When the Hurricanes traded for Dougie Hamilton at the draft and then only days later added Calvin de Haan via free agency, the blue line instantly morphed from being a young, talented but unproven group into arguably the deepest proven blue line in the NHL. When the offseason full of Justin Faulk trade rumors ended with Faulk still wearing a Canes uniform seemingly because a fair deal could not be found, the group became even deeper.
Now seven mostly successful games into the 2018-19 season, today’s Daily Cup of Joe offers an early assessment of the group.
In total, the quality and depth realized on paper during the offseason has also appeared on the ice. While I do not think the group has hit its ceiling, it is still a strength. For me, an imperfect but interesting read on the lineup occurs every evening around puck drop time around the league when Twitter fills up with lineups for games. What many other teams are icing for a second pairing is nothing close to what the Canes have. That positive gets amplified even more when I debate which of de Haan/Faulk or van Riemsdyk or Fleury/Pesce is in fact that team’s second pairing. De Haan/Faulk generally gets the minutes, but Brind’Amour has had stretches where he noticeably chooses to use Pesce’s pairing for the tougher defensive assignments when possible.
On the ice, the returns have been positive too. The helter skelter ‘three on the forecheck no matter what’ style that leans deep into the offensive zone has been successful but also creates its share of tough situations for the defense. While not perfect, the group has held up well when pressured/tested.
Interestingly coming up short offensively
One oddity with how things have progressed so far is the combination of the offense scoring in bunches but the defense actually underperforming on the score sheet. None of Dougie Hamilton, Justin Faulk or Jaccob Slavin who are receiving regular power play minutes have notched a goal yet. In fact, only Brett Pesce who has scored twice has lit the lamp from the back end. I think part of that is just the small sample size.
While there is definitely some randomness to it, I think there are also a couple interrelated causes too. Most significantly, the team’s power play has mostly sputtered through seven games which is where one would expect to see a big chunk of the blue line scoring. On that topic, Dougie Hamilton has yet to really settle in and look like the difference-maker he should be. Further, Justin Faulk just is not as dangerous receiving lateral passes and shooting from an angle as he is taking an old school point shot from up top and cheating a little to the middle of the rink.
No doubt, the power play will receive a ton of on ice work when the team returns home and has only two games in the next nine days. But I actually think some of the answers lie in the video room. For Faulk specifically, his heyday as a power play goal score came in a more traditional set up that saw him receive closer to vertical passes that traveled a straight line up into his wheelhouse. Most common was Victor Rask or another forward making passes into Faulk’s wheelhouse. Receiving vertical passes, Faulk had significantly greater ability to pinpoint shot locations and find corners. In the current umbrella scheme, Faulk is instead receiving lateral passes. He still has the same howitzer of a shot and decent accuracy, but I think the critical difference is that he loses his ability to pinpoint shots and instead is just trying to get it on net. That will still yield some goals but at a much lower rate than when he receives vertical passes and has more control of where he shoots.
I do not have the same history with Hamilton’s previous power play scoring success, but if I was part of the Hurricanes coaching/scouting, I would be investing a chunk of time watching his 2017-18 power play ice time in total to see what I could learn about how he scored. Some reversion to the mean for scoring is inevitable for a talented player like Hamilton, but I think just assuming it will all take care of itself lacks diligence and has the potential to come up short.
Regardless of the source, for a blue line to truly be a difference-maker in today’s NHL, I think requires some amount of scoring too. The capability is there, so it will be interesting to see what degree it just arrives naturally versus to what degree Brind’Amour and his staff also have some work to do to put blue line scorers in the best possible situations to score goals.
The sample size is still fairly small at seven games which makes it difficult to sort between simple fast or slow starts versus long-term trajectory, but I lean slightly negative on the current defense pairings.
In general the duo has been fine and represents a legitimate top pairing. That said, the more I watch Slavin and Hamilton together, the more I think the defense might be better with each playing with a complementary partner. Slavin had a slightly down game against Tampa Bay but is generally off to a good start. What stands out about his game to me is that I think he is somewhere a notch faster which is impressive given that that was already a strength. He is also taking a bigger role using his speed to tote the puck up the ice himself. And that is where I think the duo might be better separated. Hamilton played probably his best game as a Canes player in Sunday’s loss and showed of his ability to become a fourth forward late in the game. But in total, his start has been not necessarily bad but underwhelming. My hunch is that Hamilton is the type of player whose game elevates the more he gets to play with the puck on his stick somewhat similar to Joni Pitkanen from Canes years past. As such, I wonder if both players might be more effective with more of a stay-home partner that requires less sharing of the puck in transition.
