Between their minimal scoring contributions, lack of size, poor defensive play and general inconsistencies, the bottom-six was a major troubling point for the Hurricanes this season. It wasn't supposed to be a problem going into the year because on paper, the Canes had plenty of depth forwards to make up their bottom-six and had plenty of guys who they could supposedly count on. Even with Tuomo Ruutu missing the start of the year, they had a good combination of young players and veterans who could provide secondary scoring, or at least it seemed that way on paper. When put into action, it backfired tremendously.
If you remember right, the Hurricanes started the season with Zach Boychuk and Zac Dalpe in the top-six while guys like Drayson Bowman, Patrick Dwyer & Chad LaRose were slated to be in the bottom-six for most of the year. Both players were off the team before the end of the month and numerous bottom-six forwards would end up taking turns on the second line and not many of them proved to be much of a long-term solution. Outside of the first line and 2/3 of the second line, the Hurricanes forward corps spent a good part of the year being jumbled around and they seemed to roll with a different lineup every night. The third and fourth lines were made up of players who did not fit anywhere else in the lineup and neither unit had much of an identity, which was the underlying problem.
The Hurricanes third line was going to see some changes with Brandon Sutter being traded to Pittsburgh and Jordan Staal assuming the "shut-down" role on the second line. This left the door open for the Hurricanes to use their third line in a new way, possibly in a more offensive role than year's past. They ended up going with this plan but their execution of it was far from ideal and a lot of it was because their line combinations were somewhat random. They started the year off with Jussi Jokinen as the third line center, which isn't a bad idea on paper but placing him with grinders like Patrick Dwyer, Drayson Bowman & Chad LaRose did not seem to help him out much. Jokinen was eventually replaced with Riley Nash on the third line but the two wing spots rotated seemingly every game. Any time the Hurricanes third line appeared to develop chemistry, it was either blown to bits by injuries or more line juggling.
Above all, I don't think anyone really knew what role Carolina's third line was supposed to play this past year. When Jokinen was centering it, they were supposed to provide secondary scoring. Once Nash took over, they were more of a checking line and more lauded for their defensive than anything else. It just seemed like the coaching staff stuck any forward who couldn't stick it in the top-six on the third line while all of the leftovers took turns on the fourth line and were used sparingly. In other words, the Hurricanes forward depth ended up being a mess and their bottom two lines did not have much of an identity.
Heading into next year, the Canes find themselves in a similar situation where their top-six is set but their third and fourth lines are in for some changes. Carolina will need to have more of a thorough plan when constructing their bottom-six and they can possibly take some cues from playoff teams on how to do it.
A popular coaching strategy is to have the top-six consist of skilled forwards while the bottom-six is mostly counted on for defense, toughness and grit. Lots of these teams rely on a "checking line" to play most of the tough, defensive minutes which frees up their top lines to easier draws and matchups on home ice. The Hurricanes deployed this strategy for years when Brandon Sutter was on the team and it worked out quite well from 2010 to 2012. However, replacing Sutter with Jordan Staal changes the landscape quite a bit. Jordan is one of the better tough-minute centers in the NHL and Eric has years of experience playing against the opposition's best defensive players, so the Hurricanes don't really need a checking line to "protect" their more skilled forwards.
So what role does that leave for the third and fourth lines then? They won't have to play against tough matchups & be restricted to defensive minutes, but that doesn't mean they can't play that role. This is where the Hurricanes coaching staff and front office has to make a decision. They don't have a lot of bottom-sixers under NHL contracts next season, so the Canes have plenty of options, but things can easily go wrong if they follow the same method as last year and just constantly plug random forwards into third and fourth lines spots. Carolina isn't the only team in the league with a strong top-six, so it wouldn't hurt them to look around the league and see what teams with similar forward structures are doing. There are some cues they can take from teams like Detroit, Chicago and St. Louis when it comes to constructing their bottom-six.
Each of these teams have at least two very good centers and are comfortable with sending out their top-six against the opposing team's best players without much of an issue. This allows them the flexibility to do whatever they want with their bottom-six since matchups are less of a concern. Take the Red Wings for example. Detroit used their third line to house some of their younger forwards for a good part of the year and while their results were not great in the regular season, it has paid off enormously in the playoffs. The Wings third line of Damien Brunner, Gustav Nyquist and Joakim Andersson have been very successful this post season and the latter two were very good territorial players during the regular season. Carolina might be able to employ a similar strategy by using Zac Dalpe, Riley Nash and whoever they take in the first round on an offensively-oriented third line next season. The Canes are looking to draft someone who will provide an immediate impact and building a sheltered third line around young talent is a good way to do that.
The St. Louis Blues did a similar thing during the regular season by using some of their younger players in a sheltered third line role while the likes of David Backes & Patrik Berglund handled the tougher assignments. Their results were very encouraging, especially with rookie Vladimir Tarasenko.
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Schwartz, Tarasenko and Sobotka all did an excellent job of winning the battle at even strength while playing a third line role and they scored at respectable rates on top of that. Tarasenko was a little more protected than the rest of the team, but he is a lot younger and if the Canes could use their first round pick in a similar way if he is on the team next year. The Blues fourth line is also one of the better ones in the league. Ryan Reaves, Adam Cracknell & Chris Porter are all very useful even strength players who also provide a great physical presence. They do just about everything you could ask from a fourth line and provide secondary scoring on top of that, which is a combination that Carolina hasn't seen in awhile on their fourth line.
The Chicago Blackhawks bottom-six is built in a similar way where their fourth line is counted on for more of a physical or defensive presence depending on who is playing and their third line has more of a secondary scoring role. Players like Viktor Stalberg and Bryan Bickell have thrived in said role, both scoring at very high rates at even strength and posing favorable matchups for the Hawks against other team's bottom defense pairings. Good drafting and trading has helped Chicago be in this position, though. Seeing how they have Marcus Kruger and Michael Frolik on their fourth line on a lot of nights and a lot of teams can only dream of having that kind of depth.
The Hurricanes are not as deep as Chicago, but I think they can build a respectable bottom-six using the same models as the teams mentioned above. The key thing to take away from the fourth lines of St. Louis, Chicago & Detroit is that each one of them had a defined role, something we could not say about the Hurricanes bottom-two lines last season. They have an entire off-season to (hopefully) fix this and when you look at their potential forward corps, the Canes have plenty of options but it's a similar situation to what they were in last year where they have a few spots up for grabs and not much of a defined role for any of the bottom-two lines.
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With potentially eight (nine counting their first rounder) players competing for five spots, there is going to be a lot to sort through for the Hurricanes this coming fall and I would expect a free agent or trade acquisition to be added to the mix, as well. Again, there are a lot of things the Hurricanes can do with their bottom-six next season but they can't just send out random lines every night and hope that something sticks. That did not work this year and it will likely fail again. The door is open for the Hurricanes to experiment a bit, so hopefully this off-season combined with a full training camp will help them shape their bottom-six better than they did last year.