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Hurricanes have potential for elite center play in 2021

With the addition of Vincent Trocheck for a full season, this could be the Hurricanes’ best group of centers in quite some time.

Vincent Trocheck and Joakim Ryan vie for the puck during day three of training camp at Wake Competition Center, Jan. 6, 2021. Kaydee Gawlik

The most important ingredient for any successful NHL team is good goaltending. That’s not a secret, and it’s one the Carolina Hurricanes know better than anyone. Next, and not far down on the list, however, is strength down the middle.

A good team must have quality center play. That’s something else the Hurricanes know all too well, with the failure to find an adequate solution at the top of the depth chart upon Eric Staal’s decline playing a major role in the Canes spending nine years in the hockey wilderness. Those days are long past.

In the past couple years, Sebastian Aho’s move to center and development into a bona fide No. 1 pivot has played a major role in the Canes’ resurgence.

A pass to Sebastian Aho is blocked off by Dougie Hamilton during day three of training camp at Wake Competition Center, Jan. 6, 2021. Kaydee Gawlik

“You’ve got to be strong up the middle, everybody knows that,” said Hurricanes head coach Rod Brind’Amour. “You can’t win in today’s game if you don’t have good centers.”

The Hurricanes have had good, but not great, center depth the past two seasons. That may be about to change. The Canes have found their solution to the No. 1 spot with Aho, but have struggled to find a complement in the top six.

Jordan Staal’s days as a top-six center are behind him. The Canes appeared to have a solution with Erik Haula’s red-hot start to last season before his play fizzled out due to injuries and he was shipped out at the deadline as part of the trade for Vincent Trocheck.

That deal may well hold the key to whether or not this is one of the Hurricanes’ best groups of centers in a long time. Trocheck put up modest production in the rest of the abbreviated regular season, but seemed to be finding a groove during the Hurricanes’ short stay in the postseason bubble.

Coming into this year, Trocheck seems ready to go. He’s earned praise from Brind’Amour for his play in training camp, and feels comfortable in his new surroundings.

“I was here all summer, training with [Bill Burniston], even just during the off time before we went to the bubble. And then playing in the bubble, playing in the playoffs, you get a lot more comfortable quicker playing in the playoffs. At this point, I feel like I fit in, I know the systems, I know everything well enough to go out there and just play hockey.”

The Hurricanes are certainly hoping Trocheck is the answer for that second-line center spot. While his last two seasons in Florida saw injuries and declining production, Trocheck isn’t far removed from a 31-goal, 75-point season in 2017-18.

Even if he doesn’t quite get back to that level, Trocheck producing at even a 20-goal, 50-point level would be a major development for the Hurricanes.

“I think that was a big acquisition for us last year,” Brind’Amour said. “I know Trocheck had a great offseason here, getting comfortable with everybody. So I’m looking forward to having a year of him under our belt to see what we can bring, because I think we got a really good player there.”

If Trocheck indeed can produce at that level, it would give the Canes a diverse, deep group of centers who bring different elements to the table. Aho is an elite offensive force, one of the best players in the league, who came two tallies short of joining the 40-goal club last year.

Trocheck can bring a mix of playmaking and goal scoring to the No. 2 spot. And an appropriately-slotted Staal on the third line remains one of the best two-way, shutdown centers in the game, capable of matching up with and shutting down the opposition’s best players on a nightly basis.

Jordan Staal during day three of training camp at Wake Competition Center, Jan. 6, 2021. Kaydee Gawlik

And the fourth spot, which has been held by Jordan Martinook in camp, is likely to be some mix of Martinook and Jordan Geekie, both of whom bring the mix of two-way play, penalty-kill acumen and scoring touch you want in a fourth center.

If that group all produces to the level expected from their lineup slots, it has the potential to be the Canes’ best group of centers since Eric Staal’s prime.

“We’ve got some really talented players all throughout the lineup, obviously, but to have depth at center is key, and every team always wants that,” Jordan Staal said. “We’ve got some great players down the middle. Between Fishy, everyone knows what he’s all about, and Trocheck is a talented player, he works hard. He finds ways to put the puck in the back of the net. We’ve got guys that will help do all the different things to help the team win, too, just the little stuff that makes a big difference by the end of the game. I like what we have down the middle.”

As the Hurricanes look to achieve their goal of taking the next step and contending for a Stanley Cup, achieving that strength down the middle will be pivotal.

Few know that better than Brind’Amour, who firsthand what a loaded lineup at center can do when the likes of himself, Eric Staal and Matt Cullen helped power the Hurricanes to the franchise’s only Stanley Cup in 2006.

“It’s hard to find a team that’s successful that doesn’t have that position covered,” Brind’Amour said. “That team, for sure, we had really good depth up the middle. All elite teams, that position’s covered. I feel pretty good about where we are with our guys. All the positions are obviously important, but down the middle, you’ve got to have it.”

The Hurricanes will certainly hope they “have it” down the middle, as Brind’Amour said. If Aho continues the play he’s shown over the past two years, Trocheck returns to top-six form and Staal and Martinook/Geekie can hold down the bottom six, they will, and it could play a major role in Carolina going from a good to a great team.