It’s been a relatively quiet offseason for the Hurricanes. With the recent re-signings of Haydn Fleury and Warren Foegle leaving the team with roughly $1 million in cap space, it’s unlikely the Canes will make another addition.
So, that means they’re unlikely to improve from last season, right? Not necessarily. Last week, we took a look at two plausible ways the team could improve internally, with the D corps and Martin Necas.
Today, we’re going to take a look at two more:
Down the middle
For years, it seemed one of the biggest things the Canes were lacking was strong play down the middle. Over the past two seasons, the team finally found its No. 1 center by moving star forward Sebastian Aho to pivot.
Aho’s been a bonafide No. 1 center, anchoring the team’s top line with Teuvo Teravainen and Andrei Svechnikov, and coming two tallies shy of the 40-goal club in just 68 games last year.
That left the No. 2 spot as a question mark. Jordan Staal doesn’t bring nearly enough offense for that spot anymore. At the start of last season, Erik Haula filled that role well, but injuries derailed his season and he was eventually traded.
The player he was traded for, though, is one the Hurricanes hope will be the answer here. Vincent Trocheck got off to a modest start production wise, but seemed to be settling into a groove when the season ended. He played well and created chances in the postseason, but wasn’t often rewarded for his efforts.
If Trocheck, with the benefit of a full training camp, can settle into a groove and provide a true top-six caliber center, it would be a huge benefit to Carolina. He’s just two seasons removed from a 31-goal, 75-point campaign in Florida. Obviously, if Trocheck can recapture that form, he and Sebastian Aho would be one of the best one-two punches at center in the league.
But the Canes don’t even need that much. If they could just get 20-25 goals and 50-55 points from Trocheck on a line with Martin Necas and either Ryan Dzingel and Nino Niederreiter (more on them in a bit), it would be a plus.
And if Trocheck can hold down that role, it would allow Staal to do what he does best: anchor the third line as an elite defensive, possession-oriented, shutdown center that can match up with opponents’ best players.
Brett went into this in more detail Monday, but a third line of Staal, Warren Foegele and Jesper Fast would be light on offense but elite defensively. If Trocheck plays to his potential on the second line, that would be more than fine.
That likely leaves Morgan Geekie as the fourth center. Geekie, of course, burst onto the scene with three goals and four points in two games before the pause, but, in the playoffs, he also showed what he’s capable of. Geekie’s strong on the puck, strong defensively and capable of chipping in some offense with room to grow. That’s ideal for a fourth-line center.
We’ll probably take a deep dive on this in the coming weeks, but Aho, Trocheck, Jordan Staal and Geekie have the potential to be the Canes’ best group of centers since Eric Staal was in his prime. That would constitute a huge improvement over last year’s team, without bringing anyone new in.
We’ve been over this a few times already, but it bears repeating, both Nino Niederreiter and Ryan Dzingel had suboptimal seasons last year, combining for just 19 goals and 58 points.
It’s likely that one or both bounces back in a second-line role, however. Both were extremely unlucky.
Niederreiter is just a year removed from posting 14 goals and 30 points in 36 games in his first partial season with the Hurricanes. He did a lot of things right last year (though he’ll have to clean up his penalty troubles. As Brett pointed out Monday, Niederreiter had the worst on-ice shooting percentage on the team at 6.61%, and his overall shooting percentage of 9.6 was well under his career mark of 11.9. Niederreiter seemed to often be in the right place for golden opportunities last season and was the victim of some rotten luck.
Speaking of rotten luck, Dzingel fared no better. He came to Carolina with a career shooting percentage of 14.65, and shot just 8.2 last season. That would seem to be due for some regression to the mean.
Dzingel’s lack of production could also be tied into linemates and opportunity. He started the year well with seven goals and 24 points in his first 40 games, mostly playing with Haula and Necas. Then, when Haula was injured, Dzingel struggled to find a role in the lineup, dropping to just one goal and five points in the 2020 half of the year.
It stands to reason that, on a line with Trocheck and Necas, he could recapture some of that form.
If one of Niederreiter or Dzingel bounce back, they’re a top-six caliber winger, and the team didn’t need to go out and add one after all. A top-six of Aho, Svechnikov, Teravainen, Trocheck, Necas and a returned-to-form Niederreiter or Dzingel would be a great group, and another improvement that could come internally.