Carolina Hurricanes Team Report: Solving the Depth Chart Conundrum

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Carolina Hurricanes Team Report: Solving the Depth Chart Conundrum
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The 2011-2012 season has been nothing if not a rollercoaster ride for the Carolina Hurricanes.

Nearing the three-week mile marker, the 'Canes stand at 3-3-3—considering that equates to just three victories in nine games, it's certainly below the expectation they had set before the season began.

However, it's not as if this squad took the dull and boring road of losses intermixed with a few surprising wins to get here. In fact, a back-to-back-to-back of streaks, with two stretches of three losses in a row sandwiching a three-game winning run, have actually defined the new campaign in Raleigh.

Carolina has had their low moments, and their highs; their shocking victories, and their underwhelming defeats. They've rallied in the final minutes more than once, but yet gone winless in overtime; they've uncharacteristically jumped out to quite a few early leads, but also uncharacteristically surrendered them almost every time.

To date, the hopefully more memorable games of the season, from a Hurricanes perspective, were the three matches against Northeast Division foes Boston and Buffalo, two legitimate Stanley Cup contenders this year. With a thrilling 4-3 upset of the Sabres in their home opener added to 3-2 and 4-1 victories over the Bruins, the 'Canes have played fantastically as clear-cut underdogs.

On the other hand, many of the six losses were more-than-winnable contests. Four of their six losses have come in games where Carolina scored first, and two of those four saw the Hurricanes' jump out to 2-0 leads before collapsing. Furthermore, our of the six defeats have also come against opponents that missed the playoffs last spring: New Jersey, St. Louis, Winnipeg (then Atlanta) and, most recently, Ottawa.

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Not helping the matter are the desperate struggles the boys from Raleigh have had in extra hockey, as the Hurricanes have played to a 60-minute tie only to lose in the overtime or shootout a whopping three times.

Amazingly, they drew a 4-on-3 power play in two of those overtimes before giving up a goal once play returned to even strength, and in the third occasion (Tuesday against Ottawa) dominated the entire period (outshooting the Senators 6-1) but failed to find the back of the net.

So what's the problem that the Hurricanes are finding so hard to overcome?

The line combinations.

Indeed, the 'Canes line trios on offense have been harder to follow than a game of high-speed chess this month. Newcomers Alexei Ponikarovsky and Anthony Stewart have found it hard to mesh with the rest of the unit, while first-time NHLer Zac Dalpe fights an everyday battle to earn playing time against Paul Maurice's anti-prospect philosophy.

Team captain Eric Staal has had more than his fair share of issues, as well. The 26-year-old franchise cornerstone has yet to score an even-strength goal (he does have three on the power play, though), and his nauseating minus-nine rating is among the worst in the NHL. As a result, he's been moved around the depth chart many, many times this autumn—it seems as if almost every forward on the team has seen some time alongside him already.

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For even more insight, Left Wing Lock's line combo database says that the trio that has been seen the most time on the ice together has actually been the Patrick Dwyer-Brandon Sutter-Jiri Tlusty tandem...for those who aren't aware, that's really the Hurricanes' third line, and still only 16.4 percent of the team's season has been spent with those three forwards all out there together.

LWL puts Ponikarovsky-Staal-Tuomo Ruutu as the second-most at 14.5 percent, but Staal two more times on line combo's that rank at 5 percent or above: he, Chad LaRose and Jeff Skinner have spent 7.2 percent of the season on the ice, and Staal, Ruutu and Skinner have spent 5.7 percent of the season on the ice.

In reality, only that ever-reliable third line has been a consistent grouping night in and night out. Due to the short-term injuries that Dalpe and Stewart have had, even fourth-line center Tim Brent has played with a variety of teammates already; as for the top six, we've already glanced into that insanity, and it simply makes your head hurt to ponder for too long.

Time for the next step now: how can the Hurricanes fix it?

Well, here's a half-baked solution, for starters.

 

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Solving the Line Conundrum

To start things off, it's time for a radical idea. Since the 'Canes are struggling so much with finding two suitable lines out of their top six, how about changing things up so those six players aren't the top six anymore?

Moving the Dwyer-Sutter-Tlusty trio that's been so fantastic up to this point—a combined plus-nine rating despite facing opposing first lines most of the time—up to the designated "second line" could solve some dilemmas. The instability issue among the top of the depth chart would be steadied a bit, and poor play from the more well-paid stars would also result in a harsher penalty (demotion to the third line) that would be sure to get their attention.

Even with this promotion, that trio can sustain their role as the checking line, nonetheless, so as not to damage the defense that's already allowing the fifth-most shots against per game.

And here's another crazy but possibly necessary move; put Staal on the third line against Chicago, and give him a reason to get motivated even if he's not best friends with his linemates.

