Check out also the new Coffee Shop post for Thursday with polls on the Caps game, goalies (again), Hurricane mostly likely to break out offensively and also a couple discussion questions. Stop by and have a cup of caffeinated goodness!
Here on February 9, 2017, the Carolina Hurricanes sit a couple points below the playoff cut line. I believe that the Hurricanes have as good of a chance as anyone to rise above the fray and squeak into the playoffs. Make no mistake that such an accomplishment would be a huge success for the 2016-17 Carolina Hurricanes. I also think that it would be 1 year ahead of schedule for a team still in the process of rebuilding primarily with youth from its system. But at the same time I acknowledge that even if the Hurricanes are the team that squeaks into the eighth playoff spot in the Eastern Conference, they are very much a bubble type team and clearly in a tier below the perennial playoff participants.
Thinking about that standing as a middle-ish team at best begs the question of where the Hurricanes are deficient and need to improve.
Today’s Daily Cup of Joe takes a fairly detailed look at the blue line part of that equation.
The top pairing: Jaccob Slavin and Brett Pesce
I think the top pairing has proven to be good enough defensively. That is an absolutely huge statement about a pairing of 2 second-year players. While there might still be modest room for improvement on the defensive side of the puck, I think Slavin/Pesce is up to par in that regard. But on good teams, top defensemen often play a significant role driving offense which is important since they are on the ice with some of their team’s best forwards for about 40 percent of the game. Offensively, I think Slavin/Pesce fall short of the high bar set by good first D pairings. The duo hasa combined 4 goals and 28 assists. Right now, there are 31 defensemen who have 7 or more goals (so basically an average of 1 per team). The cream of the crop for top defense pairings offensively are up in the 60-point range. In brief, as tremendous as Slavin/Pesce’s rise has been, they are light offensively compared to elite top pairings.
The second pairing: Ron Hainsey and Justin Faulk
Ironically, the second pair of Hainsey/Faulk is the opposite. Faulk’s 10 goals and 24 points are a pretty good pace offensively, and though lower in total Hainsey has been clutch offensively using his 4 goals for big situations. But the problem with Hainsey/Faulk is that they really just have not gotten the job done defensively. At home, the struggles have not been as glaring. Some combination of the team being better at home and maybe Peters hiding them a bit match up-wise has helped. But on the road, Hainsey is minus 18 in 28 road games and Faulk has struggled even more at minus 23 in 25 road games. In short, the second pairing has not been good enough for the team to play break even hockey on the road.
The third pairing: Noah Hanifin with Matt Tennyson, Ryan Murphy or Klas Dahlbeck
And like the second pairing, the third pairing of Hanifin/_____ has had too many tough shifts. The Hurricanes are obviously using the third pairing to develop Noah Hanifin at the NHL level, but past that side objective, the general goal for a third pairing is get on and off the ice without trouble. Third pairings do not need to win games, but they cannot lose them either. Hanifin’s defensive play and decision-making are still very much a work in process, and the revolving door next to him has seen some good play with Tennyson for a stretch and Dahlbeck more recently has also had its downturns.
The path forward
The positive on the blue line is that the vast majority of the improvements desired could feasibly come simply from young players both in and not yet in the lineup developing. If things go according to plan, the improvement needed could be realized maybe in 2 years just from young players maturing.
Slavin/Pesce: Slavin is increasingly showing the ability to slow things down with the puck on his stick in his own end to either find long passing lanes (hit Aho twice on Tuesday) or paths to carry the puck. As I wrote in another blog recently, Pesce’s knack for finding and stepping into holes at the right time is very good. He just does not seem to finish enough of these or at least get the puck on net such that he finds a few holes and also a few rebound goal assists.
____/Faulk: The second pairing is a bit more of a brain teaser for Ron Francis. I do not see Ron Hainsey as a top 4 defenseman entering the 2017-18 season at 36 years old. As noted above, Faulk’s game has been too 1-dimensionally offensive this season for me to credit him with playing at a solid top 4 level for a good hockey team. That said, I think Francis must bet that Faulk is capable of that role and needs to figure out the right partner to support that target. Figuring out how to handle the other top 4 slot will be 1 of Francis’ toughest decisions this summer. Hanifin projects to be a top 4 someday but has not proven to be ready. Roland McKeown or Haydn Fleury could also fill this role someday, but with exactly 0 games of NHL experience between them right now, counting on 1 of them to play in such a role next October falls much more into the category of wishing instead of planning based on past performance and reasonable projections from it. I really think a surprise move this summer could be Francis making a move to add short-term help to fill out the top 4 such that the kids can learn in the #5 and #6 roles and move up because they are ready not because there is a hole to fill and no other options.
Hanifin/____: At least for now, 1 of the bottom pairing slots is reserved for Hanifin to continue his development. The other slot could well be used for another young player like McKeown if he looks ready in training camp next year. I also think there is merit in having a veteran #7. That role is best not filled by a young player whose development is better served playing a ton of minutes in the AHL. For the right price, I actually like the idea of re-signing Hainsey to be a #6 or #7 who can step into the lineup if necessary or step out of the kids are getting it done.
The future of the Hurricanes blue line looks incredibly bright, but I think it is important to note that as of today there is still a fairly significant gap between where the Hurricanes are and where most playoff-bound teams fall. Other than the #4 slot short-term, I think the upgrade necessary could well be achievable from within the current roster and prospect pool.
What say you?
Can 1 of the young D prospects grow into the #4 slot ahead of schedule and fill that role in 2017-18?
Is there any chance Francis actually adds short-term help for the blue line this summer?
Is it possible the entire group takes 1 step up and becomes even better?