On Wednesday afternoon, I found my way into a Twitter discussion about the possibility of checking to see if just maybe the Colorado Avalanche want to go knee-jerk reaction based on their slow start, shakes things up and part with Matt Duchene. I have been too busy to do much broad hockey reading of late, but to be clear this is not a rumor based on something I have seen. This said, Duchene was rumored to be available over the summer.
One thing led to another and that discussion evolved into Faulk for Duchene. My hope is more than Francis can pull off another of his occasional heists and steal Duchene for some package not including Justin Faulk. For Wednesday’s Daily Cup of Joe, I wrote in more detail about the prospects of trading Justin Faulk. Though I would love to see the Hurricanes add a young but proven top 6 scorer (remember, I clamored for Ryan Nugent-Hopkins all summer) and think Duchene’s speed is a great fit for Peters’ system, I actually voted ‘no’ on trading Faulk for Duchene. At a basic level, I think that top 2 defensemen are rarer/more valuable than top line forwards of comparable age and performance.
But my no vote has the important built-in assumption that Justin Faulk find his game and return to being a top 2 type defenseman. In my estimation, he has not lived up to this billing thus far in 2016-17. This post walks through the first third of the 2016-17 NHL season for Justin Faulk.
Starts as top defenseman and has usual(?) slow start (Games 1-6)
Coming out of the gate, Justin Faulk was tagged to be the leader and top defenseman on a young Hurricanes blue line. Faulk spent the majority of the preseason on a top pairing with Jaccob Slavin and started the regular season the same way. The 2 were not great together and were separated after only 2 games. Faulk’s start was 2 completely different stories depending on whether you evaluated his defense or his offense. On offense, he started fast with 1 goal and 3 assists in the first 3 games. Defensively, he seemed to be off to the same slow start that had plagued him dating back to his rookie season. In a post on October 17, I broke down the Hurricanes’ breakdowns from the first 2 losses with the aim of dispelling the (incorrect in my opinion) assertion that the Canes’ youth was the problem. Justin Faulk topped the leader board for my ‘oops’ statistic through 2 games suggesting that he was a central figure in the Hurricanes blowing 3-goal leads in consecutive games to open the season.
The general trajectory continued in the remaining 4 road games that saw Faulk reunited with Ron Hainsey. He was right in the middle of a good number of Canes scoring plays. Faulk added another goal and assist and helped drive the offense by attacking offensively. But the defensive side of the puck also maintained the same trajectory. Faulk was on the ice for 5 goals against in the 4 road games and a minus in 3 of the 4 games (minus 5 overall for the set of 4 games). When the 6-game opening road trip ended, Faulk had collected 4 points but also a minus 6 suggesting that even with the strong scoring output, the Canes were losing much more than they were winning with Faulk on the ice.
The home start and an injury setback (Games 7-14)
At least in terms of being on the ice for a bunch of goals against, a run of home games after the long road trip to start the season seemed to help stabilize things for Faulk. In a run of 5 games with 3 at home, the minuses subsided, but to me Faulk still seemed to be a step slow in terms of quickness and acceleration and was still in the middle of too many ‘oopses’.
When it was announced that Faulk would be out of the lineup nursing a minor injury, I actually viewed it as a small positive or at least a negative with a silver lining. The fact that Faulk was dinged up could theoretically have played into his performance, and the prospect of a fresh start had the potential to be a positive.
Faulk missed games on November 8, 10 and 12 before returning the lineup on November 15.
A fresh start and a new role (Games 15-17)
The 3-game layoff saw Justin Faulk return to the lineup with a familiar partner in Ron Hainsey but in a new, lesser role. Over the course of Faulk’s early struggles and then his 3 games out of the lineup, Jaccob Slavin and Brett Pesce continued their strong play, built chemistry and became the team’s top defense pairing, tasked with shutting down the other teams’ best players on a nightly basis. That shifted Hainsey/Faulk into a still important but slightly decreased role as the second pairing.
At home, Peters’ successful formula was to play strength on strength. As much as possible he tethered Slavin/Pesce to Jordan Staal’s line and tried to get them as much ice time as possible against visitors’ scoring lines. The formula worked. After losing the opening game of the 5-game home stand, the Hurricanes reeled off 4 straight wins. In a couple of the game recaps, I noted the improved play of Hainsey/Faulk. More than anything, the simple decrease in the volume of miscues made them less conspicuous and just a quiet but sound part of a lineup that was playing much better defensively.
Back to the road (Games 18-21)
After a 5-game run of home cooking and a surge that pulled the Hurricanes closer to the pack in the Eastern Conference, the team took back to the road.
Week 1 of 4 straight that featured a bunch of airplanes and hotels found Bill Peters seeking a new winning formula for the road. On the road, it made little sense to build a defensive power line of Jordan Staal with Slavin/Pesce. Opposing coaches would just use their last change to steer their top scoring lines around it and cherry pick more favorable match ups.
