When required to put forward his opening face-off lineup first, the go-to for Coach Bill Peters is usually to ice Jordan Staal’s checking line along with the top defense pairing basically either chasing the other team’s best line off the ice for the first 45 seconds or forcing them to play against the Canes best.
On Saturday, the Staal line started as did the sophomore pairing of Jaccob Slavin and Brett Pesce. Pairings and pecking order are subject to change multiple times over the course of a long NHL season, but I think it is fair to call the Slavin/Pesce pairing the team’s best right now.
Veterans Justin Faulk and Ron Hainsey started slow and have since been reunited. I detailed Faulk’s struggles in the first 2 games HERE. And Ron Hainsey was too often in the middle of the mess detailed in my game recap for the loss to the Flyers on Saturday.
The 2 sides of Jaccob Slavin and Brett Pesce
Brett Pesce and Jaccob Slavin are the Hurricanes 2 best blue liners right now in terms of that all-important ‘defense’ part of being a defenseman. Through 5 games, I think Brett Pesce is the team’s best at defending in his own end and the volume of small but important decisions each shift in terms of positioning and decision-making. He is light years ahead of anything reasonable in terms of being sound in his own end. And I would rate Jaccob Slavin as the team’s best in terms of defending off the rush. His ability to take away space in the neutral zone and step up at the blue line show a confidence and courage well beyond his years.
Through a couple games now, the duo has been pretty solid staying out of the mess of breakdowns and bad goals against arguably more than anyone else.
This area of their game is advanced significantly beyond their experience and is what makes them the 2 defenseman I would put on the ice right now if I had to ice the team’s best for 1 shift to hold a lead to win a game.
Both players individually and as a unit have a ways to go in terms of transitioning from defense to offense and when appropriate moving the puck quickly and assertively to get the puck into and through the neutral zone with pace that puts the defense at a disadvantage.
They seem to be slowly building the same chemistry that Liles and Pesce had in 2015-16 in terms of moving the puck safely out of the defensive zone as a 2-man unit. I view that as sort of stage 1 of puck movement which “getting the puck out of your own end without getting in trouble.” Stage 2 is to be able to opportunistically in a way that creates an offensive advantage and scoring chances. That part of the game is still a work in progress for both players and the unit in total and partially explains why combined they have only 1 assist (Slavin) to their credit despite a regular helping of ice time on a team that is scoring goals.
The upgrade offensively is tricky because it comes with the potential to lead to the horrible variety of turnovers if forced, but at a basic level, the next level of development for Slavin and Pesce offensively would be to:
1) Having a sense/ability to know when winning or retrieving a puck in the defensive zone if there is an opportunity to (importantly) safely make a quick first pass that transitions to offense faster versus the slower, safer, more methodical approach of assessing things and working the puck side to side when necessary before gradually pushing forward.
2) Gaining the ability to look past the first, basic level of passes to make more of the type of passes that gain more ice and create advantages behind the forecheck.
3) Make good decisions on when to join the rush into the offensive zone. I actually think both are already very good at this aspect of contributing to the offense.
The need for patience
Asking a pair of second-year players to play together and be a top 4 or arguably even first defense pairing is a big ask. If the duo of Slavin and Pesce can continue to be solid defensively in the neutral zone and defensive zone, I think that is a solid building block. And with more offense on the other defense pairings currently and the offense generally generating enough scoring chances, I think just letting Slavin/Pesce focus on the defensive side of the puck is enough. Both are heady players and adapted to NHL speed ahead of schedule defensively which suggests that in time they will be able to slow things down with the puck on their sticks and provide a transition boost coming out of their own end. If/when that happens, the Hurricanes suddenly have the makings of a true top pairing.
It will be interesting to see if the duo remains intact and also to watch them continue to grow their games together.