The Carolina Hurricanes have one of the most well-balanced lineups in the NHL. They don’t hide behind a dominant superstar, or a one-line offense. Even in net, backup James Reimer gets more action than your typical No. 2 goaltender. And being a well-balanced team often comes with players whose contributions are easily overlooked.
Lineup shuffling and healthy scratches haven’t played a big part in the Hurricanes’ season, which has largely been a fortuitously healthy one. Apart from the starting goalie, the only question most nights is who will be the sixth defenseman – Trevor van Riemsdyk or Haydn Fleury?
Justin Williams was officially re-signed by the Hurricanes on a one-year deal on Jan. 7, and while he has yet to suit up for a game, it’s only a matter of time before he returns to the lineup, which means one of the 12 regular forwards will have to sit.
The forwards haven’t had their jobs in jeopardy yet this season with the Hurricanes only carrying the minimum of 12, but with the new threat of Williams, they’ve all been motivated to stay in the lineup. Three players in particular have stepped up their games to the next level in the past two weeks.
3. Brock McGinn
When Brock McGinn is on his game, he’s impossible to miss. A freight train on skates, McGinn’s role on the fourth line is to crash in on the forecheck with his fearlessness and blazing speed. The five-year Hurricanes veteran has 50 hits and 17 blocks in 45 games this season, while averaging 13:02 time-on-ice (TOI) per game.
He’s not the guy you look to offensively – he has only scored four goals and six assists this season – but his abilities on the penalty kill and in late-game situations make him extremely valuable. McGinn leads all Hurricanes forwards with 2:13 shorthanded TOI per game, and his two shorthanded goals contribute to Carolina’s total of nine, which is tops in the league.
His strength on the penalty kill alone may be enough to sway head coach Rod Brind’Amour into keeping him in the lineup when Williams is ready to slot in. Brind’Amour likes to use his bench and roll four lines as often as possible, and having a responsible fourth-liner he trusts to play late-game situations is a big advantage.
McGinn has only registered five giveaways this season – lowest on the Hurricanes – and taken just four minor penalties, which is an area the ‘Canes have struggled in all year – they sit third in the league in minor penalties taken.
McGinn saw some time in the Hurricanes’ top-six earlier this season, playing alongside Jordan Staal and Andrei Svechnikov, but that line didn’t have much success. McGinn’s hands and playmaking ability aren’t at the same level of some of his more offensively inclined teammates, but his efforts on the fourth line make him criminally underappreciated. Every team needs role players, and McGinn takes care of the dirty work in a much-needed supportive aspect.
2. Lucas Wallmark
Lucas Wallmark may have the distinction of being the least-discussed Hurricane, but the 24-year-old Swede is quietly amassing a stellar campaign centering Carolina’s fourth line. He can even slot up the lineup when need be – he replaced the injured Erik Haula on the third line earlier this season and didn’t look out of place. He sees power play time on the second unit and has averaged 13:06 TOI per game.
Wallmark has tallied six goals and five assists in his last 12 games, playing in between McGinn and Jordan Martinook, and has 10 goals and 21 points in 45 games in total. Wallmark’s vision and playmaking ability gives the fourth line a lick of offense that complements the heavy bodies he centers, and those skills also make him a viable power play option.
Williams’ arrival gives the Hurricanes a second right-handed shot up front, and with his plethora of power-play experience, a reformed Williams could be a boost to the second unit. But Wallmark’s place isn’t necessarily at risk, as he’s the only true center in that group. That’s part of what makes Wallmark valuable – he’s an offensively capable pivot who can virtually play on any line, is good on face-offs (51.8 percent), and has the trust of his coach defensively as well – his 54.4 defensive-zone-start percentage is highest among Hurricanes forwards.
His wingers, Martinook and McGinn, are probably most likely to see the press box when Williams takes the ice, and that could provide an interesting fourth-line dynamic with Wallmark at the nucleus, where all four forward lines would pose a serious scoring threat.
1. Warren Foegele
Many Hurricanes fans doubted whether Warren Foegele was a fit in the Hurricanes’ top-six, especially sharing the ice with players like Svechnikov and Sebastian Aho, but Foegele has been putting in the work to prove he belongs.
He has worked hard on his shot release in practice, while practicing set plays in the offensive zone with linemates Staal and Svechnikov. The trio has developed fluid chemistry and may even be Carolina’s hottest line at the moment. Foegele may not be unappreciated per se, but his impact has exceeded most expectations that were set for him in October.
Like many other Hurricanes, Foegele turned up the heat when Williams rumors began swirling. He has six goals and four assists in his past 13 games, and 22 points on the season, roughly a 40-point pace for a player who doesn’t see any power-play time.
A third-round pick of the Hurricanes in 2014, Foegele broke out in last season’s playoffs as a rookie, scoring five goals and four assists in the first two rounds against the Washington Capitals and New York Islanders.
His development this past month has been a pleasant throwback to what we saw in those playoff series. Foegele has the ability to score clutch goals in crucial moments, and seems to thrive in high-pressure situations. He’s another one of Carolina’s shorthanded studs, as his three shorthanded goals tie him for first in the league alongside his teammate Aho.
As a right-winger in the Hurricanes’ top-six, he may have the most to lose if Williams challenges for ice time, but if he continues to play at this level, it’s going to be very difficult for Brind’Amour to justify moving him down.
Williams’ position in the lineup remains to be seen, as he’s getting a few practices under his belt before he’s ready to take on a full NHL game. With all the time he’s had off, it seems likely he’ll take a spot on the fourth line, but the recent play of McGinn, Wallmark and Foegele has earned them the right to keep their spots. It’s hard to argue messing with the chemistry the Hurricanes have developed, but from what we’ve seen the past month, competition will only motivate the Hurricanes to work harder and play to their maximum potential.