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By the Numbers: Do the Hurricanes Have an Elite First Line?

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The Hurricanes have long been lacking a legitimate top line to lead their forward group. Is this the year that changes? Early on, it looks like it may be.

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NHL: Carolina Hurricanes at Edmonton Oilers Walter Tychnowicz-USA TODAY Sports

With the way the Hurricanes compensated Victor Rask this off-season, my bet is that they anticipated they were locking down a second-line center for the long term. After all, Rask’s first two seasons in the league saw him put up 33 and 48 points. That sort of trajectory certainly puts him safely above the status of being a third line center, but there were basically two ways it could have played out. If that 48-point season was representative of his true offensive ceiling, that would likely mean that Rask would have a career as a slightly above average second-line center.

On the other hand, it really isn’t all that far-fetched that Rask’s production would improve from what it was in his age 22 season. Were that to happen, Rask’s 6 year, 24 million dollar deal would quickly become one of the best contracts in the entire league. It’s early yet, but it looks like Rask may be blossoming into that legitimate first line center that the ‘Canes have been seeking since the decline of Eric Staal began a few years back, and Rask is taking an entire line with him.

A New First Line

Now, the obvious disclaimer here is that this season is very, very young, and we’re dealing with small sample sizes. However, the ‘Canes first line of Jeff Skinner, Rask, and Lee Stempniak has been among the elite groupings in the league so far. Their league wide rankings as a unit are beyond impressive. According to corsica.hockey and among three-forward lines that have spent at least 30 minutes together so far, the grouping ranks 4th in the NHL in corsi for percentage (61.73), 5th in the league in shots on goal for percentage (61.90), and an astounding 1st in the league in expected goals for percentage (69.24)

That delta between their shots on goal for percentage and expected goals for percentage indicates that they’re also doing a fantastic job of driving shot quality. The fact that it is expected that their goals for percentage would outperform their shots for percentage by so much essentially means that the shots that they’re generating are of a much higher quality than the shots that they’re allowing.

It’s been awhile since the Hurricanes have had a first line as dominant as the advanced numbers point to this one being. Last season, Corsica had the Versteeg - E. Staal - Lindholm line as the ‘Canes regular grouping, with an expected goals share of 58.49%. The Nordstrom - J.Staal - Nestrasil unit that garnered so much praise last season checked in at 54.4%. In 2014-2015, it was the Staal - Staal - Lindholm unit that was rather dominant with a rather awesome 61.82%.

However, it’s one thing to be expected to outscore the opposition when a certain line is on the ice. It’s an entirely separate thing to be able to actually outscore the other team. Take a look at the list of those players who have been on those strong line for the Hurricanes lately. You have the Staal brothers, but Eric’s finishing ability has been on a steep decline, and Jordan’s never really been an elite scorer. Lindholm and Versteeg are both solid forwards, but both are more known for their distributive abilities than their scoring acumens. Finally, there’s Nordstrom and Nestrasil, each of whom are very solid checking line wingers, but that’s about it.

You may have noticed that this is the first time in the Peters era that Skinner has actually been on a line that is dominant both on the spreadsheets and on the scoreboard. If you look around at the league, any truly elite line possesses both the ability to generate chances and the skill to convert those chances into goals. Last season, the Penguins spent a lot of time icing a top line of Chris Kunitz, Sidney Crosby, and Patric Hornqvist. That group posted an xGF% of 63.05%. They ended up actually outscoring their opponents 33-10 (!!!) while they were on the ice.

The point here is that possession (represented by CF%) is great, and it’s very important and conducive to winning hockey games. Even more important than possession is quality possession (represented by xGF%). To turn that quality possession into quality outcomes, it’s necessary that the proper amount of skill is on the ice. With Rask looking more and more like a legitimate first line center every day, Skinner continuing to pound the back of the net with regularity, and Stempniak continuing his long career of being an extremely quiet yet highly effective brand of hockey, it looks like the Hurricanes have all the ingredients in place to have their first elite top line in quite some time.