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Victor Rask driving Hurricanes’ top line

Scott W. Grau/Icon Sportswire

When the Hurricanes signed Victor Rask to a six-year, $24 million contract last summer, they took a chance on a young center who showed a lot of potential. Rask, 23, had improved every season he spent in the organization, general manager Ron Francis said in July, and after the 2011 second-rounder notched 48 points (21 G, 27 A) in 2015-16, Carolina bet that trend would continue.

And so far, it has.

Through nine games in 2016-17, Rask has tallied four goals and six assists, putting him on track for 91 points. The last Hurricane to gain that many points in a single season was Eric Staal in 2005-06 (100).

Known for his steady, consistent play, Rask recorded a point in each of Carolina’s first eight contests, good for the second-longest streak to begin a campaign in franchise history. The one person above him on that list is none other than the man who signed him to his extension in July (Francis, 11).

It’s also important to consider Rask’s age. Among NHL skaters 23 and younger, just Connor McDavid, Auston Matthews, William Nylander and Nikita Kucherov have more points right now. Matthews, Nylander, McDavid, Jimmy Vesey, Patrik Laine, David Pastrnak and Mark Scheifele are the only ones with more goals.

Not bad company, to say the least.

The only ‘Cane with more points than Rask is the slightly-older Jeff Skinner (11), who has greatly benefited from skating on Rask’s left wing. Those two, along with Lee Stempniak, have provided coach Bill Peters with a legitimate first line — and in doing so, have formed one of the league’s most productive trios to date.

Together, Rask, Skinner and Stempniak have scored eight goals when on the ice together at even strength, more than any other line has combined for in the NHL. That output has been spread around evenly: Skinner and Stempniak have lit the lamp three times during 5-on-5 action; Rask has done so twice.

“(I’m) just playing with two really good players,” Stempniak said. “I think we’ve all tried to think (about) the game the same way and try to make plays when they’re there but be good defensively when they’re not.”

What to expect moving forward

While this hot start is encouraging, it’s hard to believe it will continue at such an astounding pace. A 114.54 PDO, coupled with a 16.98 on-ice shooting percentage, shows the Skinner/Rask/Stempniak line is due for a healthy dose of regression.

The question is: how far will their numbers decline?

That’s impossible to know, of course, but there are reasons to believe it won’t be a steep drop. Skinner has proven he’s a top-tier goal-scorer at 5-on-5, after all. Rask has a powerful shot and distributes the puck with ease. With a team-high 11 scoring chances at even strength, Stempniak blends experience with good hockey sense and legitimate top-six talent. 

In other words, the pure skill is there to remain a potent line throughout 2016-17.

And based on the eye test alone, it’s clear Rask, Skinner and Stempniak are doing the right things even when luck isn’t a major factor. Their chemistry, the kind that’s natural and honed through hours of practicing as a unit, is palpable on tape. The film reveals they’re strong in the neutral zone, too, and regularly tilt the ice in Carolina’s favor.

A small sample of zone entry data compiled by Corey Sznajder illustrates the latter observation: During a 6-3 loss to Philadelphia, Rask’s line entered the offensive zone with the puck 10 times, failed to do so twice and only dumped it in on three occasions.

This success has led to a lot of offense, including Stempniak’s goal in Edmonton on Oct. 18.

Their shot differential metrics are impressive, as well. Among forward lines that have spent 50-plus minutes together at even strength, only 11 have posted higher Corsi For percentages through Nov. 1, according to Corsica. (Thirteen are above them in that category when adjusting for score, zone and venue.) In that same batch, three groups have generated more scoring chances per hour, and just two have a higher expected goals for per hour.  

So don’t expect Rask and Co. to maintain their current trends over the course of 82 games. History has shown those rates simply aren’t sustainable. But don’t expect them to fall apart, either.

If they continue to move play in the right direction, and if they avoid disastrous misfortune, they should continue to be a formidable line — one that can help dig the Canes out of their recent skid. 

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