The Jordan Staal trade might be yesterday's news by now, but there is still a lot to talk about concerning the aftermath of the deal. I mentioned this in my initial post on the trade, but adding Jordan Staal and subtracting Brandon Sutter not only strengthens the forward corps, it also changes the complete makeup of the team. The Hurricanes now have two centers who they can use in a power vs. power type role, but they lost their key matchup guy in Sutter and are going to need to find a new third line center. While there are a few players like Sutter available in free agency (Paul Gaustad, Jay McClement, etc.) who the Canes can sign, having Jordan Staal on the team allows Kirk Muller to do a lot of different things with his forwards than he could last season.
For the last two or three years, the third line has always been Carolina's matchup line and Sutter's defensive strengths were a large reason for that. Now that Sutter is gone, does this mean the Canes need to find another player like him so they can continue to use their forwards that way? Not necessarily. Jordan Staal has played the same role as Sutter in the Pens system, albeit not as extreme, so the Hurricanes can play somewhat of a different system next year. Both Eric and Jordan both being capable of handling tough minutes means that they don't have to completely bury their third line like they did last season and possibly use them in more offensive situations instead of making them strictly a checking unit. This is assuming that they want to take the power vs. power approach with their top-six, which is very possible.
Relieving the third line of some defensive responsibility could definitely help the Hurricanes in terms of scoring depth but it also opens up the door for some younger prospects like Jeremy Welsh and Zac Dalpe. One of the reasons Dalpe struggled to fit in the lineup was that he couldn't score enough to be in a top-six role and he isn't good enough defensively to play on Sutter's line. Using the third line in a more protected role could give him more of a permanent position on the team. Same goes for Jeremy Welsh, who could be able to take over Sutter's spot but a lot about him is unknown at this point.
After the jump, we will discuss more possibilities for the third line and how Carolina might roll their forwards with both Staals in the mix next season.
How the third line is utilized is going to depend on how Muller uses the top-six. There has been some talk of Eric Staal being moved to the wing on the first line with Jordan centering it, which would let Jussi Jokinen stay as the second line center in more sheltered situations and the third line would assume their usual role. That would create a need for a shutdown type center and give Carolina some motivation for acquiring a Jay McClement or a Dominic Moore type player to take most of the defensive zone draws and play most of the tough matchups. The other thing you have to keep in mind is that the Hurricanes have a couple players in their bottom-six who are suited for defensive roles (Patrick Dwyer & Andreas Nodl) and protecting them would be misusing their talents.
When you think of it that way, it makes placing both Staals on the same line sound like a good idea but Nodl & Dwyer don't necessarily have to play on the third line to be effective. Carolina's fourth line last year was seeing the most protection of any unit and it was because they were using some awful players there. If the fourth line became more of a defensive unit, that would allow Muller to give them more minutes and for the Hurricanes to have possibly four solid units who they can trust. Plus, having Jordan Staal means that they don't have to take all of the the tough matchups like Sutter did last season and they can rely on them for most of the defensive zone draws instead. They might need to acquire a better center than Tim Brent to make this work but he did play this role with the Maple Leafs a couple years ago, so he might be able to do the same with Carolina.
One problem with the Hurricanes is that they are already stocked with a lot of third line-type talent. Jeremy Welsh, Drayson Bowman, Zach Boychuk and Zac Dalpe could all probably be effective as third liners in the NHL but the Hurricanes have too many players like that already on the roster. Assuming that Jim Rutherford acquires a first line center as planned this off-season, that would leave at least six players competing for maybe three spots and a there's not going to be enough room for everyone.
On the other hand, you could see this as a great opportunity for the likes of Dalpe, Welsh, Boychuk, etc. Dalpe and Welsh are natural centers so they could slide into a third line role with relative ease if they prove themselves worthy enough in training camp. Rutherford is going to have to make a tough decision here, though because the Hurricanes won't know what they have in Welsh or Dalpe this year until training camp and most of the better free agents are going to be off the market by then. Dalpe was good enough to make the team out of camp for two consecutive years, so he could have the edge but Welsh deserves to get a chance, as well. Going by his college numbers, he projects to be a good fit for a the third line and could definitely earn a spot out of camp. In addition to that, what will happen to Drayson Bowman? He certainly played well enough with the Canes last year to earn a spot and should definitely be in the mix, but it's tough to find a place on the roster for him if a couple free agents are brought in.
If there is one thing that is certain, it is that training camp will be very competitive this fall and I think that is a very good thing. The Hurricanes are a team that needs to improve dramatically from last season to get back to the playoffs and it all starts with the roster improving from what it was last season. Rutherford knows that the talent level in the top-six needs to improve and it will be his call if players like Dalpe or Welsh are ready to step into those roles and if they aren't, another player will be brought in and he will compete for a third line spot with the five or six other players who are looking to do the same thing.
This isn't necessarily a bad thing, though. Forward depth was a problem for Carolina last year and a big reason for that was because they were using third liners in their top-six. If more quality players are added to the top two lines over the next couple of months, then it will have a positive effect on the rest of the lineup. Having good defensive guys like Nodl & Dwyer on the fourth line is much better than filling it with replacement level talents like Joslin & Stewart.
Rutherford has already taken one step to improve that next season by acquiring Jordan Staal and here's to hoping that he will continue to do the same for the rest of the summer. We're going to see a very different Hurricanes team next year and it will probably be for the best.