The Hurricanes’ longest-running line combination seems to have finally run its course.
After over two months together, coach Paul Maurice separated the trio of Chad LaRose, Tuomo Ruutu and Jeff Skinner during the team’s 5-2 loss in Chicago last Friday. New groupings, which have LaRose moved to Brandon Sutter’s line with Jiri Tlusty and Jussi Jokinen centering Ruutu and Skinner (view full lines here) are set to debut Wednesday against Atlanta.
“A little more experience at center and a little more offense on two of the lines,” said Maurice of what he hopes to gain with the shuffle.
Before it broke up on Friday, the line of LaRose, Skinner and Ruutu was one of the most successful used by the Hurricanes this season. All three players posted their best offensive months of the season in January, with Ruutu, Skinner and LaRose scoring 16, 14 and 7 points, respectively.
That production fell off in February, which despite its status as the shortest month of the year contained just one fewer game than January. Skinner led the way with 7 points, with Ruutu (5) and LaRose (3) also falling short of their previous totals.
Maurice even tried switching positions a few weeks ago, with Skinner moving to center, Ruutu to the right wing and LaRose to the left – all different positions than where they had started. Serving as the catalyst for a change was a poor faceoff showing in Chicago that saw the Canes win just 19 of 66 draws.
According to Maurice, moving Jokinen, who holds the team’s best faceoff percentage at 54.6 percent, back to center in place of Skinner, who is at 36.4 percent, should help.
“That Chicago game was a very difficult one for us – we lost 47 faceoffs,” he said. “We had Jussi and Sutter on the same line, so that’s part of it too. (Jokinen) is a pure faceoff man, so we should be a little stronger down the middle.”
While the Chicago game was something of an aberration, the Hurricanes came into the season knowing that faceoffs could be an issue. As of Monday morning, they ranked last in the league at 44.1 percent overall, even if there has been some improvement.
“We have been better, and (Eric Staal) has definitely improved and had some nights where he’s well above 50,” he said. “There has been progression there.”
Staal, who was at 48 percent against Chicago, was responsible for 12 of the team’s 19 wins and checks in at 47.1 percent for the season. No player in the NHL has taken more faceoffs than Staal’s 1,404, which is 30 more than Montreal’s Tomas Plekanec.
In trying to improve the Canes’ fortunes in the circle, Maurice also hopes to keep the balance throughout his lineup. While the presence of Jokinen had helped turn Sutter’s line into more of a two-way threat rather than a pure shutdown group, Maurice hopes that LaRose, who scored a big goal against Buffalo last Thursday, will be able to chip in offensively.
“I think with Sutter, LaRose and Jiri they can still grind, and Rosey is scoring a little bit lately and is feeling good, so they can still do some things,” he said. “LaRose and Sutter seem to have a good chemistry together.”
While he’ll roll those units out against the Thrashers, Maurice hinted that there could be a change that would likely involve one of his fourth-line players. With Derek Joslin serving as a healthy scratch for the three games since the acquisition of Bryan Allen, the Canes’ coach said that it may be time to get the 23-year-old back into game action.
“We’ve talked about it, because I have no problem playing this young man. He’s played well for us,” said Maurice of Joslin. “We’ve talked about dressing seven D, and that’s something we may look at as well.”