With 3 defense pairings and 4 forward lines and the fact that the 2 sets often change separately when there are not face-offs to make things easier, it is not feasible to completely play games with units of 5, but the shift charts pretty clearly show Coach Bill Peters’ decoupling Slavin/Pesce and Faulk’s line and trying to get Staal’s line out with Hainsey/Faulk once the team took to the road. The results were not disastrous, but they were not great either. In 3 tight-checking 2-1 games on the road during Thanksgiving week, Staal, Faulk and Hainsey were out on the ice for a goal against in each game but on the ice for no goals for. At the time, the new formula seemed to be a failure, but in retrospect (see below) perhaps it was the best that Peters could do given what he had at the time. The first road-heavy week finished with a strong effort by Hainsey/Faulk at home and a Canes win.
On the road part 2 minus Jordan Staal (Games 22-25)
The downside of the Hurricanes win against the Florida Panthers on November 27 was that Jordan Staal was dinged up with a concussion. Road-heavy week 2 would see the Hurricanes playing without their best defensive forward and puck possession driver, and Hainsey/Faulk minus a fairly regular support system provided by Jordan Staal during many shifts the week before.
The results were not good and actually made Hainsey/Faulk’s 1 goal against per game the previous week with Jordan Staal in tow look pretty good. In 3 road losses that week, Faulk was a minus 5 in those 3 games, all of which were Canes losses.
First in New York after building a 2-goal lead, the Hurricanes collapsed and lost 3-2. The first goal saw Faulk defending in front of the net when Jeff Skinner gave up inside position to a Rangers defenseman who finished a rebound. The second goal saw Hainsey make a bad turnover at the offensive blue line but Faulk in decent position to defend a rushing Rick Nash. Faulk did very little to take anything away from Nash who snapped a shot up over Ward off the crossbar and in. The final goal again saw Justin Faulk at the top of the crease when a rebound bounced around and eventually was deposited behind Ward for the game-winning goal. When the dust settled, the Hurricanes had blown a 2-goal lead to lose 3-2, and all 3 goals had Justin Faulk in the general vicinity of the crease when the shots went in. (Recap that details Hainsey/Faulk issues on specific goals against is HERE.)
Then in Boston, Hainsey/Faulk had a relatively uneventful night (in a good way) but were on the ice when Boston scored with 30 seconds remaining to send the game to overtime. Boston eventually won in a shootout.
Finally back in New York, the Hurricanes entered the third period tied at 1-1 only to give up 3 goals and lose 4-2. Hainsey/Faulk was on the ice for the final 2 Rangers’ goals. (Recap with Hainsey/Faulk details is HERE.)
Against Tampa Bay at home on Sunday, the week again featured a Hurricanes home win to close out the week. Again at home, Faulk had the good version of a quiet night on a solid night for the Canes defensively that resulted in a tight checking 1-0 overtime win.
Last leg of road run (in process) (Game 26)
As of writing this early evening on Thursday (before Canes game) the third week of the road-heavy stretch and second week minus Jordan Staal started roughly. The Hurricanes had 3-1, 4-2 and 5-3 leads before imploding to the tune of 3 goals against in the third period including 2 in the last 5 minutes. Hainsey/Faulk were on the ice for all 3 of the third period goals against. If you missed the late start or managed to erase the painful memory, the recap with notes from Hainsey/Faulk’s struggles is HERE.
The net result now one-third of the way into the 2016-17 season is that Justin Faulk has underperformed and not lived up to hopes and expectations that he would lead the Hurricanes young blue line. Especially on the road, he has been front and center in the Hurricanes struggles. Opposing scouts and coaches have noticed and have exploited Faulk’s ice time on the road to the tune of Faulk being a whopping minus 17 through 16 road games. I recognize that plus/minus at a summary level can be misleading, but between the details above and the individual game recaps, there is enough direct evidence that the Hurricanes losing by a goal per game with Faulk on the ice at even strength is not just bad luck or uncontrollable circumstances. It is largely a result of his play and more specifically breakdowns and coverage issues (‘oopses’ as I labeled them in my tongue in cheek post awhile back) that make some Corsi points much greater than others.
So where do we go from here?
There are 2 paths. The first question is whether Faulk is healthy. He just does not look right in terms of reaction time, acceleration or mobility in general. If there is not an injury explanation, that is a huge concern for me. Today’s NHL as evidenced by Slavin and Pesce’s rapid ascension from college to an NHL top pairing in less than 2 years is a testament to that. If Faulk is in fact dinged up, the question is whether he needs some time off to recover or if it is just a matter of continuing to slog through it.
If Faulk is healthy, then I think it is still mostly a matter of nervous patience. It is important to note that Faulk is not a prospect who is projected to play at a higher level but has never actually proven it is possible. Faulk has proven that he is capable of more. Based on that, I voted against the idea of trading Faulk in today’s daily post. I just think that as much as the Canes could use another proven top-tier scorer like Matt Duchene that top pairing defensemen are rarer and more valuable than first line forwards. And though I do think Faulk has underperformed through the first third of the season, I am not ready to do a knee-jerk reaction trade.
Here is hoping that Faulk can get his feet under him and help lead the way for the next leg up for the Carolina Hurricanes 2016-17 season.