The dust has settled on free agency, and the Carolina Hurricanes seem to be content with the group of forwards they currently have.
When you’re a team on the rise like the Hurricanes, you typically don’t want to have a bunch of question marks in important roles on your team. Unfortunately, the Canes do have a number of those unknowns heading into a season where they could become the first group to make the postseason in three consecutive seasons since relocation.
The good news is that those question marks aren’t at the very top of the lineup, which is a unique situation for a franchise that has struggled to maintain elite talent. That’s no longer the issue, but the guys right behind them could be.
Today, we’re taking a look at the Hurricanes’ forward depth chart and what things could look like once the new season gets under way... whenever that is...
First Line: Andrei Svechnikov - Sebastian Aho - Teuvo Teravainen
Rod Brind’Amour let Svechnikov go a good deal in his sophomore season, and it led to the Hurricanes developing one of the best top lines in hockey. Building on that trend in 2021, Svechnikov may very well be one of the top goal-scorers in all of hockey, by volume, at the age of 20.
Among the 47 NHL forward lines with north of 250 minutes of 5-on-5 ice time together in 2019-20, Carolina’s top trio ranked seventh in corsi share, 10th in goals-for percentage and 11th in expected goals-for percentage.
Svech essentially made up for Nino Niederreiter’s declined production on the top line and helped fuel the Hurricanes’ offense both at 5-on-5 and on the power play.
The only worry with this stacked first line has nothing to do with them, but wholly to do with the rest of the forward depth chart. Can the Canes get scoring from the rest of the top-nine consistently while this trio stays together atop the depth chart? With this line on the ice last season, Carolina had an on-ice shooting percentage of 11.64% at 5-on-5. When none of those players were on the ice, the team shot just 7.24%.
That question will be answered, in large part, by a wildcard second line that could see things break either way. Regardless, the Hurricanes’ first line is top-tier by most standards and should continue to produce at a game-breaking rate.
Wooooooooooowie. What a goal. Andrei Svechnikov to Sebastian Aho to Teuvo Teravainen to Andrei Svechnikov. Holy moly. 3-1 Hurricanes. pic.twitter.com/8Xrq9XNqGY— Brett Finger (@brett_finger) February 15, 2020
Second Line: Nino Niederreiter/Ryan Dzingel - Vincent Trocheck - Martin Necas
As it stands now, the Hurricanes seem content on rolling the dice with their second line.
They acquired Trocheck at the deadline, and while it took a handful of games for him to get his wheels turning on a new team, he showed signs of life in the final few games prior to the COVID-19 outbreak. He followed that up with a solid, albeit snake-bit, postseason showing against the Rangers and Bruins.
This line could hinge on Trocheck’s ability to regain his 20-to-25-goal form. He is two seasons removed from a breakout 31-goal campaign with the Panthers, and while it’s unlikely he will hit that number again, the Hurricanes do need him to be a reliable offensive producer that takes all scoring pressure away from Jordan Staal.
Trocheck will be aided by a dynamic winger in Necas, who quietly put together a strong rookie season that saw him score at a 20-goal, 45-point pace over 82 games prior to the shutdown. He went on to tally four points in eight playoff games.
After a full season under Brind’Amour, it’s fair to expect his role to increase a bit, similar to Svechnikov. Like Trocheck, the Canes need Necas to be an impact player in the top-six. If his rookie campaign was any indication, he should be up to that task.
Martin Necas was always on the outside looking in at any Calder discussion, but there's a lot to build off of after logging 16 goals and 36 points in his 64-game rookie year. He also scored what was probably the slickest non-Svechnikov individual-effort goal of the Canes' season. pic.twitter.com/Xm9jQRMDxW— Brett Finger (@brett_finger) July 15, 2020
The big question mark is who will fill out Necas’ opposite wing.
It seemingly comes down to one of Niederreiter or Dzingel. There’s a case to be made for both players, but with both of them coming off of disappointing seasons, there’s just as much of a case to be made against both players.
Niederreiter’s abysmal on-ice shooting percentage of 6.61% ranked dead last among Carolina forwards in 2019-20 and his individual 5-on-5 shooting percentage of 7.53% was his worst mark since his rookie season.
And of course, he took the second-most minor penalties among the club’s forwards.
The other option, Dzingel, isn’t that much more appealing. The 2019 free agent signing scored just three 5-on-5 goals in his first season with the team, second fewest among Carolina’s regular forwards. Jordan Martinook scored just twice, but he did so in a fraction of the minutes. Morgan Geekie matched Dzingel’s goal output in roughly 2% of the minutes.
Though, that’s a bit of an outlier...
Dzingel’s offensive impact came by way of assists, where he somewhat surprisingly ranked second among Canes forwards in primary helpers. He also had a number of aesthetically pleasing offensive plays alongside Necas last season.
