At the moment, head coach Bill Peters is held in high regard among Carolina Hurricanes fans. After years of Paul Maurice and Kirk Muller, it’s been a refreshing sight to see the team play with a clear-cut identity and to have a coach willing to hold the players accountable for poor play. Even when he makes a move that seems questionable at first, he does an excellent job of explaining his thought process and, for the most part, those moves become a bit more reasonable with that thought process in mind.
However, if there’s one consistent criticism of the head coach, it would be his inability to stick with the same lineup for more than a couple games. It’s understandable, of course. A rookie head coach leading a team with the record the Hurricanes have this year, it’s no wonder he’d want to try as many combinations as possible to see what works and what doesn’t. If the season is lost anyway, there’s no better time to experiment and see if one can’t strike gold.
What Works and What Doesn’t
There’s one line that Peters has struck gold with, and it’s a line that he has rarely changed all year. The 4th line consisting of Jay McClement, Brad Malone, and Patrick Dwyer has been one of Carolina’s most consistent lines throughout the year. They’re an effective line that’s solid defensively and strong on the forecheck. Occasionally, Andrej Nestrasil will be slotted in to bring a fresh face to the line. The play of that line is largely what led to Ron Francis re-signing McClement near the trade deadline, rather than shipping him off like many of Carolinas’ UFAs.
Another pairing that has been undeniable in its effectiveness is the combination of Eric and Jordan Staal. Unsurprisingly, the two brothers have shown a noticeable chemistry with each other, with Jordan centering the line and Eric on the wing. The downside of this pairing is that it weakens the Hurricanes’ center depth, but the possession numbers that the two brothers create when paired together often offsets this depth issue. The 2nd winger on this line has been a rotating door of Jiri Tlusty, Alexander Semin, Jeff Skinner, Elias Lindholm and Andrej Nestrasil, none of which have seemed to clicked with the Staal brothers.
In a recent game against the Toronto Maple Leafs, Peters practiced with a line containing Skinner, Semin, and center Riley Nash.
“We’ll have a good line there,” Peters said. “I’m really excited about the Skinner-Nash-Semin line. I think that should be a real good unit.”
The line was solid in theory, but Nash has only produced 5 points since the end of the December, and though he served as Carolina’s first line center early in the season (due to the injuries to both Jordan and Eric Staal), he is best served as a defensive 3rd line player. Pairing him with Skinner and Semin simply makes all the players in that line worse.
One Bad Apple to Spoil the Bunch
The Hurricanes have had some surprising success lately. Last week, they won three games in a row, against the Philadelphia Flyers, the Washington Capitals, and the New York Islanders. Perhaps most impressive was how Carolina dominated each game from the opening puck drop. None of those three games were in much doubt. The Hurricanes never trailed against the Flyers and the Capitals, and though the Islanders held a 1-goal lead in the first period of Saturday’s game, the Canes scored four goals in the 2nd period to essentially put the game away.
The exact opposite happened on Monday. The Hurricanes were never a match for the Chicago Blackhawks, who cruised to an easy 5-2 victory over Carolina. Matching top line against top line, Jonathan Toews made fools of the Staal brothers, scoring twice and assisting on a third. A loss against a top-tier team in Carolina’s third game in four nights should have been somewhat expected, but the team’s performance against the Blackhawks still came with consequences.
Today, the Hurricanes iced this lineup at practice:
EStaal working with Nestrasil and Gerbe; JStaal with Semin, Terry; Rask with Nash and Skinner; Lindholm with Malone, Dwyer.
— Chip Alexander (@ice_chip) March 4, 2015
There are a few noticeable changes in this lineup. The most obvious is the absence of Jay McClement. However, showing the versatility that earned him his contract extension, it was reported that McClement was playing defense at today’s practice in the absence of newly-acquired Jack Hillen, who was settling his affairs in Washington. McClement will likely fill in Lindholm’s place in the lineup, who in turn will likely be placed in Terry’s spot with Jordan and Semin.
The decision to break up the Staal brothers again is somewhat explainable by their performance against Chicago, but to value one game over their performance since January is a bit of headscratcher. Likewise, Nathan Gerbe on the top line should remind many Hurricanes fans of previous coaches inexplicably slotting Chad LaRose next to Eric Staal. Both Gerbe and LaRose are excellent third line energy players, but putting them on the top line is having them play above their heads.
Bill Peters on today’s practice lines: “Toying around.” Wasn’t sure some guys would practice, Hillen out, etc.
— Michael Smith (@MSmithCanes) March 4, 2015
Missing the Obvious
It’s hard to argue against an experienced coach, especially one like Peters, who mentored under the highly-regarded Mike Babcock, but it feels like he’s missing an obvious solution to the lineup. There are groups of players that have shown undeniable chemistry with each other and should be slotted with each other to build that chemistry until playing with the others on their line becomes second nature.
The first thing to be done is to re-unite the Staal brothers. The Chicago game aside, those two have routinely driven possession in just about every game they’ve played together since Jordan’s return from injury. Their recent performance against Toronto showed just what they can do if both players are on top of their game. The third player on that wing should be someone who compliments the strengths of the Staal brothers, and among the Hurricanes lineup, that’s Andrej Nestrasil. With both brothers being 6’4″, 200+ pounds and Nestrasil clocking in at 6’3″, 200 pounds, that will be a difficult top line to play against.
The second line will simply be an addition of two pairs that worked well together. Jeff Skinner has been the recipient of some unreal passes by both Elias Lindholm and Alexander Semin in recent games. Yet the three players have not played much together this year. Given the way Peters liked the look of Skinner and Semin with Nash, the same principle should work with Lindholm, but with a greater chance of success.
The third line would be Gerbe-Rask-Nash. Both Nash and Rask have shown a defensive responsibility beyond their years, and Gerbe can provide enough of a forecheck to keep opponents off-kilter. The knock against this line would be that the three players would likely be easy to play against, but who knows what could happen if they’re given a chance to play together for an extended amount of time?
The fourth line will remain Peters’ golden line. If it’s not broke, don’t fix, and the 4th line of Malone, McClement, and Dwyer isn’t broke.
With the season quickly approaching an end, the Hurricanes have 20 games in 37 days ahead. Whatever lineup Peters decides to stick with, he won’t have many more opportunities to test it out.
Jonathan Gardner currently lives in Raleigh, NC and covers the Carolina Hurricanes.