In 1 specific way, I say yes.
Important to note Justin Faulk as being in a different category
Before going too far down that path, let me first make sure I give credit where it is due. First, my comment is mostly about comparing and contrasting the early and incredibly positive development of the Canes young blue line. I did not include Justin Faulk in this comparison. One could actually based on his young age at 23, but he is farther along development-wise.
And it is not a race or contest for which young D prospect is best
It is also important to make sure that we as Canes fans do not get bogged down trying to pick winners and losers. To make the blue line a strength capable of leading the way back to the playoffs, it needs multiple of these players to eventually become great. And each having different strengths and skill sets is fine. It hopefully makes for complementary set of skills among the players.
The other young D have also been really good
It is also important to recognize the progress thus far and upside for the other 2 rookie defensemen. Of the 3, I think Brett Pesce is by far the most advanced in terms of NHL readiness especially in terms of defending without the puck. With him now approaching 20 games in the lineup, it is becoming easier to take him for granted at this point and lose track of how incredibly impressive what he is doing is. Of the 3 and despite the strong play of the other 2, I think Noah Hanifin still has the highest upside. The other 2 are great skaters too, but I think Noah Hanifin is in an elite category especially if you adjust for the fact that he is 18 years old. That alone puts his ceiling incredibly high, but I am nearly equally encouraged by his intangibles including his maturity, attitude and ability to be coached among other things.
The young D is most equipped to lead the Canes back to the playoffs
If the Hurricanes are going to rise up the ranks in the next couple years and become a playoff team or better, it is incredibly likely that the push will be led by the defense. It is where the team is by far the strongest in terms of future players right now. For the emerging blue line to drive the team into the top half of the NHL, they will need to be more than just serviceable and good enough. They will need to be great. Great for a blue line in today’s NHL is not about just being able to defend adequately. Great is about driving the play, moving the puck and generating offense.
Jaccob Slavin plays today most like what I think the future needs to look like
And that is where I think Jaccob Slavin is in 1 regard the most interesting of the Canes young defensemen to watch develop and also why I think he might be the greatest harbinger of the future. Especially the opening night version of Hanifin/Murphy looked more focused on staying out of trouble and not making mistakes. The result was a pair that tried to play efficiently and mostly safe – probably too safe. I clamored awhile back for the Canes coaching staff to unshackle Hanifin/Murphy, tell them to push pace and attack and live with mistakes that would come (hopefully with positives). Murphy had opened things up a bit since the start of the season, and Hanifin is increasingly showing flashes of doing more offensively. Brett Pesce’s rise actually reminds me of Justin Faulk’s start. Faulk was limited offensively early in his NHL tenure. He spent significant time building a foundation in sound defensive play and safe and efficient play moving the puck. The offense came later and gradually before a break out 2014-15 season. Pesce’s start has been similar. His early games were characterized by being incredibly efficient with the puck starting with a foundation rooted in defense. He too has shown flashes of bringing more offensively of late, so just maybe that is the next wonderful surprise in his game. But if I generalize the 3 of Murphy, Hanifin and Pesce at the current moment in time, I would say that all have significant upside in terms of generating offense but that it is still mostly untapped. A focus that leans toward building a defensive base is not a bad thing and obviously worked incredibly well for Justin Faulk.
That is where I see a striking difference in Jaccob Slavin’s play. He is only 4 games deep in NHL experience, but I see more of the skating, creating and attacking style of play in his game straight out of the gate in the NHL. Whereas the others might have dialed down the creativity and offense just a little while trying to build a foundation in the NHL, I think Slavin’s game arrived as is, intact from the lower levels. He has some Joni Pitkanen in him. He looks incredibly comfortable with the puck on his stick even having a slight preference to keep it. And I see him as looking to make something happen with the puck not just safely get rid of it. And that is the path to the blue line boosting the offense and driving improvement and greatness.
Most interesting development path
For me, that makes Jaccob Slavin’s development path possibly the most intriguing of the young defensemen right now. It might sound strange since he does not have a scoring point through 5 games, but I think Slavin’s style of play is the path to generating offense in bunches from the back end. It also carries a higher level of risk in the risk/reward scheme, so it will be interesting to see how quickly he can figure it out and how great the learning curve is. In addition, I think there is a decent possibility that if Jaccob Slavin can get going in terms of pushing pace and making things happen that there could be a ‘me too’ effect that sees the other rookies open things up a bit more. And that is the path to the holy grail for the Carolina Hurricanes – rebuilding the team’s style of play around a blue line that attacks, puts teams on their heels and generates offense at an elite level matched by only a handful of NHL teams.