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The Hurricanes’ Best Lines and Pairings so Far and What They Should Be Moving Forward

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Which forward lines and defensive pairings have been the best for the Hurricanes in 2021? The answers might surprise you... or they might not.

Carolina Hurricanes v Arizona Coyotes Photo by Norm Hall/NHLI via Getty Images

Everyone always asks, “What are the lines?” but no one ever asks, “How are the lines?”...

Well, today, I am asking - and attempting to answer - that question.

The Carolina Hurricanes capped off their road trip last night in Nashville as winners of three straight games and the owners of a nice, shiny 15-6-1 record, just one point behind the Discover NHL® Central Division-leading Tampa Bay Lightning.

It hasn’t been all sunshine and rainbows for the Canes, though. They’ve had to battle for seemingly each and every point over the last two weeks, and while they’ve managed to secure most of them, it’s been a tumultuous time up and down a lineup that has experienced constant shuffling.

Which lines and pairings have worked the best so far? Which lines and pairings make sense moving forward? Let’s discuss.


Forwards

Up to this point, the Canes’ goal production at 5-on-5 has been led by their “second” line of Nino Niederreiter, Vincent Trocheck, and Martin Necas. That trio had a red-hot start to the season, but as of late, the magic has dissipated a bit, and they’ve been broken up in hopes of finding new combinations that work.

Below is a table of the seven forward lines with north of 28 minutes of ice time this season and their numbers.

Hurricanes Forward Line Statistics

Line Minutes CF% SCF% GF GA GF% xGF xGA xGF% xGF/60 xGA/60
Line Minutes CF% SCF% GF GA GF% xGF xGA xGF% xGF/60 xGA/60
Niederreiter - Trocheck- Necas 156.24 55.3 59.64 7 2 78.8 7.61 5.93 56.2 2.92 2.28
McGinn - Aho - Svechnikov 91.04 54.37 52.72 6 4 60 5.1 3.89 56.71 3.36 2.56
Foegele - Staal - Svechnikov 64.34 48.92 46.28 5 3 62.5 2.7 2.81 49.05 2.51 2.61
McGinn - Aho - Teravainen 49.19 61.22 61.28 5 3 62.5 2.91 2.36 55.28 3.54 2.87
Martinook - Lorentz - Paquette 34.36 59.19 61.08 1 0 100 1.87 0.74 71.77 3.24 1.28
Niederreiter - Aho - Teravainen 32.06 69.16 73.04 1 0 100 2.27 1.02 69.04 4.24 1.91
Foegele - Staal - Fast 28.28 48.44 48.34 0 1 0 0.79 1.12 41.32 1.67 2.36
All stats from NaturalStatTrick.com, updated as of March 1, 2021.

An essential thing to note here is the absence of Teuvo Teravainen from the lineup. He plays such a huge role on this team both with his elite playmaking ability and his impact on the Canes maintaining puck possession and keeping the scoring chances tilted in their favor.

In his time on the ice this season, he has been up and down with regards to production, but he started to really catch his stride right before he suffered a concussion that has kept him out over the last couple of weeks.

Getting him back will help in many areas, but perhaps most importantly, it will give the Hurricanes more quality options in the top-six.

A big positive during the road trip was the emergence of a very reliable and surprisingly impactful fourth line. Steven Lorentz, Cedric Paquette, and Jordan Martinook have played near-perfect hockey in their roles at 5-on-5. The numbers above don’t include the last two games, which saw Lorentz finally break through and score his first NHL goal in Nashville. It was a huge milestone for him and more tangible proof that he is a great fit for how that line plays.

I don’t see that trio being separated in the near future.

That leaves the top nine to sort out, and the wild card there is Teravainen’s health moving forward. Necas has had some great moments with Sebastian Aho over the last couple of games which has sparked some intrigue in seeing them play together at 5-on-5 more often.

When Teravainen gets back and gets his game going, though, I think it makes all the sense in the world for him to be paired with Aho. It’s what has worked for years now, and it gives that line all the talent they need to make a difference all over the ice. Their chemistry is unrivaled in this forward lineup.

That duo was outstanding with Niederreiter to start the season. They got split up after the COVID outbreak as Turbo sat out and was slow to find his game, and Nino struck gold on that second line.

I think it makes sense for them to come back together at some point, though. Niederreiter is playing with confidence comparable to what he was playing with upon getting traded to the team. When they were together, albeit for a brief period of time, early in the year, they were Carolina’s most dangerous scoring line in terms of expected goals.

If you want to have fun, you could also go with Teravainen-Aho-Necas. Aho would score 90% of the goals and Teravainen and Necas would constantly pass the puck back and forth and not shoot to the point where you’d want to throw your television out the window, retrieve said television from the street, and pulverize it with a meat tenderizer.

That would leave you with a group of Necas, Trocheck, Andrei Svechnikov, Brock McGinn, Jesper Fast, Jordan Staal, and Warren Foegele in the middle-six.

You can tinker with this group of players and probably find something that sticks. It’s hard for me not to gravitate towards the idea of Svechnikov-Trocheck-Necas on the second line, though. Svechnikov and Necas ooze skill, and Trocheck has been dynamite as a net-front guy. If Svechnikov can consistently retrieve loose pucks and help that line maintain possession, they’d be tough to stop. If Svech can get back to his top form, the SAT line remains a tempting option, as well. In that case, you could go back to the Niederreiter-Trocheck-Necas well.

