If you follow Raleigh News & Observer writer Chip Alexander on Twitter, then you have probably seen the Hurricanes forward line combinations during training camp and said to yourself "what in the world is this team doing?" The Hurricanes top-six was thought to be set in stone but injuries to Alexander Semin, Elias Lindholm and Tuomo Ruutu have put a wrench in the team's plans. Now, we are seeing players like Radek Dvorak & Nathan Gerbe in the top-six and line combinations that look completely random.
Preseason is often the time for experimentation and the Hurricanes aren't the only team that's thought outside the box, but I'm sure there are a lot of fans who are puzzled when trying to figure out what the Canes forward lines will look like come opening night. There's a chance that things will revert back to normal if Semin, Ruutu and/or Lindholm are ready to go by then, but Muller has been experimenting even when these players were in the lineup, so we are bound to see some interesting lines no matter what.
Forward depth was a problem for the Hurricanes last season and judging from the lines at training camp, it could still be a problem this year. There is always a chance that one of their younger players steps into a bigger role and makes the situation better, but the Hurricanes are going to be placing a lot of faith in unproven talent, especially on their bottom-two lines. Breaking players into a smaller role isn't the worst thing to do but if an injury to a top player occurs, it throws everything out of proportion by forcing them to do more than they are expected to. The Hurricanes have already endured three injuries and as a result, the lines look like a mess and the opening night lineup is subject to change at any minute.
The one thing the Canes do have going for them is that they are strong down the middle and they have a few guys who can play multiple positions, which will hopefully come in handy while they adjust to injuries and whatnot throughout the year. Muller already mentioned that he is open to using Elias Lindholm, a natural center, at right wing and we've seen him use Ruutu as both a left & right wing before in the past. The question is where will they fit in the lineup and how can that help the Hurricanes forward depth issues?
To illustrate this point, I'm borrowing an idea from Japers Rink where I ranked each player by position and presented them in the form of a Venn diagram and showed the forwards who can play multiple positions in the overlap category. Before we dive into things, I just want to clarify that I'm doing this to give a full look at the Canes options and am not trying to predict the team's opening night lineup or forward lines that they might use, because both of those are up in the air right now.
Centers is the Canes position of strength right now, as they have five guys who would be quality pivotmen on any NHL club. The Staal brothers are the only players who will likely stay there for the entire year, but the Canes still have plenty of options here. Skinner can obviously play wing and so can Lindholm, although Skinner will likely be on the wing for most of the year. After them you have Riley Nash, who showed the potential to be a solid third line center last season. If the Canes enter the year with him on the fourth line, then their center depth looks pretty good.
On the wings is where things get a little tricky. They have three top-six quality left wingers in Tlusty, Skinner & Ruutu but after them, it's mostly players who are either AHL-ers or bottom-six players at their peak. This doesn't look like a big problem because, as I just mentioned, the Canes have three very good left wingers but it becomes an issue when you compare them to the right side.
After Alexander Semin, the Hurricanes do not have much talent on their right wing and this is especially true if they use Ruutu as a left winger. Ruutu is a natural center but he has played on the wing for the majority of his career and is a left handed shot, so it's understandable why Muller wants to use him as a left winger. However, Ruutu has played on his off-wing before and when you look at the Hurricanes depth on the right wing, it makes a lot of sense to move him over.
If the Hurricanes do move Ruutu over to his off-wing, they still have a solid talent in Drayson Bowman to take over for him on the third line. This isn't the case on the right wing, where Radek Dvorak & Patrick Dwyer are next in the pecking order if Lindholm stays at center. Zac Dalpe finding his scoring touch in the NHL could change things a lot but since that has yet to happen, the Hurricanes right wing depth remains a major problem. It's why we've seen guys like Gerbe, Dvorak and even Chris Terry play top-six roles this preseason.
Semin and Ruutu returning to the lineup will obviously be a big help, but the concerns about their depth at right wing are still there and I wouldn't be against the Canes adding another player there, even if it is through waivers. Dvorak's shown enough in preseason to possibly earn a contract but more could be done to shore things up here, especially if Lindholm isn't ready to go by opening night.
So yes, the Hurricanes do have options and are strong in some areas, but there is a lot of room for improvement here. I would expect them to claim a right winger through waivers within the next week or so.