Carolina’s tough-minute forwards 2007-12

Change is something that a lot of sports fans are always uncomfortable with at first because no one really knows what will happen after the said change occurs. This is why the reactions to the Jordan Staal trade involving Brandon Sutter & Brian Dumoulin were very mixed among Carolina fans when it happened. Obviously getting J. Staal is a huge boost to Carolina’s forward corps, but many Hurricanes fans were not sure of what kind of player he would be and whether or not he fit the team’s system. He could end up being a perfect fit, develop chemistry with his linemates and be as good as advertised or he could not work out at all. He has still yet to play one game with the Hurricanes so we don’t know how good he will be.

With Brandon Sutter, on the other hand, most Carolina fans knew what we had in him, which was a solid checking line center with decent two-way upside. He was a perfect fit for the team’s third line and most fans were comfortable with him centering that unit. Now that he is in Pittsburgh, no one is really sure of who will center the third line now and take over Sutter’s role. Not many are sure where J. Staal fits on the team now either and thus, there are a lot of unanswered questions with the Hurricanes this year. While some may be excited about the new-look Hurricanes, there just as many who are skeptical because there is a lot that is up in the air right now. 

The immediate future may look a bit dubious right now in terms of what the team’s forward corps will look like, but one thing to remember about this trade is that Jordan Staal is a better overall player than Sutter. We may not know where Staal is going to play, but he makes this team’s top-six stronger than it was over the last couple of years and that should immediately have fans excited. The Hurricanes can always find another checking center but they won’t find another player like Jordan Staal for awhile, which is why the trade was made. There are still questions regarding who will take over the third line center role and even more uncertainty concerning who will take over Sutter’s defensive responsibility but still, replacing him shouldn’t be too hard if you look in the past and see who the Hurricanes used in these roles during prior seasons.

Sutter had only been with the team for four seasons and he spent three of them as the team’s “shutdown center,” so the team has been able to get by without him before. Looking into the past often provides answers for the future, so what we’re going to do after the jump is look at Carolina’s tough-minute forwards over the last five seasons, see how effective they were and discuss whether or not they can use a similar strategy this year.

The table below shows each Carolina player over the last five years who ranked in the top-five in terms of quality of competition faced. It displays their zone start percentage, corsi on rating, the number of shots they were on-ice for at even strength per 60 minutes and their zone start adjusted corsi. This shows how effective they were defensively and at driving the play. I have the table sorted by zone start adjusted corsi to show how good they were at driving the play while taking their situation into context.

Player Year QoC Rk OZ% Corsi ON Corsi Fwd Rk SA/60 ZS Adj.
Ray Whitney 2007-08 4 52.7 15.17 1 25.84 14.68
Eric Staal 2008-09 1 52 14.75 1 29.27 14.39
Rod Brind’Amour 2007-08 5 43.5 6.57 5 27 7.74
Ray Whitney 2008-09 3 53 7.96 3 26.62 7.42
Tuomo Ruutu 2008-09 2 53.4 7.84 4 30.2 7.23
Tuomo Ruutu 2009-10 4 46.9 6.18 1 28.23 6.74
Eric Staal 2007-08 2 53.4 7.3 4 29.77 6.69
Erik Cole 2007-08 3 53.3 6.35 6 29.04 5.76
Eric Staal 2010-11 2 49.8 5.52 1 34.42 5.56
Chad LaRose 2011-12 5 45 0.33 2 32.36 1.23
Erik Cole 2008-09 4 52 1.48 7 30.66 1.12
Eric Staal 2011-12 4 50.1 0.19 3 33.25 0.17
Matt Cullen 2008-09 5 52 0.41 10 27.23 0.05
Sergei Samsonov 2007-08 1 47.3 -3.25 9 31.2 -2.76
Chad LaRose 2009-10 3 47.7 -3.26 6 31.12 -2.85
Ray Whitney 2009-10 5 52.1 -3.28 7 31.07 -3.66
Erik Cole 2010-11 1 50 -3.72 7 35.47 -3.72
Andreas Nodl 2011-12 3 44.1 -5.7 6 29.45 -4.64
Brandon Sutter 2011-12 2 34.8 -8.9 9 31.23 -6.16
Patrick Dwyer 2011-12 1 37.4 -8.53 8 31 -6.26
Brandon Sutter 2010-11 3 44.5 -7.78 10 31.34 -6.79
Jiri Tlusty 2011-12 6 47.8 -8.51 7 32.92 -8.11
Brandon Sutter 2009-10 1 44.9 -10.12 10 32.88 -9.20
Erik Cole 2009-10 2 50.8 -11.26 11 32.52 -11.40

One thing that should stick out to you with this chart is that before Brandon Sutter, the Hurricanes didn’t use a “shutdown center” and employed a “power vs. power” approach instead. The closest thing they had to a shutdown center before Sutter was Rod Brind’Amour in 2007-08 and he didn’t even receive the toughest assignments in terms of who he was matched up against. This is because they were counting on Eric Staal’s line to carry the mail at even strength while playing the tough minutes on top of that. This approach actually worked out quite well for the Hurricanes during those years, as Staal’s lines with Cole, Whitney, Ruutu, Samsonov, etc. were all able to win the territorial battle at even strength and there was no need for a shutdown center or a defensive third line.

The Hurricanes coaching staff began to use Sutter in a more defined role in the 2009-10 season, sending him out predominately in the defensive zone against other team’s first lines. This gave them the luxury to start sheltering their more offensively talented players such as Staal, Whitney and Jussi Jokinen. It wasn’t something that the Hurricanes needed to do at the time because Staal was capable enough to play those minutes but it was a luxury that Paul Maurice decided to take advantage of and it resulted in a few players having terrific offensive seasons.

In the years after that, Staal’s linemates became weaker at driving the play forward (particularly Erik Cole) and Sutter’s role was much more needed than it was previously. Staal would still play tough minutes, but Maurice made sure to get Sutter out against the opposing team’s top lines whenever he had the chance. This continued into the 2011-12 season when the Hurricanes depth on the wings was much weaker than it was before and both coaching staffs went to extreme lengths to give Sutter and Patrick Dwyer the majority of the defensive workload. The team’s mid-season waiver claim, Andreas Nodl, also saw himself thrown into this role shortly after he was added to the roster. Again, Staal’s line still played “tough minutes” but they were secondary compared to what the Nodl-Sutter-Dwyer line was facing. These two lines eating up most of the tough minutes also allowed the coaches to protect whichever line Jeff Skinner was on.

With Brandon Sutter gone and a rookie likely centering the third line next year, it isn’t out of the question to see the Canes return to a more power vs. power based approach like they did in 2009. Jordan Staal’s work in previous seasons with the Penguins shows that he can take on this kind of role and while Eric Staal isn’t as good as he was three years ago, he is still good enough to drive the play forward while playing secondary tough minutes. The only problem with this strategy is whether or not they have the wingers to use this kind of approach. It may not be as big of an issue if the Staal brothers are good enough to carry their respective lines, but Eric’s play with Tlusty/LaRose/Ruutu/Bowman/etc. last year is proof that he needs some help from the flanks if his line is going to be a solid unit when it comes to driving the play. The power vs. power approach may also leave Dwyer and Nodl in the lurch but that’s another issue for another day.

One thing that most would agree on when looking at the table above and the Hurricanes records in those years is that the team was better when they did not have a designated shutdown line and relied on the top-six to do most of the heavy-lifting. It may not be the approach that some fans are used to be it is worth a shot for next year because the Hurricanes have the centers that can make this system work.

Stats courtesy of Behind The Net & Driving Play