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Carolina Hurricanes 2019-20 Season Preview: Centers

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Carolina enters 2019-20 deeper down the middle than they have been in quite a while.

Jamie Kellner

The Carolina Hurricanes will enter the 2019-20 season with fewer question marks at Center than any year in recent memory. Gone are the questions of whether or not Sebastian Aho can play the position. Gone are the questions of whether or not youthful players counted on in the bottom-six Center spots are capable of holding up defensively. Instead, the Canes are presented with more possibility than questions. If they can grow stronger from their already strong position, Center could be an area of significant advantage on many nights in the future.

Jordan Staal

  • Age: 31
  • 2018-19 Totals: 50 GP, 11 goals, 17 assists, 28 points
  • Career Totals: 893 GP, 217 goals, 293 assists, 510 points
  • Acquired: Via trade with Pittsburgh on June 22, 2012

For the first time in his Hurricanes career, Jordan Staal was able to experience postseason play. Ironically, the big push that catapulted the Canes into serious contention just after the first of the season coincided with an extended absence from Staal due to injury. During that timeframe, as the Canes played some of their best hockey of the season, Rod Brind’Amour marveled at how his team was able to overcome a loss that he felt was as key as any player on the roster. As the Canes inevitably slowed down their pace, and Staal returned with his heavy, impactful game, it became clear that Brind’Amour was right in his assessment that the Canes improvement along the rest of the roster without Staal was merely coincidental, and that with Staal involved the Canes immediately became a much more dangerous team.

Typically tasked with leading a line that draws some of the toughest defensive assignments, Staal was able to win faceoffs at a 55.8 % clip, while taking over 1000 draws even in a shortened season. His physical game brings an important element that is reinforced by the likes of Jordan Martinook and Brock McGinn, but comes in a massive 6’4 frame and with a sturdy flash of skill from the man from Thunder Bay.

In order for the Canes to maintain their status as a contender and a postseason team, they will likely need a healthier season from Staal as he continues to evolve into the true veteran leader on this young and talented roster. Leading a top-six line that also can take on tremendous defensive responsibility is a great task, but one that Staal is uniquely qualified to perform.

Sebastian Aho

  • Age: 22
  • 2018-19 Totals: 82 GP, 30 goals, 53 assists, 83 points
  • Career Totals: 242 GP, 83 goals, 114 assists, 197 points
  • Acquired: 2nd round (35th overall) pick, 2015 NHL Draft

There were questions amongst fans and observers around the league as to how viable the transition to Center would be for Sebastian Aho in 2018-19. Rod Brind’Amour was insistent that his then-21 year old Finnish star could handle the additional responsibility of playing in the middle and that he could provide from within the long awaited “number one Center” that many have pined for in Raleigh. Well, perhaps not even Brind’Amour could have expected Aho to take so strongly to the role. For Aho, 2018-19 served as a true breakout season as he finished top-10 in the Hart Trophy voting and solidified himself as an upper echelon performer in the NHL.

Aho had a tremendous season numbers-wise, but was slowed at the end of the season by various injuries that did not keep him off the ice for the Canes playoff run, but did hamper his effectiveness. Perhaps most telling was that he did not take many draws as the season ended. Nevertheless, Aho managed to average over 20 minutes per night (20:09), while playing every single night. And not only did Aho play each night, but he was able to excel in the one area that many believed he would initially struggle at Center: defense. Aho was quickly given even more responsibility on that end as he became one of the top penalty killers for Carolina and admirably played the role of ace defensive Center in the absence of Jordan Staal.

Taking as a whole, Aho’s 2018-19 season did not perhaps have the increase in goal-scoring that many would have expected. It did have him growing his game rapidly in every other area that could be measured. As such, his third NHL season was his best yet. And for the Canes, a healthy Aho in 2019-20 is something that will get everyone excited to see what he is capable of next.

Erik Haula

  • Age: 28
  • 2018-19 Totals: 15 GP, 2 goals, 5 assists, 7 points
  • Career Totals: 357 GP, 73 goals, 78 assists, 151 points
  • Acquired: Via trade with Vegas on June 26, 2019
Jamie Kellner

Coming off his first injury-plagued campaign, Erik Haula joins the Canes as a salary cap casualty from the Vegas Golden Knights. Haula, a huge part of the Golden Knights run to the Stanley Cup Final in their inaugural season, played only 15 games last year due to leg injury. He provided this after putting together a 55 point season the year before and appeared to be a building piece for the future in Vegas. The Hurricanes hope he can regain something resembling that 2017-18 form to become part of what the Canes hope is a retooled third line offensively.

