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Carolina Hurricanes State of the Position: Centers

The Carolina Hurricanes retained their top three centers and made a move to bring in a veteran with 100 games of playoff experience to increase depth down the middle.

NHL: Florida Panthers at Carolina Hurricanes James Guillory-USA TODAY Sports

Yesterday we broke down the wingers for the Carolina Hurricanes and today we will look at the center position.

In an offseason of turnover, the Carolina Hurricanes held on to their top three centers and lost fourth-line center Morgan Geekie to the expansion draft. The Canes added center depth in a combined effort of veterans and prospects who can contribute in future seasons.

Sebastian Aho

Last Season Stats: 24 Goals, 33 Assists, 57 Points in 56 Games

Sebastian Aho has quieted all his doubters over the last two seasons while playing center. The biggest issue when he moved to center was his ability to play against the top lines of other teams. He has proven that not only can he continue to score but he can also play the game's toughest position against the superstars of the league. He leads all Canes centers in the major possession stats.

If last season were a full season he was on pace for 35 goals, which would have marked three straight seasons with 30 or more goals; he finished just six shy of that mark with 24 in the shortened 56 game season. His 33 assists also had him on pace to have his second-highest assist total at 48.

Aho dominates every phase of the game. Over the past two seasons, he had seven shorthanded goals, the most of any player in the league. His 15 power-play goals rank 22nd in the league and his 40 even-strength goals also rank 10th over the last two seasons. There isn’t another player in the league that can affect the game as he can in any situation.

Heading into the 2020-2021 season the only knock that there was on Aho was in the faceoff circle. His best season saw him win just 48.59%, of his draws which made Brind’Amour think twice about when to deploy him. This also forced some issues where units were built around Jordan Staal to win the initial faceoff, which now we only see in overtime.

Last season saw Aho’s faceoff percentage jump 6.74% to his new career-high of 52.75%. This shifted his offensive zone start percentage down from 61.6% in 2019-2020 to 55.7% in the 2020-2021 season. While this might seem like a bad thing, it means that Rod Brind’Amour had more faith in Aho in all situations and is not sheltering him with easy shifts.

If Aho continues his evolution as a full two-way center, he should be the one getting Selke talk over Jordan Staal. Aho shows no signs of slowing down and it will be great to see the numbers he will be able to put up in the first 82-game season in three years.

Vincent Trocheck

Last Season Stats: 17 Goals, 26 Assists, 43 Points in 47 Games

The 2020-2021 season was Trocheck’s first full season with the Carolina Hurricanes. He quickly drew a big following from fans with his playstyle that made him close to a point-per-game scorer. He missed some time in the playoffs with an MCL sprain that hampered his play a bit even when he returned. He was the second-highest goal scorer and point producer in a per-game rate behind only Aho.

Trocheck’s offense is one of the biggest reasons that the Canes were able to win the Central Division last season. He gives the Canes two legitimate scoring lines and his speed allows him to create high-speed dynamic plays with Martin Necas and really punish flat-footed defenders and teams that make a bad change. Unlike many other Canes players of old, he can actually finish once he creates space and high danger chances.

His offense hasn’t come with the sacrifice of defense as he ranked sixth in goals for (60.98%) and seventh in possession with a 54.38% Corsi. This is also surprising given the fact he had the lowest offensive zone start rate of just 42%. Brind’Amour had the faith in him to put him in for defensive zone face-offs and Trocheck proved him right.

Trocheck also completely changes the look of the power play. With him on the ice, the Canes become almost impossible to stop with playmakers and scorers all across the ice. It forces penalty-kill units to pick their poison on who to cover. He tied for the most power-play goals on the team last year with seven and the most power-play points with 18 despite playing fewer games than anyone else who was regularly on the powerplay.

Another offseason with the team and with the same line mates should allow Trocheck to continue to grow both on and off the ice. Taking into account this is also a contract season for him to earn the biggest contract he will get in his career, he will be doing everything that he can to impact each and every game. There would be no reason to be surprised if he was able to score at a point-per-game pace for the upcoming season if he is able to stay healthy for all 82 games.

Jordan Staal

Last Season Stats: 16 Goals, 22 Assists, 38 Points in 38 Games

Much like there must always be a Stark in Winterfell there must always be a Staal as captain in Carolina. The skipper has long been a fan favorite as a dark horse candidate for the Selke but has yet to break through nationally.

