In case you missed it, Monday’s Daily Cup of Joe had thoughts on the Carolina Hurricanes Return to Play roster.
Today’s Daily Cup of Joe continues that theme with a deeper dive on the team’s blue line.
Just before the trade deadline, the Hurricanes were decimated with injuries on the blue line. First, Dougie Hamilton’s Norris finalist level season was interrupted. Then Brett Pesce went down. Suddenly, the Hurricanes were minus two of their top four defensemen. With Jake Gardiner making mid-season progress but still really trying to find his way in a Canes uniform, and Haydn Fleury unproven in anything more than a depth role, General Manager Don Waddell reached to the trade market. The team added short-term help in Sami Vatanen who is scheduled to become an unrestricted free agent after the 2019-20 season ends and added longer-term help in Brady Skjei. Skjei stepped into the lineup immediately while Vatanen had setbacks in returning from an injury that existed at the time of the trade. With Gardiner finally starting to settle in and find a higher gear, Skjei jumping into the top four and Fleury playing competent hockey in a top four role, the blue line showed promise of being good enough to support the playoff push down the stretch even minus Hamilton and Pesce.
And then it all ended suddenly.
Fast forward to mid-July and only 18 days until a scheduled start to the 2019-20 playoffs, and the Hurricanes are suddenly incredibly deep at the blue line. Hamilton who was pushing for a late-season return is now multiple months past a scheduled return. Vatanen who faced injury setbacks upon arriving and never made it into a game will be ready. And even Pesce who was out even for the playoffs under the normal schedule is on the roster and could draw into the lineup though not likely at the outset. When you add it up, the Hurricanes have nine defensemen in the mix who played in a top four role at some point during the 2019-20 season. In what could be a long playoff run under unusual circumstances after a long layoff and with COVID-19 always looming, there is a reasonable chance that much of that depth is put to use. But in terms of building a lineup for the slated playoff start on August 1, Brind’Amour will need to choose just six of these players and also figure out how to pair them up.
Below are my initial thoughts on how to build the playoff blue line.
Jaccob Slavin / Dougie Hamilton
‘If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.’ Before being derailed by injury, Dougie Hamilton was on pace for an unprecedented season in terms of blue line scoring challenging even the team’s top forwards for the top of the scoring list. In a more understated way, Jaccob Slavin was also having a fine season and meshing well with Hamilton. The duo was good or better defensively against other teams’ top lines and courtesy of Hamilton was dangerous offensively too. With Pesce likely out of the lineup initially, some might argue that the team will be more balanced on the back end with Slavin and Hamilton split up, but I would not overthink things in messing with something that was working incredibly well.
Jake Gardiner or Brady Skjei / Sami Vatanen
Assuming that Sami Vatanen is ready to go after an even longer layoff than most, I think he represents a complementary right shot to go with either Jake Gardiner or Brady Skjei. With Vatanen unable to go after being acquired via trade, the Hurricanes saw Fleury and Skjei paired in the top four, but I think it makes sense for Vatanen to land exactly where he was expected to be when acquired. The question is who to pair him with. After a tough start in a Hurricanes jersey, Gardiner’s game was building in early 2020. Skjei had some ups and downs in his short debut with the Canes, but one has to figure that based on giving up a first-round draft pick to get him that organization views him as a top four defenseman at some point. With a short training camp and jump immediately into playoff games, I will be watching what Brind’Amour does early in terms of pairing up defensemen.
Jake Gardiner or Brady Skjei or Joel Edmundson / Trevor can Riemsdyk
Seeking veteran stability for a third pairing, my best guess is that Brind’Amour leans veterans for his third pairing to start the playoffs. Trevor van Riemsdyk was exactly the type of sound and solid that a coach wants from a bottom pairing in the 2019 playoffs before his shoulder injury. Sure there are sexier options, but if Pesce is unavailable and Vatanen slots in the second pairing, van Riemsdyk is the only right shot left. I think he starts the playoffs alongside one of the veteran lefties available. Gardiner or Skjei would theoretically have a bit more upside offensively, but Joel Edmundson is fresh off a 2019 Stanley Cup Championship and played a key role in that playoff run.
I will be curious to hear others’ opinions on how to build this puzzle that has extra pieces, but that is what jumps out at me first. While I do not think Haydn Fleury slots in the top six with this veteran group of mostly top four defensemen, I would not feel uncomfortable if injuries pushed him into the mix. And even before that, one of Gardiner, Skjei or Edmundson slots at #7. And all of that is assuming that Pesce does not make the right side of the blue line just as crowded.
If pressed to eliminate the ‘or’, my version today (subject to change tomorrow) would be Slavin/Hamilton, Skjei/Vatanen, Gardiner/van Riemsdyk.
What say you Canes fans?
1) Are you inclined to keep things simple and leave Slavin/Hamilton together, or would you consider splitting them to gain more balance?
2) What do you have for pairings (assuming no Brett Pesce initially) if you are Rod Brind’Amour?