The Hurricanes’ answer to the question of who plays with Eric Staal
is to not have one permanent answer.
It seems that just about everyone in the Hurricanes’ top nine has had a turn as a first-line winger alongside the Canes’ captain over the last few years, regardless of position. Of the current group, only Patrick Dwyer and Brandon Sutter stand out as those who haven’t.
Coach Paul Maurice said Tuesday that there’s a reason for that, as few can handle prolonged periods of matching up against the opposition’s top defenders.
“You’ve got a big, strong man like Eric Staal that’s going to see different kinds of defense – either two big guys or somebody that can really move the puck,” said Maurice. “I don’t know if we’ve got another guy that can run 82 games with him. He battles differently and can handle more than most other guys can.”
With that in mind, the Hurricanes’ current plan is to rotate a group of players on the first line depending on specific match-ups.
“Some nights he gets a little more size and you’ll see (Tuomo) Ruutu or (Erik) Cole there, and some nights he can get and hang on to it and he just needs some quickness and some hands and you’ll see (Jussi) Jokinen or (Chad) LaRose or (Sergei) Samsonov,” said Maurice. “We want to make our other lines get some chemistry going, but we’re going to have to adjust our lines depending on who we’re playing and our schedule.”
Tuesday’s practice saw Samsonov and Ruutu on either side of Staal, which should in theory bring a good mix of both. With Dallas on the docket for the team’s next game on Friday, Ruutu should provide help in dealing with a physical opponent that gave the Hurricanes some trouble in their previous meeting last week, a 4-1 win for the Stars.
The move breaks up a line of Ruutu, Cole and Jeff Skinner that has had great success at times, as Ruutu seemed to adapt nicely to working primarily at the center position for the first time in several years. Maurice said that he expected Ruutu to go back to center when match-ups allowed, although Brandon Sutter will now have a chance to put up big offensive numbers on his old line.
“He’s going to go back and forth,” said Maurice. “Ruutie is a valuable guy because he can play down the middle but he’s also our big banger up front. There are nights that Eric Staal can use that and it’s good for him.”
When Ruutu does play at center, Hurricanes coaches and management have praised his ability to create turnovers and offense as the first man in on the forecheck. That’s still a point of emphasis this week, with Maurice crediting a lack of jump in that department as the reason for his team’s recent slow starts. The Canes have scored the first goal just twice in their last six games, and in one of the games in which they did strike first against Colorado, they still didn’t get their first shot on goal until 11 minutes had passed in the first period.
“A lot of your forecheck is your jump, what you’ve got in the tank and how hard you can get in on it,” said Maurice. “We want to get in more, and the other part is that on the days that we don’t get a good chip or we don’t get a good speed or whatever it is, that we can still recover a bunch of those pucks just on positioning alone.”
After a sparse 10-player showing on Monday, Tuesday’s practice saw full attendance with the exception of defenseman Joe Corvo. Maurice said that Corvo, who was one of the healthy few the previous day, was just feeling under the weather and should be available Friday.
After the first two groupings involving Staal and Sutter, the third line also had a different look with Patrick Dwyer centering Jussi Jokinen and Chad LaRose. Full combinations can be found here.