Another left shot, Haula could pair with any combination of Canes on a third line, including Andrei Svechnikov, Warren Foegele, Martin Necas, Brock McGinn, and others. It is also possible that Rod Brind’Amour determines that Haula is best distributed on left wing, but as of now expect Haula to get his initial looks at Center. The addition of Haula and free agent Ryan Dzingel were intended to help the Canes overcome the lost production from Justin Williams’ “soft retirement”, but also provide some added juice to a third line that the Canes hope can do more than hold their own, but rather dominate the bottom-six from their opponents. If Haula is healthy, he should be more than capable of assisting in that, no matter where he ultimately slots into the Carolina lineup.

Lucas Wallmark

  • Age: 24
  • 2018-19 Totals: 81 GP, 10 goals, 18 assists, 28 points
  • Career Totals: 100 GP, 11 goals, 20 assists, 31 points
  • Acquired: 4th round (97th overall), 2014 NHL Draft

Lucas Wallmark completed his first full NHL season in 2018-19, and showed the kind of steady growth that you would expect from a young player who continues to learn how to apply his game in the toughest league in the world. Just like fellow rookies Andrei Svechnikov and Warren Foegele, Wallmark was at his best as the season finished and into the playoffs. In 15 playoff games, Wallmark posted just five points, but his consistency and possession of the puck made him a comfortable play for Brind’Amour.

Even though Wallmark emerged from the season with a modest 10 goals and 28 total points, his play gave indications that he may have only scratched the surface of what he is capable of offensively. If his ice time remains at or above 15 minutes a night, Wallmark may yet become a consistent 40+ point performer that provides solid all-around play. If Wallmark is given the task of Centering the fourth line in Raleigh, perhaps that point total is ambitious. But if that mark is not met, it doesn’t mean that Wallmark cannot contribute mightily. Performing at over 50% (50.9%) in the faceoff dot in his first season as an NHL Center, there is reason to think that Wallmark can slot in at Center on the second, third, or fourth lines and not appear out of his depth. Such a versatile and growing young player can provide terrific value for a coaching staff that is willing to mix up lines if they are not clicking.

If Wallmark can take yet another step forward like he did in 2018-19 where he earned a consistent role in the NHL for the first time in his career, he will be well on his way to positioning himself as another important piece in the Canes dynamic young core of forwards.

Martin Necas

  • Age: 20
  • 2018-19 Totals: 7 GP, 1 goal, 1 assist, 2 points
  • Career Totals: 8 GP, 1 goal, 1 assist, 2 points
  • Acquired: 1st round (12th overall), 2017 NHL Draft

While he has made cameo appearances in each of the last two seasons, many are wondering if the 2019-20 campaign is when Martin Necas earns an opportunity to stay in Raleigh for most if not all of the season. While Necas played seven games in the NHL last year and recorded his first NHL goal, he spent most of his first season in North America at the AHL level with the Calder Cup Champion Charlotte Checkers. In 64 games, Necas posted a solid 52 point season (16 goals, 36 assists) and was a fabulous performer on the powerplay unit. Whether he can earn those sorts of opportunities at the NHL remains to be seen, but Necas is part of the group of young forwards who are either just establishing themselves at the NHL level (Wallmark, Foegele, Svechnikov) or are looking to consistently crack the NHL lineup for the first time (Necas and Gauthier).

In order for Necas to earn a spot with the Canes, he must show that he is physically ready to play, as his smaller frame was noticeable in his brief past appearances. There is little doubt that Necas has the skill to make a significant impact at the NHL level. If his physicality and speed in decision-making have caught up to his talent, the Canes might have their hand forced to include him sooner rather than later.

Scoring Projections (Assuming 82 GP)

  • Jordan Staal: 23 goals, 33 assists, 56 points
  • Martin Necas: 15 goals, 24 assists, 39 points
  • Erik Haula: 22 goals, 25 assists, 47 points
  • Sebastian Aho: 40 goals, 53 assists, 93 points
  • Lucas Wallmark: 15 goals, 18 assists, 33 points