One of the reasons why the Hurricanes acquired Jordan Staal this summer is because he is the type of player who can make the rest of your roster better. We've been over this hundreds of times before, but J. Staal's ability to drive the play and create offense despite playing the toughest minutes on the team allows Kirk Muller to free up some of his other lines to easier minutes. We've seen Muller utilize this strategy by giving Jordan Staal's line the majority of tough minutes while Eric Staal's line has gotten easier zone starts against secondary competition and the third line of Jussi Jokinen, Chad LaRose and Drayson Bowman have gotten some of the "easiest" assignments on the team.
In theory, this strategy makes a lot of sense because the Staal brothers are good enough to handle the toughs and Jokinen was able to efficiently move the puck forward last year in a similar, protected role. So far, one side of this plan has worked out well as Eric Staal's line has done a marvelous job of creating offense and scoring chances but the third line has struggled. One would think that Jokinen, LaRose and Bowman should be able to thrive in a third line role where they aren't being matched up the best that the opposing team has to offer but they haven't been getting the job done. No one on this line has a point yet this season and all three are on the losing end of the scoring chance battle at even strength.
The most alarming thing about their performance thus far is the fact that they haven't been able to push the play forward despite the easier assignments they've been receiving. That and they've been pretty brutal at both ends of the ice in terms of creating and preventing scoring chances.
I don't want to be too harsh since this is only five games, but these three should be able to produce way more scoring chances than they have thus far, especially since all of them have started 60% of their 5v5 shifts in the offensive zone. Adding to that, they shouldn't be giving up more than five scoring chances per 60 minutes with assignments like that either. Their inability to keep the puck in the offensive zone is also really hurting this team right now. With both Staal lines handling most of the tough sledding, all this line is counted on for is to produce offense, forecheck hard and provide secondary scoring and up to this point, they are doing a very poor job in all three areas.
The fact that they are struggling is mystery to me because given their track record, all three should be able to thrive in this kind of role. LaRose was successful playing tougher minutes last year, Jokinen played well in a similar role to this (albeit with stronger linemates) and Bowman showed signs of being a solid third-liner in the 37 games he played with the big club last year. These three have shown the ability to succeed as third-liners before but for whatever reason, it hasn't been working out this year.
Individually, these are good players and can help the team so it's possible that chemistry is an issue and it may take some time for things to gel. Unfortunately, the Hurricanes need more immediate help and probably can't wait for them to start clicking so we will probably see some line shuffling within the next few games if they continue to struggle. The question is who will be demoted and who will take his place on this line? All three are playing poorly right now, but we can dive a little deeper to see who the "weakest link" is. One way to do that is to look at their performance in the neutral zone.
A team's play in the neutral zone is very important because it is often what leads to them getting zone time, creating offense and in turn, winning more games. Studies done by other hockey bloggers and statisticians have shown that carrying the puck into the offensive zone has a greater chance at leading to a shot on goal as opposed to simply dumping the puck in and "getting it deep." So those who are carrying the puck into the offensive zone are winning the neutral zone battle and creating more offense. Using this method, we can reveal some interesting things about the Hurricanes third line.
Going by this, Bowman has been the best member of this line. He is getting the puck into offensive zone more often and when he does, he has control of the puck and is more likely to produce offense than his two linemates. Jokinen's numbers aren't bad either but they could be a lot better since he has less than 10 controlled entries. LaRose, however, has been very poor in the neutral zone this year. He doesn't have many entries and he has resorted to dumping the puck in more often than his linemates. I find it hard to believe that he's bringing the whole line down but his inability to get the puck in the offensive zone could explain why his numbers are so poor this year. It's worth noting that none of these players have been particularly "great" when it comes to neutral zone play but going by these numbers, it appears that LaRose has been the weak link while Bowman has been playing the strongest. That sort of confirms the eye-test since I think Bowman has looked good this season.
So if anyone is going to get demoted to the fourth line, LaRose might be the best candidate but who should go in his spot? One player who comes to mind is Andreas Nodl, who was just recalled from the AHL and can easily slide in to one of the winger spots. However, if Carolina is looking for someone who could potentially be a better neutral zone player, promoting Patrick Dwyer to the third line may not be a bad option. Here are his numbers from this year:
Despite getting fourth line minutes, Dwyer has been able to get the puck into the offensive zone often and he has done it with control of the puck over 65% of the time. I know Dwyer's offensive upside is limited but he has a very good skillset that could possibly help the third line. As the best defensive forward on the team, he can definitely help this unit prevent scoring chances against and possibly spend more time on the attack if he continues to play well in the neutral zone. I know that Dwyer isn't known for his scoring touch but he is a very good skater and can at least help Carolina's third line become stronger territorially. Who knows? Maybe he will pitch in with some more secondary scoring than we normally expect from him?
With how poorly the current third line has played, I say that using him there is worth a shot.