Training Camp Questions: The First Line

The biggest concern going into this pre-season is wondering who will play on the first line with Eric Staal now that all of his wingers from last season (Cole, Samsonov, Stillman) have left the building. Ideally, you want your team’s first line to strike fear into the opponent’s defense and force them to be on their toes whenever they are on the ice. Carolina is pretty thin at wing so it’s going to be hard to create a line like that with the current roster. For the most part, Staal’s been able to create offense with his linemates so that’s something positive…until you look at some of the names on that chart and realize that most of his potential linemates this year are downgrades from a lot of those players. Regardless, let’s go through some of the potential first lines for Carolina and see how much success they could have.

The way I see it, we can put the following players on Staal’s line to start the year; Tuomo Ruutu, Jussi Jokinen, Jeff Skinner, Anthony Stewart, Zach Boychuk and Alexei Ponikarovsky. Three of which might be on another line together. Here’s how the lines could work with these players.

Jokinen – Staal – Skinner

This is a line that a lot of people want to see because we have our best play-maker and two of our best scorers on the same line. This makes our first line significantly more dangerous than nearly any other possible combination. If you refer to the Hockey Analysis chart I linked earlier, you’ll also see that Staal has played well with both Skinner and Jokinen in close games the last few seasons. He has not played that much with Skinner 5-on-5 so take his numbers with a grain of salt.

Winger TOI CF CA CF/20 CF%
Jussi Jokinen 315:20 348 339 22.501 .507
Jeff Skinner 93:21 123 115 24.638 .517

Jokinen generally plays well in a goal-scorers role so I can understand why a lot of people want to see this combination. The biggest issue I have with putting these three on a line together is that it would hurt us dramatically in terms of scoring depth. If this line goes through a dry spell then the only guys behind them are Ponikarovsky, Stewart, Ruutu and possibly Boychuk or Dalpe in the top-six, which isn’t good. Having scoring depth goes a long way with winning teams so I think we should hold off on putting thee three together for now. At least until one of the players behind him beings to score more.

Ruutu – Staal – Skinner

Ruutu w/Staal 5v5 close Corsi 2008-11

708:52 811 639 18.029 .559

Ruutu has thrived from playing with Staal and could possibly be more dangerous than Jokinen on the first line. However, then we run into the issue of possibly not having enough scoring depth if Ruutu and Skinner were to be placed on this line. It becomes slightly worse when you consider that Ruutu moved to center last season and if he moves to LW on the first line, we are then left with another void to fill on the second line. If Zac Dalpe were to make the team then this doesn’t become that big of an issue as I would like him to receive top-six minutes. However, Ruutu appears to get the most advantage when he plays with Staal compared to others, so that really makes me think he should get a look on the first line again if the team decides to move him back to the wing. Skinner has also played well with Ruutu for the most part so that makes this line a very attractive option. Once again, the issue is how much this will hurt the team’s scoring depth.

Ponikarovsky – Staal – Stewart

On paper, this line looks extremely underwhelming and that’s because it kind of is, but I do not think it is that terrible. Well, for a first line it kind of is but you could do a lot worse. Ponikarovsky has been a solid possession player at even strength for the past few years and the main reason he had such a low goal total last season was because he played in a defensive role with awful linemates.

Ponikarovsky’s corsi and quality of teammates data from Behind The Net Hockey:

Season Corsi Rel. Corsi ON QUALTEAM
2007-08 13.8 14.82 .237
2008-09 12.4 10.04 .015
2009-10 13.1 18.99 .003
2010-11 1.9 3.78 -.226

He was also a first-liner on the Leafs so it’s possible he may return to that form when he’s put on a line with Staal. Then you have Anthony Stewart, who played top-six minutes in Atlanta and scored 14 goals (most of them coming in the first two months of the season). I’m not too thrilled with the idea of Stewart on the top line because he wasn’t that good territorially or defensively and was really dependant on his linemates for success. I actually went back and watched all 14 of his goals last season and nearly all of them came on perfect set ups from his linemates, tip-ins or him scoring from near the crease. In other words, Stewart could work on the first line but moreso as a passenger than someone who is driving the play and I’m okay with that but I have to think there are some better options out there if we only need someone to finish plays off. Also, check out his success away from his linemates last season, those are pretty ugly numbers. Then agian, playing on the first line may be the only way that Stewart is successful going by these numbers and that’s just scary to think about. 

Boychuk – Staal – Stewart/Skinner/Ponikarovsky

I’ve said enough about the last three so I’m grouping them together and Boychuk’s the main one we’re focusing on here. He hasn’t been terribly impressive in camp yet but there’s still time for that to change. As of now, the potential is still there and he’s played well with Staal during his previous NHL stints so I would think that he gets another shot this season.

Boychuk – Staal – Dalpe

Being a little too optimistic here, right? Dalpe has played on the wing before and scored his first NHL goal from that position so it’s possible that this could happen. It at will at least give Dalpe a place in the top-six if we decide to keep Ruutu at center on the second line and these two can learn a lot from playing on Staal’s line. Then there’s a few issues. First off, do you think it’s possible that the team puts Dalpe at RW on the first line before Skinner? He may be more solid defensively but I just can’t see that happening. Next, we will have three natural centers playing on the same line and having three play-makers on the ice together usually doesn’t end up well. Boychuk has developed more as a scorer in the last couple years, though. While this line might be a nice idea, there is very little chance that it will happen.

What would you like to see Carolina’s first line look like?