Projecting lineups at this part of the year is tough because training camp hasn't even happened yet and coaches usually like to play around with line combinations during pre-season before they settle on four units that they like. Defense pairings are often the same way, since it takes time to develop chemistry and the Hurricanes will probably do some experimenting this year. You have to start somewhere, though and with training camp just around the corner, I figured I would give my two cents on what lines & defense pairings I would like to see the Canes try this year.
These are not final by any means, especially since no one has suited up for a game yet, but there's nothing wrong with throwing some ideas out there to give us something to build off of before training camp. with the exception of the first line of Jiri Tlusty, Eric Staal & Alexander Semin, the Hurricanes lineup is subject to a lot of changes, so it wouldn't surprised me to see a lot of different things thrown around over the next few months. There's also the potential of a few more moves, but if the Canes were to enter the season with the roster the way it is now, what line combinations & defense pairing would work best.
That's hard to say right now, but after the jump, we'll look at what kind of lineup I would roll with to start the year. Again, this isn't anything final, just suggestions of what I believe could work well for the team.
Jiri Tlusty – Eric Staal – Alexander Semin
This is likely the only line that is staying untouched to start the year. They were just too good last season and I don't see the coaching staff messing with them at all unless they have a major slump. Plus, and Tlusty have been attached at the hip for the last two years and Semin was an excellent fit on this line last season. They will continue to be Carolina's main scoring line next season and get a healthy amount of draws in the offensive zone to help them out. The Canes have the personnel on the second & possibly the third line to protect them and I can't see Muller deviating from last year's plan too much.
Jeff Skinner – Jordan Staal – Tuomo Ruutu
Here's where the bellyaching starts. "Jordan and Skinner didn't show any chemistry last year." "Skinner doesn't fit on this line." "I thought Muller said Ruutu will be a left winger this year." The latter might get in the way of these three playing on the same line, but I still think that this is a unit the Hurricanes should consider trying out. They spent some time together last year but honestly, it wasn't nearly enough for them to develop any "chemistry" and they could be a pretty fantastic second line once they get a few games to gel together. This is where having a full training camp with a pre-season will help out. As for Skinner and Jordan having "no chemistry," the stats say otherwise. When these two played together, Carolina owned 52.4% of the shot attempts at even strength showing that they were able to keep the play in the offensive zone and create chances whenever they were on the ice. They just weren't resulting in that many goals, but that should change with time if they continue to do what they're doing last year.
Plus, I think Skinner can form some chemistry with Staal & Ruutu because of how often he shoots the puck & carries the play in the neutral zone. He is very good at creating space for himself and driving the play forward and when you combine that with Ruutu & Staal tying to defenders & going to the net, they should be able to create more goals, whether it is from these two screening goalies or banging away at rebounds shouldn't matter because they all count. Ruutu has also shown the ability to play tough minutes from his days of playing alongside Eric Staal a few years ago and Skinner did the same along side Jordan last year, so I'm not overly concerned about that.
Drayson Bowman – Elias Lindholm – Zac Dalpe
Personally, I would like to see Mason Raymond or Damien Brunner signed for one of the wing spots on this line because I'm not 100% sold on Dalpe or Bowman, but if we're going with what the team has now, this is a line I'd like the Canes to experiment with. Having three scoring lines will be important and you have three players who can provide secondary scoring here. It also features three excellent skaters who can tilt the ice in the Hurricanes favor and possibly play some tougher minutes to take some heat off the first two lines. Being able to control territorial play is one thing Bowman did well last year and Dalpe has shown flashes of being a great puck-possession, guy too. If they want to stick in the NHL, next year is as good of a chance as ever for both of them.
Lindholm, might be the x-factor here because it's jot a certainty that he will be ready for the NHL as an 18 year old. He has loads of talent though and the Canes seems to think he will be ready for the bigs next ears, so breaking him in on the third line could work out. Some might want a bigger third line, but there is nothing wrong with using skilled players in this role too. Ottawa did well with this approach last season and so have teams like the Blues & Red Wings in recent seasons. It wouldn't be a bad idea for the Canes to try this out next year just to see how it works. With that being said, adding a proven talent like Raymond would make me more comfortable with the third line.
Jeremy Welsh – Riley Nash – Patrick Dwyer
I really, really hate the idea that the fourth line needs to be reserved for "grit" and "toughness" when the objective should be to build the best roster possible. You aren't doing that by using a spot on someone who can only be trusted to play a few shifts a game and not contribute on special teams. There is nothing wrong with adding toughness, but it should not come at he expense of better players. The Hurricanes have plenty of relatively skilled forwards who they can be effective in a fourth line role without wasting a spot on an enforcer or a "tough" player who is useless when the puck is on his stick.
