The Carolina Hurricanes season is rolling along. Just a few games over halfway and now in the All-Star break, there is a lot to be excited about with this team. After a rocky start with some starting to doubt preseason expectations, the team has played very well as of late. With a record of 28-15-5, and a record of 15-7-4 since December 1, 2023, there are a lot of things the team should be proud of. And fans should be excited about. But it’s a long season. And besides making it into the playoffs, records and points during the regular season mean little when the playoffs begin. So here we look at the Carolina Hurricanes second line as an area they need to improve coming out of the All-Star break and into (hopefully) the playoffs.
The 2024 Carolina Hurricanes Second Line Improvement
Rod Brind’Amour likes to throw his lines in the blender a lot. Sometimes it makes it hard to even determine what is truly the second versus third versus fourth lines. Maybe it doesn’t matter what it’s called. As of the Hurricanes improved run since December, the strongest lines have been the first line of Sebastian Aho, Andrei Svechnikov and Teuvo Teravainen and the de facto third line of Jordan Staal, Seth Jarvis and Jordan Martinook. But what the team needs to figure out is a working second line.
The Second Line (Centre)
When people start thinking about how their teams should improve around this time of year, usually the conversation revolves around trade deadline acquisitions. What player should we bring in to fit holes on our team? Sometimes that’s true and sometimes it’s more coaching adjustments. The Hurricanes need to figure out a second line as a whole and this area for improvement may involve both player movement and adjustments.
The Whipping Boy
Let’s just get this one out of the way first. The second line was generally, until lately, centred by the proverbial whipping boy Jesperi Kotkaniemi. Kotkaniemi plays a style that has some elements of Jordan Staal with no issues generating chances. He leads the team in expected goals per 60 at 5v5 with .93. He is winning over 50% of his faceoffs and is top five on the team in shots on goal too. When the season started, he was leading the way in offensive production for the team. But now the problem with Kotkaniemi is simple (even though the solution not so much). He is not producing.
With nine goals and nine assists in 48 games, he is middle of the pack on the team. But most of his production came at the beginning of the year. So much so that of late his ice time and role have dropped. This has been the tough thing with Kotkaniemi. He has had really streaky production and it’s hard to put a finger on why. Jack Drury seems to have taken over the second line centre role between Stefan Noesen and Martin Necas while Kotkaniemi has dropped to the fourth line. Both the coaching staff and management have to figure out what they want to do with Kotkaniemi.
What to Do…What to Do
He is actually pretty strong analytically and is still only 23 years old. But the question of now versus betting on the future comes into play. Can they get him back on the production train? Does it require different linemates? Do they get a new second line centre and let him play in that fourth line role for the season and playoffs? Or do they include him in a trade for more immediate help? As much as people on both sides of the coin here like to argue that either Kotkaniemi is great or terrible, it frankly isn’t that simple. Even his eight-year contract may or may not be a good one depending on his progression and salary averages inflating over time. The buyout on his contract is actually affordable as well in a worst-case scenario.
One hopeful option is getting Kotkaniemi back to how he was starting. That seems like wishful thinking. Not because I believe it can’t be done. However, management has to realize that the team, as it is now, is in a win-now mode. If something isn’t working and may be the difference between the team’s second Stanley Cup or their tenth playoff exit, there needs to be active work to fix it instead of waiting and seeing. So what’s the answer?
The Fourth Becomes the Second
Interestingly, the newly created second line above has actually been working well. They lead the league for forward lines and defensive pairs playing at least 100 minutes in expected goal percentage with 74.1%. And as far as goals for per 60 minutes, they sit perfectly in second amongst Hurricanes forward lines playing at least 100 minutes at 3.43. Just for reference, the New York Rangers line of Vincent Trocheck, Alexis Lafreniere and Artemi Panarin have 3.36 goals for per 60 minutes. Now they have played together a lot more, but the point here is that as of now, this line is producing where you’d like a second line to. At least through that lens.
