Bridging the gap between potential and reality
Ever since the Hurricanes drafted Noah Hanifin fifth overall and then saw Brett Pesce and Jaccob Slavin jump nearly directly from the college hockey ranks to the NHL and look good doing so, Hurricanes fans have declared the blue line to be a strength in the future and key component to a push back into the playoffs. But very important for Hurricanes fans who are becoming increasingly hungry for a playoff return, the time frame is vitally important.
Even last year, Canes fans often ignored time line and actual results and just fast forwarded to the potential and legitimate optimism for the future before it had become reality. The reality of the 2016-17 season was that the Slavin/Pesce combination did emerge and become a legitimate top defense pairing, but they were light offensively relative to what one might hope for given their volume of ice time. And below them the reality of the present day was less favorable. Noah Hanifin did have a strong finish to the 2016-17 season in a top 4 role, but he spent the majority of the season in a third pairing slot and with a good volume of learning mistakes, he did not look to be above that slot. By my estimation, I thought Faulk had his second consecutive season playing near or at an elite level offensively, but I would also say that his defensive play was insufficient.
The 2017-18 Hurricanes blue line
If one jumps forward to the 2017-18 season, I think much is the same. I have been (fairly in my opinion) hard on Jaccob Slavin’s play of late, but in total over the full season, I think Slavin/Pesce have continued to hold up their end of the bargain defensively as a first pair. But again the scoring production is lacking. And Faulk and Hanifin have both had their ups and downs defensively. Noah Hanifin’s game has grown significantly on the offensive side of the puck, but he continues to have intermittent issues defensively which resulted in a return to the third pairing. And though I think Faulk has played his best defensive hockey of late, taking over the work horse role from Slavin, his 2017-18 still looks fairly similar to his 2016-17 season in that he has had stretches where his defensive play was sub-par.
The biggest change on the blue line was the opening night third pairing. The addition of Trevor van Riemsdyk brought an experienced third pairing defenseman with enough puck-moving skills to move the puck up the ice and relieve pressure. And rookie Haydn Fleury added another young NHL defenseman to the mix.
The instant emergence of Haydn Fleury
I am not sure that underrated is exactly the right word for Fleury’s play thus far because his play has not gone unnoticed by the core part of the Hurricanes fan base that tracks the team on a daily basis. But his modest point production and quite style of play maybe is underappreciated when considering how shallow he still is in terms of NHL experience at just 22 games. His seemingly instant adjustment to NHL speed with minimal growing pains is reminiscent of what Slavin and Pesce did two years ago.
Somewhat quietly, Fleury has played his way up into the top 4, and maybe not coincidentally he has played next to Faulk during Faulk’s best run of hockey in recent times. In addition, Fleury continues to tackle bigger roles and challenges as the NHL season rolls forward. And though he is not flashy or a regular on the highlight reel and does make an occasional mistake, Fleury has not at all looked to be in over his head.
The broader picture on the blue line
At this moment in time, I would describe the Hurricanes blue line as inconsistent and also say that it is trending downward of late, but with the emergence of Fleury and his smooth transition into the top 4 so far, I think the team might actually be very close to realizing the future and having the blue line become an every game strength.
The defense pairs right now are Slavin/Pesce, Fleury/Faulk and Hanifin/van Riemsdyk. Ironically, the top pairing has actually been struggling of late with Jaccob Slavin hitting a bit of a rough patch and being in the screen shot of too many goals against of late. At the same time, I think the second pairing of Fleury/Faulk has improved. I think that is a key development with regard to the blue line closing the gap and achieving a future as an every game strength. In addition, the offensive part of Noah Hanifin’s game continues to grow by leaps and bounds. Maybe sometimes lost in the imperfections of Hanifin’s defensive game is how much he has grown offensively both in terms of playing comfortable, patient and increasingly productive hockey with the puck on his stick but maybe ven more significantly showing a tremendous knack for how and where to join the rush to use his skating to create offensive advantages off the rush.
If I had to summarize the state of the blue line through 23 games, it would be a set of two opposites. On the one hand, the team just continues to have too many break downs that regardless of shot volumes make the Hurricanes goalies’ job difficult. On the other hand, when not making a mistake, the Hurricanes blue line stands out as a positive in terms of physical ability and ceiling based on size, skating and ability.