De Haan / Faulk
I think this duo has been a mixed bag. In watching de Haan, it is not difficult to see him as a 2018 version stay-home defenseman who can skate and handle the puck but whose bread and butter is defending. But I think his play has been a mixed bag. The volume of good defensive plays is plenty, but the volume of intermittent ‘oopses’ has been too high for me for his role. On Tuesday, he had a player blow through him for a goal and then mishandled on the penalty kill for another quick goal against. He had another game where he stepped up into the neutral zone at the wrong time for two breakaways behind him. I continue to like the idea of de Haan, but I am not sure it has truly been realized yet. I think Faulk, maybe because of having a better partner, has been significantly better defensively thus far in 2018-19. But I still do not see him as an every-game top 4 on a good team that is deep on the blue line. To boot, he has yet to relocate his offense on the power play. After watching seven games, I am right where I started before training camp which is preferring de Haan as a stay-home complement to Hamilton, reuniting Slavin and Pesce for the 1+1=3 that they have always been and bumping Faulk into the third pairing.
Fleury or van Riemsdyk / Pesce
Brett Pesce has been the unsung hero of the blue line. After a slow start to training camp missing the first few games, his game has rounded into form nicely. He is solid anyway but especially when used to anchor a third pairing, he is a rock. His two goals which are the only two by defensemen are also a nice bonus especially considering that he does not play on the power play. Van Riemsdyk had a couple tough outings early but seems to be rounding in to form despite playing on his off side. Similarly, Fleury has been competent even if not spectacular.
Quick hitters individually
Jaccob Slavin — I already raved about his speed seemingly being even better. He is already a legitimate first pairing defenseman defensively at even strength where his greatest ability, defending or attacking the puck head on, wins the day. On the penalty kill where the ability is less relevant, I am still in wait and see mode on him after a tough 2017-18 season killing penalties. But most interesting to me is watching to see if he can take the next step in terms of generating offense off the rush. He has already shown an improved ability to carry the puck and gain the blue line by himself. That helps the offense modestly, but the big next step is learning how to not just gain the blue line but use his mobility to help attack the net after doing so.
Dougie Hamilton — I rate his start with the Hurricanes as ‘meh’. As noted above, I wonder if playing in a pairing with heavier puck carrying responsibilities might help him dial up his game across the board versus sharing the puck more alongside Slavin. I also think important for Brind’Amour and his coaching staff is investing some time trying to understand how/where his power play scoring came from in 2017-18 versus just assuming his offense automatically translates across teams and systems.
Brett Pesce — In my opinion, he has been the team’s second best defenseman. I actually thought he looked a step slow in early games after a late start in preseason action, but I think he has worked his way up since then. He continues to be the anchor for the third pairing that Brind’Amour in some games has used to so some heavy lifting in terms of tough match ups.
Calvin de Haan — As noted above, I have him rated as a mixed bag thus far simply because of what I consider to be too many ‘oops’ plays for a player of his stay-home/defensive acumen type of style.
Justin Faulk — I have been quieter about it of late so as to hopefully avoid annoying readers with repeating the same thing over and over, but I continue to think that ultimately Faulk’s time in Raleigh is short-lived. After allegedly being on the trading block much of the summer, I do not see the team pulling back on that plan long-term. Rather, I think the team is doing what it can to prop him up by giving him heavy power play minutes and ice time hoping he can hit a hot stretch that boosts his value. Thus far, returns have been mediocre. His defense has been better but not phenomenal, and despite playing a ton on the power play, he has yet to catch fire there.
Trevor van Riemsdyk — After a couple ‘iffy’ games, van Riemsdyk has been better. I still like him as a steady third pairing defenseman.
Haydn Fleury — In only his second year, I keep hoping he has some upside to his game especially offensively, but even if he does not, he is a capable third pairing defenseman already with at least a little room to grow. If in fact the Hurricanes do eventually trade Faulk, I would feel comfortable reverting back to Fleury/van Riemsdyk for the third pairing.
What say you Canes fans?
1) Based on the team’s strong start are you inclined to ride the current defense pairings deeper into the season, or would you consider making changes based on what you have seen thus far?
2) Which defensemen have impressed most thus far? Which defensemen should hopefully have a higher gear yet?
3) What say you about my conspiracy theory type thinking that the team is still looking to trade Faulk and that the current arrangement is partly to boost his value?