That would allow for the combination of Skinner, Ruutu and unheralded keystone Jussi Jokinen to get a shot at being together on the top line. Both Skinner and Ruutu can play as centers, giving the group more versatility on faceoffs, and the three forwards have showed promise together in the past.

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Additionally, they've been arguably the best three forwards on the team up to this point.

Skinner is, as could've easily been anticipated, the club scoring leader with four goals, six assists and an impressive 13.3 shooting percentage. Jokinen is tied for second with six points—including two scores—and a plus-two rating. Ruutu, meanwhile, has been the hottest Hurricane over the past week, scoring at a point-per-game pace with three strikes and one helper over his last four appearances.

That would designate energetic Chad LaRose and experienced Alexei Ponikarovsky as Staal's comrades far down the depth chart. LaRose has been Maurice's favorite pet this month, but his inconsistency is painful at times. Ponikarovsky, too, has been unpredictable, but he's quietly effective (two goals and a plus-one rating on the year) on most occasions and seems to have found a hint of chemistry with Staal.

On the fourth line, Brent remains a satisfactory-at-worst role player, while the Ferris Wheel of AHL call-ups (currently, Brent Sutter and Zach Boychuk are the youngsters of the week) revolves around him.


Half-Baked Hurricanes Depth Chart: Forwards

Which player do you like best to see alongside Staal?

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Jokinen...Skinner...Ruutu

Dwyer...Sutter...Tlusty

Ponikarovsky...Staal...LaRose

{Fill in blank}...Brent...Stewart

As a side note, the defensive pairings have actually been quite a bit more solid than we expected.

Although it definitely didn't take long for offensively-obsessed stars Joni Pitkanen and Tomas Kaberle to be separated (as we predicted would happen before the year began), they both have found decent partners in Jamie McBain and Jay Harrison, respectively.

Tim Gleason and Bryan Allen thankfully have continued their dominance, a good thing considering they're the only true defensive pairing the squad has. They've combined for a plus-10 rating, 32 hits and 39 blocked shots already.

We are a bit confused that young Derek Joslin, who was surprisingly good in limited action last spring, has been a healthy scratch for all nine games so far. We can understand him not making the usual lineup, but these early-season back-to-backs are perfect times to get him on the ice occasionally, and the team hasn't made use of these opportunities yet.

 

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Some Stat Analysis

Ah, yes...it's time for a handful of paragraphs of full-out bashing, instead of the nicely implied criticisms we voiced earlier.

Firstly, the Hurricanes' are a utter abomination in the faceoff circle. As usual. And it has to stop (note to Brandon Sutter [54.9 percent this season]: please ignore the following).

Eric Staal is 93-for-122 (43.2 percent) this season. Jussi Jokinen is 40-for-46 (46.5 percent). Tim Brent is 13-for-23 (41.1 percent). And Tuomo Ruutu is a horrid 7-for-17 (29.2 percent).

It's costing the 'Canes an uncountable number of offensive chances, and, in the long run, plenty of points in the standings, also. The team remains second-to-last in the league, as they were last season, in draws at 46.5 percent (only Anaheim is worse). With Rod Brind'Amour as the faceoffs coach, the coaching staff needs to make sure that faceoffs become a crucial focus of practice for as many weeks as it takes to get the problem fixed!

Carolina's giveaway vs. takeaway ratio is also disturbing: minus-23. The squad has 62 giveaways, a middle-of-the-road total, but are nearing the cellar in terms of steals with a mere 39 (ranking 27th in that regard).

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What's worse, Staal is one of those who's contributing to this particular difficulty, given that he's made five turnovers but has yet to record a single takeaway. Harrison and Pitkanen are both culprits to this, as well, coming in with nine giveaways vs. two takeaways and five giveaways vs. one takeaway, respectively.

Also worth noting is the fact that the Hurricanes have been even or better in all periods this year except the second, where they've been outscored 12-7. This was particularly noticeable the last two matches, when the Jets and Sens outscored them by a combined 5-0 margin—that's a serious issue.

 

Final Thoughts

As far as the schedule goes, the Hurricanes have returned home after their annual State Fair road trip (this year, only four games), but the schedule remains difficult at best.

They'll close out October with a Friday-Saturday back-to-back this weekend, hosting Chicago on Friday before travelling to Philadelphia on Saturday. November begins with a tough three-game homestand, as Tampa Bay (Tuesday, Nov. 1), Washington (Friday, Nov. 4) and Dallas (Sunday, Nov. 6) visit the RBC Center.

The Hurricanes will need to stay sharp if they want to climb back closer to .500 with that upcoming stretch staring them down.

A major shakeup of the depth chart, and an effective one at that, is simply going to be critical for the success of that effort.

 

Mark Jones is currently Bleacher Report's featured columnist and community leader for the NHL's Carolina Hurricanes. In his 37 months so far with the site, he has written over 315 articles and received more than 365,000 total reads.

Visit his profile to read more, or follow him on Twitter.

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