The Carolina Hurricanes are a top-five team in the NHL right now, and there are plenty of reasons for that.
Perhaps chief among them is their untouchable top-nine center group, manned by Sebastian Aho, Vincent Trocheck, and Jordan Staal - a trio that has combined for 30 goals and 64 points through 24 games.
The Canes have never gotten this kind of depth of production from their centers. Today, we’ll take a closer look at Carolina’s centers of attention.
Despite his point-per-game pace out of the gate, I’d argue that Aho hasn’t even caught his stride yet in this 2021 season. That might be starting to change now, though.
Aho has netted three goals over his last three games, including a shorthanded tally in the third period against the Florida Panthers on Sunday, which became the game-winning goal.
That goal was his ninth shorty since the start of the 2018-19 season, which is the most in the NHL over that span. He’s been a huge contributor to the aggressive “power kill” that Carolina runs and often dominates with.
His game against Florida was arguably his best of the season. He owned a 78.43 xGF%, scored the GWG, added an assist, won 14 of his 19 faceoffs, skated a season-high 22:12, and helped lead Carolina to one of their best 60-minute efforts of the season.
The Hurricanes are 8-1-0 this season when Aho sees at least 20:00 of ice time. That’s obviously not a coincidence. When he’s going strong, the Canes need him on the ice. And when he’s going strong and he’s on the ice, the Canes are going to win a vast majority of their games.
I’m not sure what else there is to say about Trocheck that hasn’t been said already.
He has been everything that the Hurricanes needed, and then a little bit more. Trocheck’s 13 goals are tied for fifth-most in the NHL. He leads the team in point production to boot.
He’s been a lethal addition in his goal-scoring ability, and with how neck-and-neck the Canes and Panthers are this season, it’s more than reasonable to think that he, alone, could be the difference between which team finishes second in the division. If he was still with Florida and had this kind of season, it’s hard for me to ignore that the Panthers would probably have scraped out one or two of those tight games.
Trocheck has scored in each of the clubs’ head-to-head meetings this season and has averaged 20:45 of ice time in those games.
His 5-on-5 impact has been great. He has helped generate expected goals at a 21%-higher rate compared to the league average when he is on the ice, and he is also above average in the defensive zone.
His work on the power play has also been a huge addition. We’ve seen lately that he and Andrei Svechnikov are “pick your poison” duo on the left side. Pick one: Svehcnikov wires off an oftentimes unstoppable snapshot, or he makes you think that he’ll shoot it and instead feeds it down low to Trocheck, who can deflect it, catch it and try to wrap it in or set up a man on the other side of the crease for a backdoor goal.
The fact that he’s a right-shot makes that possible. He was such an obviously great addition to this team when he was acquired, and now he’s delivering on all the expectations placed on him. He won’t keep scoring at a .5/game pace, but he will keep playing his game, and the goals will keep coming just because of how he plays and where he positions himself on the ice.
He doesn’t score “pretty” goals very often, but that doesn’t mean that his talent around the net doesn’t pop off the screen.
I’ve been finding it very difficult to judge Staal’s season to this point. So far, it’s unlike almost any season he’s had in Carolina for a couple of reasons.
The obvious first reason is that he has eight goals and 20 points in 22 games. That’s a .91 point-per-game pace, which would be the most productive season of his 15-year NHL career. He’s been a hugely positive addition to the first power-play unit, and again, that is a very different development. His expected and real numbers suggested that he was one of the very worst power-play players in the NHL for years.
Maybe it’s that the Hurricanes have the right group of talent on that unit, or maybe he’s just playing that much better on the man advantage. It’s probably a mixture of both. Regardless, he’s been outstanding in that role as a net-front presence. With Trocheck, Aho, Svechnikov, and Dougie Hamilton around him, his job is obvious, and he has been doing it well. Half of his eight goals to this point have come on the power play.
That’s all great. He deserves a lot of credit for how productive he has been, but what makes this so weird is that his 5-on-5 numbers are the worst they’ve been since he got to Carolina in 2012.
His individual expected goals, scoring chances, and shot attempts are the lowest of his entire career at 5-on-5. The same goes for his on-ice xGF%, SF%, and SCF%. His corsi-share is his lowest since his rookie season.
His role on the power play has been the reason for his unbelievable offensive spike. This won’t last forever, and he actually went seven games without a single point before rattling off five points in two games against the Nashville Predators and Detroit Red Wings.
The Hurricanes will obviously take it as long as they can get it, but I’m curious to see what happens if that production goes back to his normal level and his metrics stay near the bottom of the barrel among Carolina’s forwards. Staal has absolutely earned the benefit of the doubt, though, so it’s not something I’m very concerned about.
His work on the penalty kill has remained elite, and with Aho and Trocheck helping at 5-on-5, he doesn’t need to be great at everything. That was the whole point of the Trocheck deal in the first place - to take some of the load off of his shoulders in the top-nine.