Hurricanes’ Center Depth Can Overcome Offseason Departures

The NHL’s most elite teams all have one thing in common: center depth. Centers are often talented but are also defensively responsible. There are one-dimensional centers, like Mark Scheifele, who tend to focus on offense more than defense, but others, like Phillip Danault, make up for that. Some teams are fortunate enough to have a balance of the two in their top two centers, or even have two strong two-way centers slotted into their top six.

After forwards Max Domi and Vincent Trochek were not re-signed, are the Carolina Hurricanes deep enough down the middle to overcome their offseason departures? Trochek was a true second-line center, and worked very well in the Hurricanes organization. Though it is a tough loss, moving on from Trochek and not handing out the contract he earned in New York was the right call. As for Domi, his contract with the Chicago Blackhawks could have been matched by the Hurricanes, but they believe they have the pieces internally to fill those two voids.

The Hurricanes have a few options down the middle. I expect at least six or seven players to play center throughout the season, whether that be a position swap, an injury, a scratch, or a callup. But how do the ‘Canes centers stack up to the rest of the league?

Rod Brind’Amour doesn’t typically stick to the standard first through fourth line. This Hurricanes lineup has four capable lines that can all play certain minutes depending on their level of play each night. That being said, here’s a look at the centers and where they are expected to slot in on opening night.

First-Line Center: Sebastian Aho

Sebastian Aho is an elite center. There is no question about that. He isn’t quite in that same league as Auston Matthews, Nathan MacKinnon, Leon Draisaitl, or Connor McDavid, but he is comparable to many in the top 10. Aho is typically ranked among centers in the same area as Sidney Crosby and Aleksander Barkov. That is really high praise for the 25-year-old.

After registering 37 goals and 81 points in 2021-22, Aho has given everyone a reason to remember the name. Many consider him a speedy, skilled, well-rounded center, which he definitely is, but they don’t give him the credit he deserves for eclipsing 37 goals twice in his young NHL career, not to mention his 38 goals in 68 games before the COVID-19 pause shut down the league.

Aho also has great chemistry with his linemates, Seth Jarvis and Andrei Svechnikov. He scores goals, sets up plays, and has a good enough two-way game that the Hurricanes don’t have to compensate by acquiring a shut-down center to play behind him.

Second-Line Center: Jesperi Kotkaniemi

Jesperi Kotkaniemi, who was acquired from the Montreal Canadiens by signing an offer sheet, may be the answer to fill in for Trochek. The Hurricanes have committed just over $38.5 million to him over eight seasons with a cap hit of $4.82 million per year, following his one-year, $6.1 million deal. Is Kotkaniemi worth that money? This season will tell.

Jesperi Kotkaniemi Carolina Hurricanes
Jesperi Kotkaniemi, Carolina Hurricanes (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

After joining the Hurricanes, Kotkaniemi was slotted into the bottom six, where he played quite well. He was only given two games as the team’s second-line center but maintained his performance. This season, after the departure of Trochek, the former third-overall pick will be called upon to take on the bigger role.

Related: Hurricanes’ Kotkaniemi Facing Massive Expectations in 2022-23

Even in the bottom six, and mostly on the fourth line, Kotkaniemi still registered 29 points in 66 games last season. I have high hopes for him on the second line, and he has shown some very good play at both ends of the ice and could be a great complementary piece behind Aho, lining up with Teuvo Teräväinen and Martin Necas, who are both poised for a big season.

Third-Line Center: Jordan Staal

Jordan Staal, who has been a leader on the Hurricanes for what feels like forever, is still a worthy third-line center. At 34 years old, his production is likely to slow down, but if his past few seasons are any indication, he is still a dominant two-way center who is good for 40 to 50 points, especially on a line with Jesper Fast and Paul Stastny, if they click.

Staal and Stastny are an experienced duo and should do well together. Staal has the versatility to keep up with any line he is placed on. He can be a defense-first, shut-down center like Danault, or he has shown he can still produce offensively, being a consistent 50-point scorer throughout his career.

Fourth-Line Center: A Few Options

In this last section, we’ll look at options outside of the top three mentioned above.

Jack Drury is projected to fill this slot, but things can always change. Coming off a 52-point campaign in the American Hockey League (AHL) with the Chicago Wolves, and two NHL games with the Hurricanes, Drury, who is only 22 years old, has a lot to prove. The offensive talents may not be on full display on the fourth line, but as I mentioned, he may get chances higher in the lineup, which will be dictated by his on-ice impact.

Jack Drury Carolina Hurricanes
Jack Drury, Carolina Hurricanes (Photo by Mark LoMoglio/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Derek Stepan returns to the Hurricanes on a professional try-out and is looking to make the team once again. He was good enough last season, suiting up for 58 games, but I think the Hurricanes are going to look elsewhere for this spot. He would be a great asset in case of injuries, or if he agrees to a two-way contract and can spend some time with some developing teammates in the AHL.

Paul Stastny is an extremely versatile player. If Aho is injured for a couple of games and Brind’Amour doesn’t want to shake up lines too much, Stastny can fill in here. He is most likely to play on the left wing throughout the year, but may get some opportunities as a center. He wants a Stanley Cup and will give 110% in any role he is asked to play.

With the losses mentioned above, with Trochek and Domi signing elsewhere, there will certainly be some interesting combinations throughout the year. With the Hurricanes chasing their second Stanley Cup, it is not an ideal time to have any uncertainties in these important roles. With this group of centers, I don’t believe there is any reason for concern regarding the depth down the middle. Regardless of what the pre-game lineup says, it all comes down to deployment, and we have seen before that Brind’Amour doesn’t have any problem rotating his lines. Any group of four centers are good enough to compete each night.


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