Going into the 2018-2019 season the Carolina Hurricanes have quite a few things to be determined. How will the goaltending situation pan out? Will they ice four right-handed defensemen every night? Can Rod Brind’Amour succeed in his first year? But one constant question that many people have posed all summer is: who will the Canes use at center this year?
Outside of Jordan Staal and the currently injured Victor Rask, the team does not possess any other players that have seen a significant amount of NHL ice time down the middle. With the aforementioned Rask sidelined for potentially a very long time thanks to a freak kitchen accident, the question about centers is more murky now than ever.
Here are the six guys currently in the organization who will likely play down the middle this season.
- Age: 30
- 2017-18 Totals: 79 GP, 19 goals, 27 assists, 46 points
- Career Totals: 843 GP, 206 goals, 276 assists, 482 points
- Acquired: Via trade with Pittsburgh on June 22, 2012
The former captain (yes, it feels weird saying that) is likely the only proven NHL center that will play on opening night for the Hurricanes. Known for his big body and shutdown defensive abilities, Staal will enter this season with one simple goal - play in the playoffs for the first time since coming to Carolina.
As Staal has reached the big 3-0 in age, he is a veteran presence on an otherwise very young team and will be relied on to mentor many of the prospects. Posting a 55.9 face off percentage since coming to Carolina, he will be heavily used in key defensive spots especially with the departures of Derek Ryan and Elias Lindholm. With Rask out, it’s easy to see how the Canes will lean even more heavily than planned on Staal this year.
Centering the famous TSA line with Sebastian Aho and Teuvo Teravainen last year, Staal put up respectable offensive numbers with 46 points. However, if the Canes want to make the playoffs this year, they may need Staal to creep over that 50 point plateau that he has only hit once in his career. He will likely have opportunities to center the TSA line some this year, but one would guess that he will end up with one of the prospects looking to make the team on his wing. A guy like Andrei Svechnikov or Valentin Zykov could pair well with Staal this year.
- Age: 19
- 2017-18 Totals: 1 GP, 0 goals, 0 assists, 0 points
- Career Totals: 1 GP, 0 goals, 0 assists, 0 points
- Acquired: 1st round (12th overall), 2017 NHL Draft
After making the team out of camp last season and getting a one game audition in Edmonton, Martin Necas appears poised to make the Hurricanes for good this year. While the plan was to ease Necas in this year the injury to Victor Rask will likely force the Canes hands and ensure Necas gets quite a bit of time at center this year. Whether this will work out remains to be seen, but so far in the preseason and training camp Necas appears ready for the task.
Appearing in 24 games for Brno Kometa of the Czech Extraliga last year, Necas scored 17 points but then he tore up the Under 20 Junior tournament alongside fellow countryman Filip Zadina. Posting 14 points in 15 games, Necas stood out to everyone and made a strong case for NHL ice time this year.
A lot of pressure has been put on Necas and his now roommate, Andrei Svechnikov to come in and be saviors for the Hurricanes. These are unrealistic expectations as there will certainly be growing pains transitioning to the NHL. Many questions will surround Necas including his defensive and face off abilities at this level. If he can be solid in his own end, win some key draws, and take a little bit of the pressure off of Jordan Staal, that would be a successful season in its own right, any scoring beyond that is just a lovely extra.
- Age: 25
- 2017-18 Totals: 71 GP, 14 goals. 17 assists, 31 points
- Career Totals: 313 GP, 62 goals, 95 assists, 157 points
- Acquired: 2nd round (42nd overall), 2011 NHL Draft
At one point this summer it appeared Victor Rask would be traded up north, but that never materialized. Therefore Rask was set to enter this season with an opportunity to win back the second center position and get redemption for his subpar season a year ago.
Then misfortune struck in the form of a brutal kitchen accident that required surgery on Rask’s hand during training camp. Rask is now sidelined for an indefinite period of time and it is unclear when he will return at this point.
Signed to a six year deal at $4 million AAV, a contract the Hurricanes would likely love a re-do on, Rask was expected to enter this season and hopefully find a way back to the promise he showed his first two seasons. With this latest set back there is no telling where Rask’s career will head, but should he make it back into the line up this year the Hurricanes will need him to be a solid second or third center.