Back on topic, this is a fourth line that could give the Hurricanes 8-10 quality minutes per game.they can all skate well, are responsible defensively and could add some secondary scoring along with it. At least more than they had from their fourth line last season, which will be hard not to accomplish. It pains me to knock Dwyer out of the top-nine, especially in favor of an unproven player, but I think he can thrive in a fourth line role if this unit is utilized in defensive situations. That seems to be what he is best suited for no matter what line he is on. Nash is also a very good defensively and this line could possibly eat up a lot of draws in their own zone to protect the first and third lines if needed. Welsh kind of fits in as a spare part because he can play left wing and has a fairly good chance of being on the roster for monetary reasons. Either way, this is a fourth line that should not be liability at even strength and can be counted on to play meaningful minutes.
Some might argue that Nash & Dwyer "should" be on the third line, but using top-nine players on the fourth line isn't necessarily a bad thing when concerning your teams depth. Of course, Dwyer & Nash staying on the fourth line will probably depend on how Dalpe, Bowman & Lindholm play on what I am dubbing "The Kid Line," but I think this could be an effective bottom unit for the Canes.
Justin Faulk – Joni Pitkanen
I've been toying around with the idea of a Faulk/Pitkanen pairing for quite awhile now and the team has only tried it a couple times. These two haven't played together long enough to make conclusions but when they were previously paired together, they gave the Hurricanes some great results at even strength in terms of territorial play. I'm all for them getting a longer look next season. You run the risk of putting two of the best puck-movers on the team on the same pairing and trusting Pitkanen in a tough-minute role (something no Carolina coach has done), but I think the team needs to think outside of the box with their defense pairings.
We know that Faulk can handle tough-minutes, as he did that with a couple different partners last year and Tim Gleason seems to have lost a step, so it might be wise to ease him out of a tough-minute role. Gleason's been the heavy-lifter on Carolina's blue-line for years now and Faulk is slowly beginning to take that role away from him. It wouldn't surprise me if Faulk completely takes over for him by the All-Star Break and the first pairing becomes him and Pitkanen. Why Pitkanen, though?
I've talked about how valuable Joni is as a puck-mover but he has struggled a bit in recent seasons due to Carolina's coaching staff constantly pairing him with another high-risk player (see: Jamie McBain). Using him with someone who is more sound defensively, like Faulk, could help Pitkanen's game at both ends of the ice and allow him to play in tougher situations. We know that he can log big minutes, but he is rarely out against other team's first lines. That could change next season.
Tim Gleason – Andrej Sekera
This could be the year that Gleason steps away from his his role as Atlas of Carolina's defense corps and passes the torch over to Faulk. With that, Gleason could get bumped down to a second pairing role, still playing around 20 minutes a night mind you, with one of Carolina's other defensemen. He was technically a second-pairing defenseman the last two years, but his minutes were often among Carolina's leaders because of how often he played on the PK. I wouldn't expect either to change this season, but he could see his role at even strength shift a little bit, unless the coaching staff still trusts him.
Sekera could make a solid defense partner for Gleason, though because he is a versatile player who can handle the puck well and play the shutdown role if needed, too. On this pairing, he will probably be the guy leading most of the breakouts and doing most of the puck-handling while Gleason provides more of a physical presence. This is what Joe Corvo did when these two were paired together and while I think Sekera is a downgrade offensively, he is a little smarter with the puck and should be able to get it out without much trouble.
One issue with this pairing, however, is that you have two left-handed shots on the same duo and Muller usually doesn't do that unless an injury occurs. Sekera is capable of playing both sides, so I don't think this will be a huge problem, but it could impact how effective his breakouts are and it will certainly affect how good they are at driving the play at even strength. With these two playing secondary minutes, I would like to see them beat that competition, but I see Muller using both of them in big situations, so it will be interesting to see what happens here.
Jay Harrison – Mike Komisarek/Brett Bellemore
Harrison will start this year where he was at the beginning of each of the last few seasons, on the third pairing but I'm willing to bet that he will not end up there. Whenever a shake-up is needed or an injury occurs, Harrison is always the first guy to slide into a bigger role to cover up for a loss. He is best suited as a third-pairing guy, though and I hope that he spends at least half of the season there because the Hurricanes will be in decent shape if that's the case. Harrison is a very good defender, but he is prone to turnovers and doesn't have the food-speed to keep up with more skilled forwards. On the third pairing, it's hard to find a better player but as a top-four defenseman, he has his issues.
Playing next to him will be either Mike Komisarek or Brett Bellemore. Komisarek will probably start opening night with Bellemore or Ryan Murphy being the extra defenseman. I have Bellemore on here instead of Murphy because the latter isn't waiver eligible and can go to the minors without the Canes running the risk of losing him. The same can't be said for Bellemore, though and the coaches seem to like him, so I think he will be on the team come opening night even if he ends up in the press box. Komisarek has not played well as an NHL-er in years, so I think he could lose some playing time to Bellemore if he struggles and Murphy could also insert himself into the picture if the team needs offense from the back-end.
Either way, this pairing will probably receive sheltered minutes no matter who is playing on it.