Ryan Dzingel waited and fed Martin Necas, who fired home the game's first goal. Necas' 2nd goal of the year. pic.twitter.com/EObgAihmHV— Brett Finger (@brett_finger) October 16, 2019
Martin Necas with a *gorgeous* feed in front to Ryan Dzingel, who waits and buries a goal against his former team and gives Carolina the lead. pic.twitter.com/Qz2m3xGxfn— Brett Finger (@brett_finger) October 24, 2019
Ryan Dzingel dances through the Red Wings defense and Martin Necas roofs it on Howard. Canes take a 4-2 second-period lead in this insane hockey game. pic.twitter.com/Whv1ZdmHNr— Brett Finger (@brett_finger) November 2, 2019
Dzingel and Necas started well last season, flanking Erik Haula. That quickly fizzled out, though, for a number of reasons. If Trocheck can be a more stable version of Haula, perhaps this can work over a longer period of time.
So, take your pick: the power forward who drives play and has the ability to score 25 goals but could very well only get you half of that total while taking a frustrating amount of stick infractions, or the finesse forward who moves the puck well but needs to rely upon others to drive play and would need to re-find his goal-scoring touch from seasons prior.
Another option could be that Svechnikov comes off of the top line, slots on Necas’ opposite wing, and one of Niederreiter or Warren Foegele moves up in the lineup to spread the offense around a bit more. That hinges on a serious change from last season’s numbers (i.e. a return of 2019 Nino), though, as the first line quickly turned into a net even in the goals-for department with either of those depth forwards lined up with the Finns. So, realistically, that’s an option that should be avoided.
On paper, they have a good option (Necas), a decent option (Trocheck) and a wildcard (Niederreiter, Dzingel, etc.) in line to play on the second line.
Third Line: Warren Foegele - Jordan Staal - Jesper Fast
A big reason why so much hinges on the second line is the fact that this third line, as presently constructed, is a shutdown line in every sense and shouldn’t be relied upon for offense.
Staal is one of the best play-drivers in the league and is an annual Selke-caliber defensive center, but his line is where expected goals go to die. We’ll use Foegele as an example.
Last season, Foegele and Staal were on the ice together for 488:39 at 5-on-5. In those minutes, the Canes produced 32.65 scoring chances per 60, 3.01 expected goals-for per 60, and 34.63 shots-for per 60. They scored just 2.32 goals per 60, despite those fantastic numbers. That’s good for an on-ice shooting percentage of 6.7%.
In 348:19 of ice time with Foegele on the ice without Staal, the Canes had 30.93 scoring chances per 60, 2.84 expected goals-for per 60, and 34.77 shots-for per 60. Despite generating fewer scoring chances and expected goals, the Canes shot 10.27% and scored 3.57 goals per 60 - more than a full goal more than when both players were on the ice together.
That being said, the addition of Fast is a good one. He’s a reliable two-way forward with great skating ability. He’s a below-average finisher, which obviously doesn’t help matters offensively, but the Canes are going all-in on putting strong complimentary players around Staal to help him keep doing what he does best - drive play, keep the puck away from his own net, and help pave the way for the scoring lines to do damage.
I outlined how the offensive output evaporated with Foegele and Staal on the ice together last season, but Carolina’s team defense wasn’t bad. With those two on the ice together, the Canes allowed just 2.32 goals against per 60 and had a team save percentage of .917.
Adding Fast to this duo should make for a third line that defends in a variety of different ways. It has the makings of a tough line to play against in its ability to wear down other teams’ best players - Staal does it with his positioning and physicality, Foegele does it with his skating and physicality and Fast does it with his skating and his ability to get his stick in the right place to break up plays and create pressure.
Fourth Line: Brock McGinn - Morgan Geekie - Jordan Martinook
The growth from Geekie is a promising development for the Hurricanes, who needed to find a way to replace Lucas Wallmark in the bottom-six. For several stretches, the Canes utilized Martinook as their fourth-line center, but his game plays much better on the wing and he looked fine next to Geekie in a very limited sample size late last season and into the postseason.
This trio seems like a relatively safe option to open the season. It’s an aggressive forechecking line that is capable of retrieving pucks, cycling the puck in the offensive zone and setting the table for Carolina’s scorers.
Something to watch for, though, is the role that McGinn plays on this team moving forward. The addition of Fast seemingly knocks him off of the third line, and with just one year remaining on his contract, how much sense does it make for him to take up any significant amount of money on this team after an apparent upgrade was just brought in on a three-year deal? You could say the same about Foegele and Martinook, as well, with all of them due up at the end of next season. This is a big year for all three of them.
The Hurricanes have an interesting forward group heading into the 2021 season. They have one reliable scoring line with three elite players deserving of their spot, a second line that needs to take a collective step forward to provide scoring depth, a third line with a very specific purpose and a... fourth-line-caliber fourth line.
For me, the success of this team up front hinges on the second line being able to pack a scoring punch, independent of the first line. If that happens, the rest falls into place and they appear to be a legitimate contender for a top-three seed in the division.
A bounce back from one of Niederreiter or Dzingel would be a big boost to making that happen. And with the salary cap being what it is, if either of them don’t bounce back, they may be looking at a fresh start with a new team.