Looking at the individual performances on this line, not enough can be said about each of these guys this year. For Drury, he seems to have had his coming-out party this season. Finding excellent chemistry with Stefan Noesen, Drury has eight goals and 14 assists this season. A lot of that was playing fourth line minutes. But he also has found a place on the power play where he has been pretty effective at scoring in a bumper role. There’s no doubt about his work ethic and responsible two-way play from the day he was drafted. But he is showing that while at the beginning of the year he would have been an easy piece to part with in a trade, there may be a little more hesitation now.
Noesen meanwhile has been huge for the team this year. As a journeyman who has found his way back to the NHL, he is relishing every opportunity. He isn’t afraid to play a gritty game but also is a very effective goal scorer. Again, having a newfound chemistry with Drury, he has 11 goals and 16 assists. Some of this too is on the power play but he has shown how flexible he is throughout the lineup. He is sixth in the NHL in cost per point per CapFriendly, but first in cost per point for players on non-entry-level deals.
The Speed Racer
And then there is Martin Necas. A speedster with good hands and a great shot who sometimes seems to play faster than his linemates can keep up. Last season he led the team in points and will be looking for a pay raise after this year. While Necas has been somewhat polarizing, we previously took an in-depth look at why keeping Necas versus trading is probably the smart move. Well, Necas went out with an injury and then came back to find himself on this line (the fourth at the time). And he has exploded. In his last five games since returning from injury, Necas has four goals and one assist. He leads the team over that span in goals. But he also is shooting the puck like a madman. With 26 shots over that span, the next closest Hurricane in that stat only has 13. Was it the time off that helped Necas? Or is it possibly his new linemates? Maybe both.
Is this the Answer?
Chemistry in hockey is huge. Look at Chris Kunitz with Sidney Crosby. Is this newly formed Noesen/Drury/Necas a true second line? As of now, it’s what the Hurricanes have and it’s actually working quite well. But will it be enough come playoff time? That is another question that no one can fully answer. You can give odds and statistics but with younger players like Drury and Necas and players like Noesen who seem to be defying the odds, who knows?
Internal Rotations for a Solution
Of course, there are other players that they could try or re-try to round out a second line (or whatever line you want to call it) with or without Kotkaniemi at centre. Seth Jarvis is a skilled offensive forward but has been working well with Jordan Staal and Jordan Martinook. And then there’s Michael Bunting who has overall been up and down but has shown pretty good play on the top line in Andrei Svechnikov‘s absence.
Then there is the wild card option of bringing up Vasiliy Ponomarev. He played well in his brief NHL stint, but this might not be the time for complete experimenting for this team. Rod Brind’Amour likes to shuffle lines when things aren’t working which may or may not be beneficial at times. When Svechnikov returns from injury he’s likely to return to the first line which will cause another trickle-down placement for Bunting.
Then there is the trade route. The Hurricanes should look for an additional forward at or before the trade deadline. Even if it is just a depth forward in case of injuries come playoff time. But there are options out there big and small to help the team.
As far as building out a second line, they could go swinging to get a high-profile centre like Elias Lindholm or go a little lower and look at other well-performing centres like Adam Henrique or Sean Monahan. Or maybe they feel it’s more important to help out Kotkaniemi (or whoever else fits that centre role) and they look for effective wingers. The big prize here would be Jake Guentzel if available but also players like Frank Vatrano.
The thing with trades is that they come with their own set of risks. Will the player mesh with the team? And for deadline deals, will he mesh with the team in time to be effective (especially if a rental)? We will take deeper looks at trade options in upcoming articles, but I did want to point out this possibility to help the second line here.
Staying the Course but Giving Yourself Some Help
On paper, Carolina should have the forwards to put together a strong top six. But hockey is not won on paper. It’s dynamic with chemistry and player development constantly evolving causing coaches and management to adjust. But what is the team’s best second line based on performance this season? That will be important for the team to figure out if they want to have success in the playoffs.
As of now, I’d argue the Drury/Noesen/Necas line is working for the team. But I’d also argue that the team should bring in help via trade. Even if that player does not directly slot in on the second line, it will give Brind’Amour options to figure out chemistry and provide the team with depth. A lot of decisions to be made in the next few weeks should provide some excitement for fans.
Main Photo Credit: James Guillory-USA TODAY Sports