Jaccob Slavin and Brett Pesce’s key role in buying Bill Peters and the team time to figure things out
As I write this after 43 games of the 2016-17, the Hurricanes are more or less in a playoff spot. I would have to do some digging to give you a year, but the simple version is that it has been a long time since that has been the case.
There are obviously many players and factors that have contributed to the Hurricanes success at the midway point of the season. The leadership group has stepped up. Jeff Skinner is playing the same solid 2-way hockey that he did in 2015-16 and his scoring pace is even higher at about 70 points. Jordan Staal has not benefited from the line mate stability that accompanied his surge during the winter last season, but regardless of whom he is playing with, he continues to drive his line, puck possession and play into the offensive zone. Justin Faulk is again chipping in significant offense from the back end. Another new captain Victor Rask, along with Jeff Skinner, have bumped up to be the top scoring line without missing a beat. The young Fins on the third line have provided sporadic bursts of depth scoring that the Hurricanes have lacked for years. The fourth line eats up much of the ice time on the league’s leading penalty kill and has chipped in far more than its fair share of timely offense to boot. And Cam Ward has exceeded my expectations, was the team’s leader during the initial surge and has remained solid despite a heavy work load.
But with the team in total struggling defensively early and Hainsey/Faulk sputtering, I think one can make a compelling case that had Peters not found instant success in the newly-minted top pairing of 22-year old sophomores Jaccob Slavin and Brett Pesce the season might very well have imploded upon launch. Put together only 3-4 games into the season, the young duo rose up instantly and solidified 22 minutes of ice time defensively. Initially, that was enough that Coach Bill Peters had some chance to build a game around that at least on home ice. That home success that bought time for Peters to work on other things and also wait for things to come together for the success to expand.
Keys to Jaccob Slavin and Brett Pesce’s success
Both players have matured rapidly and adapted to NHL speed almost instantly, and each is doing a number of things well obviously, but if forced to boil down their strong play to a single foundational component, I actually think it is the same for both players. Both Jaccob Slavin and Brett Pesce are incredibly aggressive at taking away time and space for opposing forwards and have the right combination of judgement and quickness/skating ability that their aggressivenss comes with incredibly few mistakes that see them get beat or the puck get behind them. In today’s NHL with the speed and skill increasing rapidly, the only way to neutralize the top players in the league is to take away time and space and force them to make plays under duress and not necessarily on the schedule they prefer. It is this successful aggressiveness that permeates every aspect of Slavin and Pesce’s defensive play and makes them a legitimate top NHL defense pairing capable of slowing and even often stymieing the NHL’s best scorers.
Courage and ability to take away time and space at the defensive blue line
For Slavin, the aggressiveness is most noticeable at the defensive blue line. He is the best player on the Hurricanes right now and also the best in recent years at playing up in the neutral zone to help clog that important area of the ice up instead of sitting safely back at or even inside his defensive blue line. And after starting with a smaller gap than most, he allows the gap to shrink to almost nothing as the player/puck near the blue line. Instead of settling for sound butt to the net/between the player and goal sound positioning and skating backwards in reasonable position, Slavin regularly sets up a road block at or near the blue line that forces forwards to either beat him (which rarely happens) or unload the puck usually before they are ready (often a harmless dump in). In the emerging NHL in which speed and skill are increasing rapidly, taking away time and space is everything. Forcing rushing forwards to make a play on your schedule not theirs at the blue line disrupts timing and often forces lesser players like dumping the puck into the corner.
I give Slavin the slight edge (it is easily debatable), but Pesce’s play at the defensive blue is incredibly similar to Slavin’s. He too has the mobility but maybe more significantly the courage to step up and challenge instead of passively defending while staying in decent position but also giving up the time and space that skilled NHL forwards thrive on.
I challenge Hurricanes fans to watch a game with a close eye and tally for how frequently and successfully Pesce and Slavin engage the puck and try to take away options for forwards entering the offensive zone and then watch and tally for the other Canes’ defensemen. Most times it is night and day. Both Slavin and Pesce are incredibly good at taking away time and space at the defensive blue line with a nearly perfect combination of courage, judgement and skating ability.
Quickness, aggressiveness and closing ability in the defensive zone
In a similar vein, both players tend to read things well and even more so react quickly inside the defensive zone. In the limited cases where they might be slightly out of position of have left a gap on a potential shooter, they close incredibly quickly. Pesce and Slavin are both racking up blocked shots at a pretty high rate because they are very often quickly out on shooters.
I have not seen the stat tracked yet (someone holler if it is out there), but I would love to see a measure for blocked shots for how far the puck is off a player’s stick when blocked. My visual estimation says that an incredibly high number of Pesce and Slavin’s blocked shots come because of generally tight gaps to begin with and fast closing ability such that they are blocking more than a normal percentage of shots right off the shooter’s stick. This is preferred because these type of blocks tend to end up somewhere random like up in the screen and even if they do not, the goalie has some chance of reacting to pucks changing direction early. The alternative of blocking shots in front of the net is not necessarily a bad thing but it is less ideal in many cases because if those blocks deflect on net the goalie has no chance.
Poise with the puck on their sticks
The single thing that jumped out at me most with Brett Pesce in preseason last season was his calm and composure under duress with the puck on his stick. From day 1, he showed an ability to calmly handle pressure, make simple plays to move the puck forward and also the decision-making ability to recognize danger and potential bad decisions. He was very Glen Wesley-ish in terms of knowing when to eat the puck or play it to a safe place instead of taking a bad risk that can quickly end up in your net.
This season playing together, the duo has continued on that path. When retrieving pucks or winning them deep in the defensive zone, both players have developed an ability to gather a puck and then quickly make a short pass to get the puck out of danger and moving forward. These quick passes instantly relieve pressure and negate initial forechecking efforts and go a long way toward avoiding being hemmed in the defensive zone and instead transitioning to playing offense.
Uncanny understanding of stick position
Finally, both players are also ahead of their experience level in understanding how to use their sticks to defend passing and shooting lanes. The tight gaps and aggressiveness closing them on pass or shot attempts help, but there is also an element of understanding where the dangerous passing lane is and not allowing crafty NHL playmakers to manipulate stick position to open up passing lanes. Both players are incredibly good at using their sticks to limit what offensive players can go with the puck.
But there is still room to grow…
Make no mistake, where Jaccob Slavin and Brett Pesce are at such a young age and NHL experience level is absolutely phenomenal. But there is still room for both of them to grow. First, the NHL has made some adjustments for how they play against them with some success which will require them to also adjust slightly. In addition, there are elements of their game that are good but can be better still. Most notably, I think today’s NHL makes it nearly impossible for an old school ‘shutdown defenseman’ who lacks offensive ability to truly be elite. The way the game is played today and the way that offense is generated best by attacking with speed as a 5-man unit, it is vital for defensemen to be capable of being a strong part of the offensive attack. While I think that Slavin and Pesce both have the tools and have shown offensive capability, I also think that there is another level to be gained by both of them.
Either tomorrow or in the next few days, part 2 of this post will highlight areas for potential improvement still available in Slavin and Pesce’s already outstanding levels of play.