Anyone who has been following the Hurricanes this season knows that Kirk Muller's forward line combinations are prone to change on almost a daily basis. Injuries have caused him to try a lot of different things with his lineup and we've seen just about every combination possible in only 33 games. It reached a new high during the recent losing streak when Muller changed the lines a couple times per game and even tweaked the team's first line of Eric Staal, Jiri Tlusty and Alexander Semin, which has been the only unit to remain untouched for most of the season. The line juggling is likely going to continue over the next few games since the Hurricanes have a few players whose injury status is currently unknown, namely Tuomo Ruutu and Chad LaRose.
For most of the year, Muller has kept his first line the same with Tlusty, E. Staal and Semin being utilized in a power-vs.-power type of role while his second line has been primarily focused around Jordan Staal & Jeff Skinner handling the tough minutes. This strategy has changed a bit as of late, though as Muller has moved Skinner to the third line with Riley Nash & Jussi Jokinen for two of their last three road games. My suspicions is that this is to free Skinner up to to some easier matchups on the road since the opposing team won't be able to load up their best shutdown players against Carolina's top-two lines. He also seems to trust Nash enough to assume that he can keep up with Skinner and do enough to drive the bus on this line.
Muller has done some pretty interesting things this year in regards to how he runs his forward lines and the decision to move Skinner to the third line for road games is an especially curious one. On one hand, Skinner has been the team's best territorial forward this season and could do some significant damage against a weak matchup. However, Skinner has also managed to post great underlying numbers while playing tough minutes, so is there any need to protect him and place him with weaker linemates on top of that? This move could be only temporary, but it's still worth discussing since it's a pretty important time of the season right now.
Then there are the defense pairing, which have also been changed up a lot thanks to injuries but they've remained the same as of late. The team is in a bit of a bind right now with Justin Faulk and Bobby Sanguinetti out of the lineup and Muller has kept things relatively the same for the past week. Not having Faulk available obviously limits what Muller can do but it's a little interesting that he has been changing the forwards up constantly while leaving the defense the same after how bad some of them have played lately, especially Joni Pitkanen and Jamie McBain.
Things will probably improve there once Faulk or Sanguinetti returns but until then, Muller has to do what he can to make the most out of the hand that's been dealt to him and that includes finding suitable lines & defense pairings that can fit his system. For the most part, the Canes have been a good puck-possession team at even strength this year and they have enough healthy players to be one right now even though they've struggled in this department lately.
After the jump, we will look at some stats from Hockey Analysis' With or Without You tool to see which Hurricanes lines and defense pairings have been the best in terms of controlling possession this year and what Muller can possibly do now to dress the best lineup possible.
To make things more visually appealing, I'm going to borrow an idea from Oilers blogger Michael Parkatti and create a table showing the Hurrianes 5v5 zone start adjusted Corsi percentage when two players are on the ice together. This gives us an idea of which two players have been doing the best at controlling possession and tilting the ice in the Hurricanes favor whenever they are out there. It gives us some interesting results to say the least.
The chart is pretty straight forward. Those who have a Corsi percentage of over 51% while playing together are highlighted green, indicating that they have been very successful at driving the play and those with a corsi percentage of lower than 49% are highlighted red to show that they haven't been as successful. You may also notice that I left some cells blank and that's because these two players either have not played together or haven't spent enough time on the same line/defense pairing.
Figuring out the forward lines going by this is a little tough because Hockey Analysis doesn't tell you how three players perform when they are on the ice together, but it does give us some insight into certain forward pairings that have worked well. Going by that, we can us the cumulative average of three players performance to see which lines Muller could use to get the most out of his lineup.
Skinner – E Staal – Semin: 61% Zone Start Adjusted Corsi
These three have spent a total of 29-40 minutes together but when they are on the ice at the same time, the Hurricanes have been been able to produce a massive amount of offense. I don't see Skinner being bumped up to the first line for awhile since Muller seems to like Tlusty on the LW spot there, but there could be some serious untapped potential here. The one negative about this line is that it makes the rest of the lineup unbalanced and Muller seems to want to have a trigger-man on Jordan Staal's line, a role which Skinner has done well in. Still, I don't think it will be long before Skinner gets promoted to the first line and this unit could prove to be even more explosive than the Hurricanes current first line.
Tlusty – J. Staal – Jokinen: 64.33% Zone Start Adjusted Corsi
Something that might slip the minds of some fans is that Tlusty started the year on Jordan Staal's line and these two along with Patrick Dwyer had themselves a couple of very strong games in terms of controlling puck possession and producing scoring chances. Most people aren't going to want to see Jokinen in the top-six, but he has actually been playing a lot better than his boxcar stats indicate. At the very least, he has been driving the play forward and can still provide some secondary scoring, which is what this line is counted on to do. Jokinen has played his best hockey this season when has been on a line with Jordan Staal, so that could give Muller some motivation to use him there.
Dwyer – J. Staal – Tlusty: 57% Zone Start Adjusted Corsi
Dwyer is far from your ideal top-six forward, but I think he has risen to the occassion when he's gotten the chance to flank J. Staal's wing. The one thing that Dwyer has been able to do almost better than anyone else on the team is be able to drive the play forward in tough circumstances and that's probably why he has been able to compliment Staal so well. He did this while playing on Brandon Sutter's line last year, too and never got enough credit for it.
Dalpe – J. Staal – Skinner: 55.3% Zone Start Adjusted Corsi
Basically almost any line featuring Jordan Staal is going to be awesome at controlling puck-possession and this trio was very good early in the season before Zac Dalpe was sent to Charlotte. It's just too bad he had to get hurt because there's a good chance he would have made his mark in the NHL right now if he stayed there.