So what does the blue line need to do to put it all together?
To put it all together, I think the blue lined needs to do two things. First, I think the group needs to tighten up and significantly decrease the volume of break downs. There is a reason that “defense” is front and center in the position “defenseman.” Regardless of how well a defenseman plays offensively, being at least decent defensively is a critical component to success. Second, I think the blue line as a whole needs to find a higher gear in terms of offensive production. In today’s NHL where scoring is difficult, the strength of the team in total must also translate to a strength in terms of scoring.
Why Haydn Fleury might be the key to putting it all together
With some ‘iffy’ play defensively of late, it might seem like the Hurricanes are still far away from realizing the high ceiling of an optimistic future. But I actually think that the Hurricanes might be closer than recent play suggests and also that rookie Haydn Fleury might prove to be the key to it all.
First and foremost, I do think that Slavin/Pesce (with more Slavin than Pesce) need to play better than they have in recent games. There is obviously no guarantee, but I think it is reasonable to expect this to happen. Slavin/Pesce played nearly the entirety of the 2016-17 season and also the front part of the 2017-18 season at a high level. There is no reason to believe that the same is not achievable going forward.
Past that, the Hurricanes have struggled since the beginning of the 2016-17 season to get strong enough play out of either of the two defense pairings below Slavin/Pesce, and I think much of it might be fit player-wise. It has been the case for long enough now that I would say that Faulk’s game leans offense. He steps up into play offensively and also defensively. The positive is the potential for more offense, but the negative is that there is some need to read situations correctly and cover up behind him. Similarly, I would say that the single greatest strength of Noah Hanifin’s game right now is his aggressiveness, mostly with good judgment, offensively. When one nets it out, Hanifin/Faulk maybe has a bit too much pushing forward and not quite enough sitting back defensively to balance it out. In an ideal world, I think the best version of the 2017-18 Hurricanes gives both players a chance to do their thing offensively but also provides complementary defensive support in the for of a player who leans stay home/defense first.
Enter Haydn Fleury. If I had to describe his game at the NHL level based on his first 22 games, I would start with words like “steady”, “sound” and maybe even “conservative.” Whereas Hanifin, Faulk, Slavin and to some degree Pesce have a bias for pushing forward, I think at least the 1.0 version of Fleury’s game has a bias for sitting back a little. Important to note is that Fleury might add layers to his game as he settles in at the NHL level, but I think the current version of his game reminds me a bit of a young Jay Bouwmeester who is steady, sound and physically capable defensively but not so much an offensive catalyst. I think that style of play could fit perfectly with Justin Faulk and could be the key to solidifying the second defense pairing for the first time in awhile.
An interesting side effect is what the change does for Noah Hanifin. Some might focus on the demotion and get wrapped around the axle assessing what it means for his long-term role and ceiling as a player. But more interesting for me is how great of a fit the third pairing might be for Hanifin. As noted above, I think Hanifin’s game offensively in multiple respects has grown by leaps and bounds during the 2017-18 season. While playing on the third pairing might decrease Hanifin’s ice time modestly, it might also enable Coach Bill Peters to get him on the ice more often in situations that are favorable for leveraging Hanifin’s growing responsibility. Minus the top half of the roster match ups from the top 4, Hanifin will have fewer shifts that require perfect attention to detail against elite scoring forwards. The third pairing slot should also get him on the ice against lesser defenders who will often be in over their head skating-wise trying to defend Hanifin on the rush when he goes into full Joni Pitkanen mode.
The shorter version is that I think Haydn Fleury might be an ideal complementary player for Faulk and simultaneously allow Peters to put Hanifin in a position to best leverage his growing offensive game.
There are things that need to happen across all three defense pairings, and consistency is always critical, but I think Haydn Fleury’s emergence has the potential to become the final piece of the puzzle that makes it all work.
What say you Caniacs?
1) Maybe because his game has been fairly quiet offensively, do you think Haydn Fleury is underappreciated?
2) What do you think of the current defense pairings (Slavin/Pesce, Fleury/Faulk, Hanifin/van Riemsdyk)? Is this the way you would set the lineup or would you try different?
3) Do you think 2017-18 is the year when the Hurricanes realize the optimistic future for the young blue line? If so, what needs to happen to get there?