The Foegele-Staal-Fast line has been one of Carolina’s weakest lines at 5-on-5 in their brief time playing together, which makes me inclined to swap McGinn into Foegele’s place. McGinn has been one of the Canes’ better forwards this season, but he has benefited from playing with Aho, Svechnikov, and Teravainen. His goal-scoring tear has come to a very predictable end, but he still serves a purpose similar to that of Foegele, and he has tons of experience on Staal’s wing over the years. I still like Staal and Fast together, at least on paper.

They always have the option of using Svechnikov on the Staal line. Still, for the sake of having two dangerous scoring lines, I don’t love the idea of somewhat limiting his ability to score by not having him with guys who can consistently keep up with him.

There are tons of options for the middle-six, but having Niederreiter-Aho-Teravainen and Paquette-Lorentz-Martinook trios at the top and bottom of the depth chart feels pretty good.


Defensemen

There’s a bit less deliberation to be had on the blue line, where the Hurricanes have seen a couple of pairings stick out as being clearly better than the rest.

Hurricanes Defensive Pairing Statistics

Pairing Minutes CF% SCF% GF GA GF% xGF xGA xGF% xGF/60 xGA/60
Pairing Minutes CF% SCF% GF GA GF% xGF xGA xGF% xGF/60 xGA/60
Slavin - Hamilton 231.33 55.59 57.86 8 6 57.14 9.66 8.16 54.19 2.5 2.11
Skjei - Pesce 194.46 52.76 50.93 8 10 44.44 9.94 7.68 56.39 3.06 2.37
Gardiner - Fleury 96 56.95 56.34 2 3 40 3.29 2.9 53.12 2.06 1.81
Gardiner - Pesce 90.1 55.91 56.7 3 1 75 4.09 2.73 59.95 2.72 1.82
Skjei - Hamilton 71.1 59.31 51.61 3 3 50 2.15 1.81 54.35 1.81 1.53
Bean - Fleury 65.01 58.98 55.08 2 1 66.67 3.72 2.93 55.94 3.43 2.7
Slavin - Pesce 55.21 56.88 61.11 4 4 50 2.46 1.7 59.13 2.67 1.84
Bean - Skjei 40.49 52.76 60.21 3 1 75 2.01 1.44 58.22 2.95 2.15
All stats from NaturalStatTrick.com, updated as of March 1, 2021.

I know it’s very hip right now to be down on Dougie Hamilton’s play, and I get it. He’s not playing the way he played a year ago. That being said, he and Jaccob Slavin are the first pairing, and I don’t see that changing for any significant period of time.

You have to trust that those two will get back on top of things, and they have shown signs of that recently to the point where I’m not worried about it. They had a strong showing against Nashville.

On an unrelated note: it is interesting to see that the Skjei-Hamilton pairing was so low-event when they were together. You’d expect that to be a high-risk pairing, but it was the exact opposite.

To this point, one of the team’s best pairings has been Jake Gardiner (who has been sidelined with what has been labeled an upper-body injury) and Brett Pesce. They’ve tried to make Brady Skjei with Pesce become a thing, but I’m just not a big believer in it right now. It’s still early, and it took Hamilton and Gardiner some time to actually get a hold of the system and start playing the way they were expected to play, so Skjei should also be given some amount of patience.

Right now, the team has more trust in Skjei defensively and I think that’s been the reason why they’ve been reluctant to let Gardiner and Pesce play consistently. After last season, I understand that hesitation, but Gardiner has been the better fit with Pesce so far.

Perhaps the biggest development here is the emergence of Jake Bean. He has seven points over his last 10 games and has done a good job proving that he is ready to graduate from the AHL for good. There are still some very noticeable flaws in his defensive game, but he has been getting better in those areas, and he needs to be given the opportunity to make those mistakes and get better from them.

I don’t know if I love Skjei-Bean as a pairing. They started strong, but I think their defensive weaknesses were exposed a little more on the road trip, and it might not be a stable long-term option. That’s where Haydn Fleury comes into play as a low-event guy who can fill out the bottom pairing when needed. Skjei and Bean can still be very effective when the Canes control the matchups on home ice.

The d-pairings, in particular, are fluid. You have the constant of Slavin-Hamilton on the top pairing and Pesce anchoring the second pairing, but I think it’s reasonable to expect both Gardiner and Skjei to float back and forth on there with the other one working the third pairing with Bean and Fleury.


With all of that in mind, here’s the lineup that I would go out on a limb and endorse.

Niederreiter-Aho-Teravainen
Svechnikov-Trocheck-Necas
McGinn/Foegele-Staal-Fast
Paquette-Lorentz-Martinook

Slavin-Hamilton
Gardiner-Pesce
Skjei-Bean/Fleury

This whole discussion is moot, to an extent, because injuries will keep happening with the condensed schedule and few off days (but it’s still fun to talk about). There will be a steady shuffling of the deck all over the lineup, but when everyone is healthy, assuming that ever is the case this season, this setup is pretty solid.

The Canes are positioned well in that, at full strength, they have an extra forward and defenseman who are good enough to plug into a number of spots and play well - or at least well enough.

Carolina has the much-needed depth that will prove hugely beneficial as the season progresses and the postseason becomes visible over the horizon.