Since Ron Francis took over as general manager, his mantra has been building depth in the organization and returning to winning in a sustainable way. That program took a leap forward last season when 3 young defensemen rose to the NHL level ahead of schedule and did not look out of place doing it. Noah Hanifin, Brett Pesce and Jaccob Slavin jumped into the mix on defense joining Ryan Murphy who saw NHL ice time prior to 2015-16. Below are a few quick comments on next steps in the still ongoing development for a few of these players who are key to the Hurricanes future.
I think the next steps for Noah Hanifin include a balance of simultaneously leveraging his strengths and rounding out his game to address less mature parts of his game. On the strengths side, the gift that made Noah Hanifin a #5 overall draft pick in a deep draft is his elite skating with a dose offense. Thus far, we have only seen the tip of the ice berg for what is possible for Noah Hanifin in terms of using his skating ability to push pace through the neutral zone, attack the defense and generate offense. The ceiling version of Noah Hanifin is a 50-point defenseman cut from a mold similar to Joni Pitkanen. The other side of the ledger is that Hanifin must continue to improve his attention to detail on the defensive side of the puck. He has shifts where he dials in and is great defensively but still too many lapses in terms of coverage and decision-making.
Maybe more than any other player on the Hurricanes roster, Noah Hanifin’s natural skill set fits the new ‘skating above all else’ NHL. Hanifin’s combination of elite skating combined with a comfort, calm and patience with the puck on his stick can be the defenseman equivalent of Jordan Staal’s ability to single-handedly transition the game from playing defense to attacking on offense. But to leverage this ability especially against the NHL’s best forwards, Hanifin needs to improve his ability to be sound and solid defending.
Jaccob Slavin is in some ways the opposite of Noah Hanifin. His game defensively is incredibly advanced for his age and level of experience. Part of it is his combination of quickness that gives him a larger margin for error than most. The other part is his courage and confidence to step up at the blue line and in the neutral zone to take away time and space and step into passing lanes.
In terms of playing with the puck on his stick, Slavin has shown the ability to handle the puck under duress and mostly avoid costly mistakes and turnovers. That first step is a strong foundation and makes it possible to survive against other teams’ best forwards without gifting them scoring opportunities. The result sometimes (necessarily) is to make simple plays to just move the puck forward and into less dangerous places. But I see 2 next steps forward for Jaccob Slavin. First is to begin to more regularly see beyond the first level of passes and begin to make more passes behind the first layer of the forecheck and the obvious passes that the defense accounts for. Finding a few more of those passes, importantly with good judgement that does not see a leap in bad turnovers, will obviously generate more offense. Less obvious but maybe just as important is that starting to exploit aggressive forechecks that get too far forward will back up the defense such that he will also begin to see more room to carry the puck himself. Second is to learn how to use his skating ability to change angles and open up passing lanes that are not initially there when moving from the defensive zone into the neutral zone.
The fact that Jaccob Slavin is already a reasonably sound top 4 defenseman is already impressive. The next step is to do a bit more offensively with the volume of ice time that he sees in that role.
Brett Pesce was actually the first of the trio to establish himself in the top 4 when he stepped into the hole left by James Wisniewski’s game 1 injury. I see the 2 halves to Brett Pesce’s development in his second NHL season. The first half if very similar to Jaccob Slavin. Right out of the gate and maybe even in over his head, Pesce had a Glen Wesley-esque ability to handle duress and pressure in his own end and avoid the costly mistakes that quickly end up in the back of your net. Pesce regularly demonstrates an ability to move the puck forward but has room to improve in terms of picking spots to make more assertive offensive plays when the opportunity presents itself. The combination of picking spots to make a few more passes that help the team transition more quickly to attack at the offensive blue line and continuing to join the rush when appropriate (which he does pretty well already) will help boost his offensive production. I think other next step upward for Pesce is to seize a leadership role on the penalty kill. His safe and sound style of play and natural knack for blocking shots has already earned him regular ice time on the penalty kill, but there is still maybe 1 notch higher for him in terms of becoming 1 of the elite blue line penalty killers in the entire NHL.
Ryan Murphy was selected in the middle of the first round largely due to his high-end skating ability. Converting this skill to the NHL level has been a step-wise process for Murphy. Murphy v1.0 made regular breathtaking runs up the ice but too often lacked vision and often skated himself into a dead end without puck support from the forwards that he blew past in the neutral zone. In addition, v1.0 of Murphy still needed work defensively. I actually thought that Murphy made progress defensively in 2015-16, but he was overshadowed by the trio of young defensemen who leapfrogged him on the Hurricanes depth chart. Murphy’s development checklist is a little bit like Hanifin’s in the sense that it has a balance of improving less mature parts of his game but also making sure he leverages the natural skill set that made him a high draft pick. On the ‘room for improvement’ side, I see 2 key areas for Ryan Murphy’s development defensively. First is that he needs to tighten up his game in terms of positioning. As a smaller player being even a little bit out of position can be costly because stronger forwards can use a small opening to get the puck and a front shoulder through a hole and then physically close Murphy out of the play with a path to the net. The other thing is that Murphy needs to aggressively engage the puck. Oftentimes smaller players err on the side of not engaging the puck. That just makes it easier for forwards to carve paths and use strength to their advantage.
From there, it is also important for Murphy to utilize his skating ability to drive play into the offensive zone and generate scoring chances. While Murphy’s defense does need to be serviceable, his path to being a good NHL player does not come from morphing into a stay-home defenseman. Rather, it comes from being good enough defensively and great offensively.