Remember 2006, when the Carolina Hurricanes won the Stanley Cup with Eric Staal, Rod Brind’Amour and Doug Weight down the middle, probably the most loaded group of centers in franchise history? Eleven years later, they may not have the offensive firepower of that group, but the cast that will hold down center ice for the 2017-18 edition of the Hurricanes may be the most gifted at both ends of the ice since that championship-winning group.
Gone are the days when the Canes would regularly send out the likes of Ryan Carter, Anthony Stewart and Tim Brent down the middle. The Canes still don’t have a top-end center, as anyone who was paying attention to l’affaire Duchene this summer will attest to, but with a little luck and some balanced scoring it may not matter. Carolina is blessed with a boatload of talent in the middle of the ice, so much so that a few of those will be shuttled off to the wing.
We begin our season preview with a look at the five players most likely to see significant time at center this season:
2016-17 totals: 75 GP, 16 goals, 29 assists, 45 points
Acquired: Trade with Penguins, June 22, 2012
If the Canes are arm-twisted into naming a number-one center, it’s likely Staal, entering his sixth season with the team but still looking for his first playoff appearance since leaving Pittsburgh on his wedding day at the 2012 draft. Staal led the Canes in ice time among forwards last season, he continues to be a go-to penalty killer, and he’s consistently one of the top faceoff men in hockey.
What he isn’t, though, is a consistent scorer, and it’s fair to question if a high-40 point season is (a) his ceiling, and (b) good enough to merit top-line minutes on a team expected to be a playoff contender. Perhaps the addition of Marcus Kruger - more on him in a bit - will open Staal up to pursue a more offensively-oriented role, and if Staal can approach 40 assists this season that would certainly help.
But Staal has never even hit 30 helpers in a season, never mind 40, and to expect an offensive resurgence seems to be a bit of wishful thinking. In a perfect world, Staal is a second-line center on a playoff team, and the more the Canes are forced to rely on him for top-line production, the more shaky their playoff chances become.
2016-17 totals: 82 GP, 16 goals, 29 assists, 45 points
Acquired: 2nd round (42nd overall) pick, 2011 NHL Draft
One of the biggest surprises in looking back at last season was that Rask, who by all accounts had a disappointing season last year, matched Staal number for number in scoring last season, despite falling totally off the map for more than a month when he went 14 games without a point and 15 without a goal in January and February. Of the players on the roster now, and barring a trade, Rask is the most probable center to put up 55-60 points. But just because he’s the most likely doesn’t make it at all a guarantee.
Rask certainly has the offensive tools to be the Canes’ go-to playmaker. An eight-game point-scoring streak to start last season, and 26 points in 36 games across the first three months of the season, proves the point; that’s a 60-point pace, which would be almost letter-perfect production for a top-line center. But barring a breakout from somewhere else, Rask can’t afford another two-month stretch of nine points in 23 games.
If he can stay consistently productive, the Canes may be able to scrape together enough production from elsewhere in the lineup to mount a playoff charge. If not, it will be another frustrating year. That’s a lot to put on Rask’s shoulders, to be sure, but for the Canes’ playoff aspirations to come to bear the Swede will need to find consistency - and quick.
2016-17 totals: 72 GP, 11 goals, 34 assists, 49 points
Acquired: 1st round (5th overall), 2013 NHL Draft
Putting Lindholm in the preview of centers instead of wings illustrates the extraordinary flexibility that he gives Bill Peters. Lindholm, a right shot, will take faceoffs on his strong side, and when everyone is healthy he will immediately slide back onto a wing, which he did frequently with both Staal and Rask last season. But in the event of an injury, Lindholm provides an unparalleled insurance policy.
Lindholm’s team-leading 34 assists, many of them to Sebastian Aho, were mainly backloaded; in fact, half of that total came after February 1, making Lindholm the anti-Rask in that regard. Like his Swedish countryman, Lindholm could stand for a bit more consistency, and it’s worth remembering that he is still coming up to speed from being rushed to the NHL way too early.
But Lindholm has continued to develop, earning much more defensive trust from the coaching staff, and while he may not play at center every night this season his production could go a long way to determine the Canes’ success.
2016-17 totals: 67 GP, 11 goals, 18 assists, 29 points
Acquired: Signed as a free agent, 6/15/15
Ryan might be the stereotypical third-line center, a poor man’s Matt Cullen. It might be a stretch to call a 29-year-old with a sub-30 point season a “breakout performer,” but Ryan’s play last year confirmed the Canes’ trust in him was not misplaced. Ryan and Jeff Skinner found an unlikely chemistry, first playing on opposite wings flanking Rask, then with Ryan centering Skinner and Lee Stempniak down the stretch.
The question now becomes, was it a flash in the pan? Ryan is, amazingly, one of the oldest players on the roster, younger than only Stempniak, Cam Ward and Justin Williams. He’s a proven scorer at the AHL level, averaging 0.86 points per game, and certainly held his own in his first full NHL season. But with the likes of Martin Necas and Janne Kuokkanen making strong pushes for inclusion on the Canes’ roster this season, Ryan’s position may not be totally secure.
Another season with similar performance from Ryan would be welcomed, but if he tails off, the Canes certainly have no shortage of similarly-undersized (and younger) players who could fill his role. Thirty points is not unreasonable to expect from the Canes’ third-line center, whether it’s Ryan or someone else.
2016-17 totals: 70 GP, 5 goals, 12 assists, 17 points (w/ CHI)
Acquired: Trade with Golden Knights, 7/4/17
Not since the days of Kevyn Adams have the Canes had a fourth-line center exclusively devoted to defense. (Sit down, Jay McClement fan club members.) Kruger’s importance to the Canes isn’t in what he does, although he does it quite well, but rather in what he allows other members of the team to do.
Kruger is more than capable of shadowing opposing top lines, freeing up Staal to match up against lesser talents. His penalty-killing prowess adds to an already-stout Canes kill, and likely frees up Lindholm for more power-play time. If the Canes are planning on making the playoffs by stopping opposition goals rather than scoring their own, which fits right in with the mindset behind acquiring Kruger and Scott Darling, they could have done much, much worse.
Without Kruger on the roster, the Canes’ centers would have been forced to devote large amounts of effort to defensive coverage. They’ll still need to do so, but if Kruger can open up the rest of the corps to focus more on offense, his own totals will be somewhat irrelevant. Should the Canes make the playoffs, Kruger’s contributions on the scoresheet will be limited, but he’d be a hugely important background figure.
Teuvo Teravainen is another player who can go between the wing and center, similar to Lindholm, but his proficiency on the wing (especially proven last year when he skated with with Staal and Sebastian Aho) will likely keep him there most of this season. Aho is also targeted to play at center eventually, but Peters has said that the coaches plan to keep him on the wing exclusively for at least one more season. The same blueprint will be followed if Necas makes the team, absolving him of significant defensive responsibilities while allowing him to acclimatize to the faster NHL game.
Josh Jooris and Lucas Wallmark are likely competing for the final wing spot on the fourth line, although both can play center as well. Wallmark in particular has made a strong impression on the coaching staff, and will at a minimum be the first callup in the event of an opening on the bottom two lines. He could yet play Jooris off the roster, but again, neither player will likely see significant time at center barring an injury.
Scoring Projections (assuming 82 games)
- Rask: 17 goals, 41 assists, 58 points
- Staal: 19 goals, 34 assists, 53 points
- Lindholm: 18 goals, 33 assists, 51 points
- Ryan: 11 goals, 16 assists, 27 points
- Kruger: 7 goals, 13 assists, 20 points