Ever since the Hurricanes made the huge trade on draft day to acquire Jordan Staal, a question that has been running through my mind is how will the Hurricanes plan to use him. Having so many centers available in your top-six can be both a blessing and a curse because it's good to have a lot of versatile players but at your disposal but at the same time, it makes it tough for the coaching staff to figure out the right lines. Adding Jordan Staal gives the Hurricanes five guys in the top-six who are natural centers and three of them have spent a good part of their careers playing the wing so if anyone is going to be moving over full-time, it's likely going to be one of Skinner, Jokinen or Ruutu.
How those three are used will depend on what Kirk Muller does with Jordan Staal and there are a lot of ways he can be realized, really. Some say that he might be centering the first line with Eric playing the wing and if that happens, the Ruutu-Skinner-Jokinen line from last year remains intact. The only problem with this plan is that Eric has little experience playing on the wing outside of the Olympics and I feel that using him there is playing away from his strengths. The more likely approach is likely going to be having the Staal Brothers center the first and second lines with the wings being filled in by the rest of the top-six.
An issue that arises out of this strategy is that Carolina's depth on the wings is about as shallow as a rain puddle, so they may need to overslot a player or two here. Right now it is tough to figure out who those players will be since a few roster spots are still up in the air and there is still time for the Hurricanes to acquire another player to fill this void. Let's say that the Hurricanes enter next season with the current roster, though. Who flanks the first and second lines?
To help find an answer here, we are going to revisit the "Player Usage Charts" developed by Rob Vollman, only with some minor tweaks added. Instead of using Corsi Rel., which takes the difference of the players on and off ice Corsi ratings, I'm going to use zone start adjusted corsi for the bubble size. This corrects a player's corsi rate to factor in where he started most of his shifts. Check out this post from Driving Play to see the formula and the methods used. In addition to that, I made another chart using a player's ESP/60 rate for the bubble size to show how often a player was scoring at even strength. This will give us an idea of players who were used in similar situations to Jordan Staal and who can thrive in similar minutes (or play them without getting slaughtered).
We will look at both charts and discuss Jordan Staal's usage after the jump.
Potential 12-13 Player Usage Chart
For a refresher, here is how to read the chart: the x-axis is the player's offensive zone start percentage, the y-axis is a player's quality of competition and the bubble size is a player's zone adjusted corsi rating. A blue bubble is a positive corsi and a white bubble is a negative corsi. This shows how a player was used and how effective they were at driving possession in their playing situations. The one thing that should stick out to you is how superior Jordan Staal was in this field than the rest of the Hurricanes forwards. What's even more impressive about this is that he wasn't playing easy minutes at all. He was the third line center in Pittsburgh and essentially played the shutdown role there and did a pretty amazing job considering the circumstances.
Should he continue to do the same in Carolina? Yes and no. Protecting a player like Jordan Staal would be misusing him big time the Canes need to give him more offensive opportunities than he did in Pittsburgh. Kirk Muller might go the Todd McLellan route with this and use him in a power-vs.-power role where Staal would play against the toughs and still receive top-six minutes like Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau have done for years. This is where playing the Staal brothers on the same line looks like a good idea. You can see that Eric Staal was also used in somewhat of a power-vs.-power role last season and had solid results in those minutes while Ruutu, Skinner and Jokinen were all sheltered. Skinner was the only one of those three who was able to carry the water.
My problem with having Eric and Jordan on the same line is that everyone seems to assume that Eric can make the transition to wing full-time without any issue. We don't know that and it isn't as easy as it sounds. One of Eric Staal's best assets is his play-making skills and that deteriorates a bit if you place him on the wing. They are also going to be in need of someone to play on the other wing if no one else is signed and one of those players could end up being Tlusty or LaRose, which puts Carolina back to where they were last season.
So, let's say that the Canes decide to separate the Staal brothers to keep both at center. Who should flank Jordan's line? We know that Ruutu has played tough minutes in the past, but has slowly drifted away from being used in that kind of role the last couple of years. I'm not sure how much of that relates to playing with Skinner but it wouldn't surprise me. Ruutu may need the protection because he was a tad weak at driving possession last season. If anyone gets an upgrade next season, it could be Skinner because he was the most successful at his role and it might be time for him to see some tougher minutes. It's worth a shot at least.
Looking at the forwards scoring rates per 60 minutes also shows some interesting possibilities for future line combinations.
Jordan Staal scored at a higher rate at even strength than any other forward on the team last season. How about that? The two players with the closest rates were his brother and Jeff Skinner who scored roughly two points for every 60 minutes they played at even strength. That may further motivation to have these three play on a line together but again, that comes with a few questions. Can Eric play wing without any problems and can Skinner play in a tough-minute role? Both of those are an uncertainty. I'm also curious to see how Andreas Nodl and Patrick Dwyer are used if the tough minutes are spread among the top-six. Those two did all of the heavy-lifting last season on Brandon Sutter's line but the Canes don't have a "shutdown center" at the moment, so that could affect how those two are used.
One thing that most will agree on when looking at these charts is that the Canes would be better off next season with another top-six winger, preferably someone who has proven himself capable of playing against the toughs. If one of the younger players can step into that role next year then that would be swell but we don't know if they can at this moment and it wouldn't hurt them to have someone to fall back on. It will go a long way to helping the team get the most out of Jordan Staal.