year, which would be the popular second line of Jussi Jokinen, Jeff Skinner and Tuomo Ruutu. There's a reason why these three are so popular and it's because they control scoring chances at a near top-end level when they play together. The addition of Jordan Staal to the top-six might cause this line to be split up (again) but you can see that each of them were able to have success on other lines. The only time Jokinen and Ruutu struggled was when they played with Alexei Ponikarovsky, which is odd because he is normally good at pushing the play forward.

Evaluating Brandon Sutter's performance as a center through this is difficult because he plays in such tough situations but an interesting observation here is that he, Drayson Bowman and Chad LaRose were somewhat of an effective unit during their short time together. Any time you can come out on the positive end of the scoring chance ledger while playing tough minutes is a notable accomplishment. All of Sutter's other lines couldn't push the play forward much and it's largely because he was primarily used with defensive forwards.

Sutter's numbers might look ugly, but he was playing some of the toughest minutes on the team, while all of Tim Bren'ts lines were used in complete opposite situations and have even worse numbers. Brent is a fourth liner so it shouldn't be expected for him to be some kind of possession demon, but he needs to be a lot better than this while playing in soft minutes. This is why I have my doubts about him duplicating the season he had by counting stats and why I think the fourth line is something that should be addressed this off-season.

Let's move onto the defense now

Pairing CF CA Pct Diff
McBain/Spacek 92 76 0.548 16
Allen/Spacek 28 24 0.538 4
Harrison/Kaberle 48 46 0.511 2
Faulk/Harrison 221 220 0.501 1
Kaberle/McBain 17 18 0.486 -1
Gleason/McBain 65 69 0.485 -4
Gleason/Allen 198 216 0.478 -18
McBain/Pitkanen 84 96 0.467 -12
Joslin/McBain 29 38 0.433 -9
Joslin/Allen 17 24 0.415 -7
Faulk/Gleason 25 38 0.397 -13
Gleason/Harrison 10 24 0.294 -14

McBain and Spacek are at the top of the list, but that's mostly because they were the third pairing and drew weak competition as a result. McBain may have been bounced throughout the lineup but Spacek was used strictly in sheltered situations and it definitely led to them having better numbers than they would have playing in a different role. It's hard to fault them for doing their jobs, though because they did just about everything you would want a third defense pairing to do. Although, McBain's success with Gleason could show that he's better defensively than some may give him credit for.

Gleason and Allen were regarded as the team's most important defense pairing and it's hard to argue that when you look at the workload they took on this season. They were still outchanced but it isn't as extreme as one would think if you factor in that they started about 60% of their shifts in the defensive zone against other team's top lines. It takes a top-tier defense pairing to come out positive in those situations and while Gleason and Allen are good, they aren't top-level talents. Should Allen leave, it will be interesting who Jim Rutherford signs to replace him and what kind of role he will play. Do the Hurricanes sign someone strictly to replace Allen or try to promote from within and have someone like Justin Faulk or Joni Pitkanen play those minutes?

Based on what we see here, Faulk and Harrison could stick together to start next year. They were used in secondary situations but still played the most minutes among defensemen at even strength and still managed to outchance their competition. Albeit, they barely outchanced them but that's pretty good compared to how most of the team's other defense pairings performed. I'm a little curious to see how these two are used with a healthy Joni Pitkanen in the lineup because he didn't play enough with either of them to determine any results and the Pitkanen/McBain pairing clearly isn't working.

There are a lot of different things the Hurricanes can do with their lines and defense pairings next year depending who is brought in. With the forwards likely going to be shaken up and the defense still being a work in progress, I would expect some completely different lines to start next year. The good news is that the Hurricanes may have an idea of which players are suited for a certain role by looking at how they did on unit.

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