Most of the Hurricanes injured players have returned but one player who has been on the shelf longer than intended is center Tim Brent. He was part of the notorious first-wave of injuries that occurred a few weeks ago, as he has been struggling with a nagging groin problem for quite awhile now. He is set to make his return to the lineup tonight and Brent might give the Hurricanes a bigger jolt than some think. I know this sounds kind of ridiculous at first glance because Brent is a fourth liner who usually doesn't play more than 10 minutes per game, has only two points, isn't a top-faceoff guy and isn't that good of a penalty killer either. How can someone who appears to be pretty replaceable help Carolina's lineup so much?
It's true that Brent is a fourth liner and his role is very replaceable but since he went down, the guys who Carolina has called in to take over the fourth line center spot haven't been very good. In fact, the team's fourth line has been a liability more times than not with Brent out of the lineup. That isn't a huge problem because they are being matched up against other team's depth forwards, but it does hurt the team's overall depth and puts a lot of pressure on the rest of the lineup, especially when the fourth line is given only 4-8 shifts like they were Thursday night. With Riley Nash assuming the role of third line center for now, the fourth line has had to resort to other Charlotte call-ups like Brett Sutter and Jeremy Welsh or make do with players like Tim Wallace centering this line. All three haven't worked out due to them playing poorly or Muller only giving them 2-5 minutes of ice-time.
Brent only plays 6-8 minutes a game at even strength no matter what, so his impact is limited but whenever he is on the ice, the Hurricanes have been able to move the puck in the right direction. Granted, this is with him playing against other team's fourth lines but you can never have too many players capable of driving the play. Brent has been able to do that this year and that's even with him taking a lot of extra shifts in the defensive zone. He has been able to make the Canes fourth line an effective unit this year, as the ability of both Tim Wallace & Kevin Westgarth to carry the mail at even strength improved whenever he is on a line with them. Again, he is doing this against weak competition but as a fourth liner he isn't expected to do much more and there's nothing wrong with that.
Brent's play at even strength has improved dramatically this year, but he is actually missed a lot more on the powerplay. Most Hurricanes fans remember that Brent quarterbacked Carolina's powerplay for a good part of last season and he actually did a damn fine job when it came to producing scoring chances. He didn't start this season on any of the powerplay units, but the Canes struggles there have led to them placing Brent back on the point and he is one of the team's most efficient producers with the man advantage.
PP SCF/2 min
PP GF/2 min
PP TOI = Powerplay time on ice, PP SCF = Powerplay scoring chances for, PPGF = Powerplay Goals For
Brent has not received much overall 5v4 time but the Hurricanes hre producing a pretty high rate of scoring chances whenever he is on the powerplay. What exactly does Brent do that makes the powerplay work, though? He clearly plays an important role as the powerplay quarterback, but he isn't known for his passing, doesn't have a big shot and isn't exactly the best puck-mover either. While those are all true, Brent is a very smart hockey player and his decision-making skills on the powerplay are underrated. I talked about this last season, but here's a more recent example from this year on a Hurricanes powerplay against the Ottawa Senators.
First thing to take note of here is that the Hurricanes have two point-men set up on the powerplay, which is different than the 1-3-1 set-up they typically use with Alexander Semin, Joni Pitkanen or Justin Faulk manning the points. Instead, we have Brent (top of the picture) and Faulk (27 above) on the points with Semin (not picture) on the half-wall, Eric Staal in the slot and Jeff Skinner (not pictured) in front of the net. Brent currently has the puck at the point and decides to slide the puck over to Faulk. Ottawa has the two points covered well with Jim O'Brien (18) and Kyle Turris (other forward) up high and in position to block any potential shots coming from there.
Faulk makes the quick decision to fire a shot at the net, but it gets blocked by O'Brien. This wasn't a bad decision by Faulk since he didn't put that much power behind the shot and the worst that could have occurred. was for it to get blocked and he would have to set the play back up again, which is exactly what happened here.
Faulk's shot ended up deflecting off O'Brien and he was able to get the puck back and slide it back to Brent at the blue-line. The shot also stung O'Brien a little which knocked him out of position and gave the Canes more room to operate down low. Brent now has a lot more options as to what he can do. He can either give it back to Faulk, send a pass to Eric Staal, who currently has a lot of space in the right face-off circle or try to fire a shot towards the net.
This right here is the key play. Brent decides to wind up for a slapshot, which draws Turris out towards the point in an attempt to block and clear it. However, something the Senators probably did not think about is that Brent does not have a hard shot and him trying to cannon one on net from the blue-line wouldn't result in much. It's understandable that Turris would want to get in the lane to block this shot because hockey instincts tell most players to do that when you see someone at the point winding up like this. However, what Turris also does by cheating out towards the point is leave a ton of space open in the slot, so if this is a bluff then the Senators are going to pay for it. Also take note of how O'Brien is trying to get himself back into position after blocking Faulk's shot.
It was a bluff, as Brent completely faked out Turris on the shot and ends up passing the puck to a wide open Eric Staal instead. Turris is far too out of position to do anything about it and just about every other Senator was paying attention to the shot and turns their direction to where the puck is going. This allows Semin to creep into the slot, which now has a lot more space, and the Hurricanes can get a scoring chance off a passing play if Staal and Semin work quick enough.
Notice how every Senator on the ice except for O'Brien is paying attention to Staal while Semin has creeped into the slot in perfect position to receive a pass. All Semin has to do here is receive the pass cleanly and beat goaltender Craig Anderson.
Both Staal and Semin do their jobs and the Hurricanes are able to tie the game late on a powerplay goal. A lot of credit goes to Staal for making a perfect pass into the slot, but Brent played a huge role in making this play happen. The Sens did not have enough players in position down low because of him faking that slapshot, taking one of their penalty killers out of position in the process. Brent didn't do anything spectacular here, but he didn't need to, either. He sees the ice well and his good hockey sense is what played a role in him setting up this play at the blue-line.
This is part of what the Hurricanes miss on their powerplay right now because right now the Canes can barely keep the puck in the zone to get a play set-up, and when they do it mostly consists of them passing the puck around and settling for a long shot from the point. There isn't much Brent can do with the Canes ability to control the zone on the powerplay, but he can definitely help them set up more plays like this. The fact that he doesn't panic and immediately settle for a long shot from the point really helps this powerplay generate more quality scoring chances and they can really use that right now, which is why getting him back tonight will be a bigger help than most think.