Bowman – Nash – LaRose: 53% Zone Start Adjusted Corsi
Nash hasn't exactly been great at driving the play forward this season compared to the Hurricanes other centers. Granted, he's only a rookie and taking a fair share of defensive zone starts, but his ability to carry a line has been kind of lacking this season. That being said, there he has centered some very good lines this year, one of which being with Dwyer & Jokinen, but his trio with Drayson Bowman and Chad LaRose also did a solid job at driving the play. This is actually kind of surprising since Bowman hasn't been particularly good in this facet of the game this season, but he's had some moderate success with Nash while the latter has been very good with LaRose.
Westgarth – Brent – Hall: 54.67% Zone Start Adjusted Corsi
This has been the fourth line the Canes hav ebeen sending out as of late and they've been a small bright spot for the team believe it or not. Westgarth and Hall aren't play-drivers by any means but they've been able to get the job done with Brent centering them.
Personally, I think the Hurricanes will continue to leave their first line alone since they've been very good all season but the next three lines could be jumbled throughout the rest of the year. I've mentioned that Dwyer and Jokinen have played fairly well on Jordan Staal's line but they haven't been able to stay there and I don't think that will change since Ruutu has returned to the lineup.* Ruutu is likely th x-factor here since he has played only 30 minutes and where he fits in the lineup is unknown at this point. I'm sure Muller will try to see how he works with Jordan Staal, but some might remember that he spent a lot of time with Eric Staal last season and made a good line with him and Tlusty. Maybe Ruutu with Sasha and the Captain could be even better? We'll see.
*Hopefully. He had to leave the game in Winnpeg after only four shifts
I'm going to go with a different approach with the defense pairings since their performance is easier to define than the line combinations. Instead of showing only the best possible defense pairings, I'm going list how each of them have performed and talk about what some possible defense pairings the Hurricanes can use with their current roster.
|Pairing||ZS Adj. Corsi%|
|Corvo – Pitkanen||72%|
|Corvo – Mcbain||69%|
|Pitkanen – Sanguinetti||63%|
|Faulk – Pitkanen||62%|
|Gleason – Sanguinetti||58%|
|Harrison – Corvo||56%|
|Faulk – Corvo||55%|
|McBain – Sanguinetti||55%|
|Bellemore – Harrison||54%|
|Harrison – Sanguinetti||54%|
|Corvo – Gleason||53%|
|Faulk – Gleason||51%|
|Gleason – Mcbain||50%|
|Harrison – McBain||50%|
|Faulk – Harrison||48%|
|McBain – Pitkanen||47%|
|Gleason – Harrison||44%|
|Corvo – Sanguinetti||43%|
The numbers here are a little deceiving because each pairing has been assigned to a different role. Some are getting tough minutes (see every pairing featuring Justin Faulk or Tim Gleason) and others are getting the easier assignments while playing at home (Sanguinetti & Bellemore). A few of them also have their numbers inflated due to not playing that much together (Faulk/Pitkanen & Corvo/Pitkanen being the most obvious). Pretty much every defense pairing featuring Justin Faulk has been successful at keeping the puck out of their own end. The only one not able to do that has been Faulk & Harrison, which was the Canes tough-minute duo before Faulk injured his knee two weeks ago. Since he won't be returning for at least another few games, let's use the table above to figure what defense pairings Muller can use until then.
The biggest challenge for the Hurricanes in Faulk's absence is designating a shutdown defense pairing who will play against the opposing team's top forward. Recently, they've been using Joe Corvo & Tim Gleason along with Joni Pitkanen & Jamie McBain for those situations and it's produced some mixed results. Gleason/Corvo have done a solid job of keeping play out of the Hurricanes' zone but McBain/Pitkanen have been brutal and have gotten torched in the last few games. They need to either be split up or used in more sheltered situations and the former is probably the more feasible option right now since two defensemen are unavailable. The only problem with splitting them up is that it means one of them will have to play a tough-minutes role with either Jay Harrison or rookie Brett Bellemore and I'm not sure if either are up to that challenge. Although, Pitkanen's success with Faulk and Corvo is somewhat encouraging and he has yet to be used with Harrison. Harrison playing a tough-minute role is also a bit of an issue because the only times where he has succeeded is when he has been on a sheltered third-pairing with Corvo or Bellemore. It would also involve putting two left-handed shots on the same pairing and Muller usually doesn't like to do that.
With that being said, Pitkanen has had success with just about everyone aside from Jamie McBain, so I don't see the harm in trying him with Jay Harrison in a second-pair role until Faulk or Sanguinetti returns. Personally, I think Pitkanen has struggled quite a bit since returning from injury, so doing this might be risky but the Canes don't really have much of an option right now unless they make a trade. As for McBain, he has played well in a third pairing role many times this year, so he could be fine alongside Bellemore in a sheltered role. I know many were hoping that McBain would be more at this point of his career, but he hasn't exactly proven himself to be a reliable top-four option and the third-pair suits him best for now.
The Canes certainly have a lot of options with what they can do with their forwards right now and while that helps, the defense has a shortage of players capable of taking on tough minutes. It's even more of an issue now with Faulk out of the lineup and I said a couple weeks ago that other players were going to have to step up in his absence since the team leans on him to do so much. The defense has been brutal the last few games and a lot of it relates to how many minutes Pitkanen & McBain are getting while facing other team's top lines. When you compare their numbers with some of the other possibilities, you would have to think that the Canes would be better off exploring other possibilities to cover up for the loss of Faulk. Some might say they need to make a trade, but an easier option might be just to switch up the pairings for one game and see how they work because it's clear that they aren't getting the most out of this roster with what they are doing right now.