While last season was forgettable for Rask offensively, he did improve in one area and that was faceoffs. Posting a 54.9% in the circle, Rask was dependable taking draws and that will be desperately missed by the Canes for however long he is out. While Rask will be absent on opening night, it opens up a hole that could lead to this next guy getting his shot at center.
- Age: 21
- 2017-18 Totals: 78 GP, 29 goals, 36 assists, 65 points
- Career Totals: 160 GP, 53 goals, 61 assists, 114 points
- Acquired: 2nd round (35th overall) pick, 2015 NHL Draft
At this point it is still difficult to tell if Sebastian Aho currently has what it takes to be an NHL center. He has made it clear he wants it and the organization has made it clear they would love for it to happen. But is this the time? With Rask injured, Aho has played at center during camp and the preseason. While it hasn’t been a disaster, it has not appeared that a pot of gold has been found.
Aho lacks the size of a NHL center but many would argue he makes up for that with his heart and desire. Is that enough for him to thrive at center? While the Hurricanes need an elite number one center, they need an Aho who puts up points even more. Andy previewed the wingers and gave us some great points as to why Aho is likely to still end up a winger this year.
Whether he ends up at center or wing, Aho is sure to see at least some time at both positions early in the season and wherever he plays better at is where the Hurricanes need to keep him. You may recall Jeff Skinner was once poised, and drafted, to be a center, but because of his size and defensive lapses he always played wing which ended up being his calling card. Will the same be the case for Aho? We’ll see.
- Age: 23
- 2017-18 Totals: 11 GP, 1 goal, 0 assists, 1 point
- Career Totals: 19 GP, 1 goal, 2 assists, 3 points
- Acquired: 4th round (97th overall), 2014 NHL Draft
Another player who will benefit from Rask being out is Lucas Wallmark. Having shown strong potential in Charlotte each of the last two season, and earning call ups both years, Wallmark is the likely the Canes’ strongest center prospect outside of Necas. His game is well suited for a 3rd or 4th line center spot and Rask’s injury may be the break he has needed to crack a NHL lineup nightly.
Brett wrote a great article explaining how Rask’s misfortune could be Wallmark’s golden ticket. Even if he does not see time at center, as Andy pointed out in his wingers preview, he can easily slide in on the wing and will challenge a guy like Phil Di Giuseppe for a spot on opening night.
But all the talk about Wallmark’s potential isn’t just talk. He has proven an ability to play at both the AHL and NHL level. He posted a 55.1 face off percentage in his 11 NHL games last year while putting up 46 points in 67 games for the Checkers. He also played well for the Checkers in the playoffs posting five points in eight games.
Will Wallmark crack the opening night roster as either a center or winger? It would seem to be a very strong chance right now.
- Age: 26
- 2017-18 Totals: 81 GP, 6 goals, 9 assists, 15 points
- Career Totals: 247 GP, 26 goals, 39 assists, 65 points
- Acquired: Via trade with Arizona on May 3rd, 2018
Little is known about Jordan Martinook and his potential with the Hurricanes. What we do know is he was brought in on the deal that sent Marcus Kruger out of town and he seems to be a quality 4th line player. He will bring a physical presence and at 26 years old, he’s somewhat of a old guy on the team so he should be able to help the prospects adjust to the NHL.
2017-18 appears to have been a rough year for Martinook as he was a minus 24 with 15 points and he saw his face off percentage drop to just 36.4. But if we look further back in to his career the 2015-2017 seasons were much better and shows a reason to believe Martinook could fill in at center when needed.
During those seasons he scored 49 total points winning 49.4% of his face offs. He also averaged nearly two minutes a game on the penalty kill which is where he will be very valuable to the Hurricanes this season.
Martinook doesn’t appear to be a guy who will light the lamp a ton or win over the style points judges, but he will be a quality 4th line guy who will likely fight with Lucas Wallmark for the 4th line center spot.
Scoring Projections (Assuming 82 GP)
- Jordan Staal: 21 goals, 32 assists, 53 points
- Martin Necas: 17 goals, 25 assists, 42 points
- Victor Rask (Assuming 41 GP): 8 goals, 15 assists, 23 points
- Sebastian Aho (Via Wingers Preview): 39 goals, 38 assists, 77 points
- Lucas Wallmark (Via Wingers Preview): 7 goals, 12 assists, 19 points
- Jordan Martinook: 6 goals, 14 assists, 20 points