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The Graduation of a Line

by Paul Branecky / Carolina Hurricanes
For three guys who had never played an NHL game on the same line until this week, Zach Boychuk, Patrick Dwyer and Brandon Sutter know each other quite well.

Paul Branecky
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In a development that speaks well for the Hurricanes’ player development, the trio, which formed midway through the win over Toronto on Dec. 28, was actually a top scoring line for the American Hockey League’s Albany River Rats to begin last season. As it turned out, all three would go on to spend significant time with the Hurricanes, although not necessarily together.

While the production hasn’t come purely as a result of their even-strength chemistry, Boychuk (2 goals in Ottawa, an assist on the game-winner in Toronto), and Dwyer (2 points in each game) have had their best offensive stretches of the season since the move. Boychuk’s points followed a four-game scoreless streak to start the season (albeit in limited playing time), while Dwyer snapped a 15-game drought.

“It’s not the first time that we’ve played together,” said Dwyer, who at 7 goals and 5 assists has identical numbers this season as last season, when he set career highs, in 22 fewer games. “It’s simple hockey, but at the same time very effective.”

While Sutter hasn’t scored during this stretch, coach Paul Maurice felt it was no coincidence that, over the course of this season and their careers with the Hurricanes, both wingers seem to play their best when lined up alongside the team’s top defensive center.

“Very few people play poorly with Sutter,” said Maurice. “Brandon will be under the puck every time in his own end of the ice, and he makes simple plays in the offensive zone with some pretty nifty hands. He’s a safe guy to get somebody going with. Put him with Suttsy, and he’ll feel good about himself.”

That’s part of why it’s important to not get too attached to this line or any set combination on the roster, as the team’s coaching staff has changed its groupings often over the course of the season. 

However, this line makes a lot of sense in that it combines two of the team’s smartest defensive players in Dwyer and Sutter with a high-end offensive talent in Boychuk that has learned to play a more complete game. All have displayed good chemistry together, with Boychuk and Sutter having played with or against each other since the time they were 10 years old in the Alberta youth hockey system all the way through major juniors, a World Junior Championship, the minors and finally the Hurricanes, where Sutter set up Boychuk for his first NHL goal last season.

”A lot of it has to do with us being friends off the ice, growing up together and playing World Juniors together,” said Boychuk. “He’s a right-handed center and that helps me because I’m a left-handed winger and it’s an easy pass for him. I feel like he’s always there coming underneath and supporting me.”

As meticulous as coaches can be with line combinations, this unit seems to have formed almost by accident. Boychuk was on the fourth line patiently awaiting an offensive opportunity when Jussi Jokinen went down with a lower-body injury in Toronto. That prompted a promotion to the first line, an experiment that lasted approximately 50 seconds.

“(Maurice) put me out there with Eric Staal and Erik Cole and told me, ‘This is the time to seize your opportunity,’” said Boychuk. “I got a little nervous out there and had a terrible shift.”

After that, he joined forces with Dwyer and Sutter.

“We had a good shift and then scored the game winner,” he said. “It was funny that it worked out that way.”

If the group stays together (again, no guarantees whatsoever), it could provide some offensive jump to Sutter and whoever plays on his line, a group that is always counted on in a defensive mentality. While Sutter has done an exceptional job in that regard (he leads the team with a +10 plus/minus rating despite going up against the oppositions’ best forwards), his scoring numbers are down from last year.

“You'll go four or five games without really creating a whole lot or scoring a goal," said Sutter.  "It’s frustrating at times, but I think at the end of the day we know what our job is out there.  If we’re playing against the other teams’ best it is kind of a defense-first mindset, but the key is to not get too caught up in that. You still want to make plays and try to score some goals.”

If this trio continues to develop chemistry and Boychuk maintains the solid two-way game that allowed him to jump up into the top nine forwards, they could become more of an all-around threat.

Just as Boychuk did when he was called up from Charlotte to replace the injured Jiri Tlusty, two players will be coming up to face New Jersey as Maurice has ruled Jokinen and defenseman Joni Pitkanen out of the New Year’s Day match-up. Maurice said that the recalls would not necessarily be Jon Matsumoto and Bryan Rodney, who came up to face Ottawa in a similar situation last Wednesday.


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