Last year would be considered a down year for Staal defensively. He struggled in many possession categories.

He was the 14th ranked forward in Corsi with a 52.6%. He was a shocking -1.5 relative Corsi, which does consider his low 43.2% offensive zone starts. Staal also ranked just 15th on the team with 51.19% goals for and 18th in expected goals for with 51.88%. He also ranked second to last on the team with 10.69 high danger chances against per 60 on the team. Where he has not missed a step is in the faceoff circle as he leads the team with a 57.99% win rate which also ranks the sixth highest in the entire league.

Staal is more than capable of bouncing back defensively and that style of game translates better over an aging curve than goal scoring. He will continue to be an impact player on the third line who can eat penalty kill minutes and take important defensive zone faceoffs for years to come.

While his defense wasn’t up to his usual standards he did excel offensively. His 15.5% shooting was his third-best in his career. That translated on the score sheet as his 16 goals were the most he has had since the 2017-2018 season when he had 19. He was able to also get 16 goals in 26 fewer games than he had in that 2017-2018 season. Last season was great to see the joy he had while scoring, and it will be great to see if he can keep it going.

Staal is still the heart and soul of the team and it looks much better when he is part of the lineup than when he is out of the lineup. The main concern is that he has only played one full season in the last five and it was the 2019-2020 season that was shortened due to COVID-19. Zooming further out he has only played three full seasons since he got to Carolina. The team has prepared better this season with offseason additions of centers that have a better chance to fill in a bigger role if he was out.

Derek Stepan

Last Season Stats: One Goal, Five Assists, 6 Points in 20 Games (Ottawa)

Stepan is an 11-season NHL veteran who has played over 100 playoff games in his career. Stepan has never been a huge goal scorer with only two 20-goal seasons in his career. He has been an effective playmaker with six 30-plus assist seasons, but his last was in the 2017-2018 season. This offseason he signed a one-year, $1.36-million contract with the Canes to be the fourth center.

Last season was his statistical worst but he also played less than half of the season due to a shoulder injury just 20 games into the 2021 campaign. However, Stepan was effective in possession, ranking second in Ottawa Senators centers and fifth among forwards with a 48.8% Corsi despite a 44.4% offensive zone start rate.

Stepan is due to bounce back this season as he had the lowest PDO on the team at 940 which includes his career-low 2.3% shooting percentage. His career average is 9.3% and even with an aging curve, two seasons ago he had a 6.3% and should be bouncing back.

He can also play on the penalty kill on the second unit. He played 1:11 short-handed time per game last season and has short-handed goals in six of the last seven seasons. He can fit in with the aggressive style that the Canes play with but could actually bring more finishing ability than Brock McGinn brought last year on the second unit.

Overall he is an extremely capable fourth-line center and can also play with the third line if there were any injuries to come into play next season. He offers a more robust option in these situations than a very green and young Geekie, but without the future upside.

The Insurance Policy/Future

The Canes have multiple players who are both play on the wing but are natural centers. While they may not play consistent time at center but can fill in if the team is in a pinch.

Jordan Martinook is a perfect example of this kind of player. He plays a majority of his time on the wing but played some time at center last season when Vincent Trocheck and Jordan Staal were injured. Martinook has never been an ideal fourth-line center, but with him, it’s a low-floor, low-ceiling at center without the chance to have a ton of impact on the fourth line.

The two other players who are natural centers but will be playing the wing are Martin Necas and Jesperi Kotkaniemi. These players are both in the Carolina Hurricanes’ center prospect protocol aka learning to play in the NHL by learning on the wing. This is the same process the Canes used with Sebastian Aho and that turned out to be a success.

The best-case scenario for the Canes is that neither will see significant time at the center position because that would mean that something happened to one of the top three guys. The biggest benefit of having this many centers is that the Canes will almost always have two guys on the ice that can take a faceoff at any time. They can be aggressive on faceoffs without worrying about the consequences of someone getting thrown out of the circle.

This will be a big season for the growth of both of these young players in the NHL. If either show promise or growth, it will give the Canes leverage against Trocheck after this season when his contract expires. Staal also only has two seasons left on his current contract so these two are set up to be the second and third-line centers for the future.