Today’s Daily Cup of Joe checks in with each of the members of the Hurricanes blue line offering an eclectic mix of assessment points and also random observations.
With Roland McKeown now looking at least serviceable in two games at the NHL level on the right side, Klas Dahlbeck’s role could be shrinking further. He might now be only depth for the left side and the player best suited for the #7 slot in the press box. The younger options like McKeown are best served in the lineup at the NHL level or otherwise playing heavy minutes in Charlotte.
I have been (fairly in my opinion) hard on the defensive part of Justin Faulk’s game again during the front part of the 2017-18 season.
When I try to think through what is going on, I think the biggest problem is a combination of two things. First is that he seems to miss too often in terms of deciding when/when not to try to jump up and make a play on a puck. Aggressiveness is preferred over passive play stylistically, but there is the risk of making mistakes and letting the puck get behind you for an odd man rush and/or scoring chances. Second is that Faulk just does not have the quickness to minimize the level of problem when he does make a wrong decision nor does he have the same ability to recover as say Slavin or Pesce. Both Slavin and Pesce play an aggressive forward brand of hockey, and they do make some mistakes pushing forward. But I think the key difference between them and Faulk right now is that when they do make a mistake, they are more often able to at minimize the problem or quickly recover to at least get partly back into the play.
It has been gradual, but I really like the trajectory for Haydn Fleury right now. He logged a new high of 17:33 of ice time in game #10 against Anaheim and then beat that by a wide margin with 21:26 of ice time against Arizona in game #12. He has been either an even or positive player in six straight games.
He looked a bit shaky in his first try to step into the top 4 in the third period of the Anaheim game, but I think it is possible that Fleury could play his way into the top 4 this season.
His 2017-18 season thus far has been a roller coaster ride for me. The positive is that the latest leg has been back up. I thought Hanifin looked very good in the preseason and most significantly was more aggressive in terms of defending the puck and taking away time and space. But his play on opening night was mostly a train wreck, and he has had his share of issues defensively since then such that he has found his way back down into what I would currently consider to be the third defense pairing.
But along the way, I think he is trending back up currently. His game is really two different stories right now. The downside that is glaringly noticeable at times is that Hanifin’s defensive game is still very much a work in progress, some nights more than others. But for those able to not throw out the baby with the bath water, I think Hanifin’s game offensively is ramping up. He looks increasingly comfortable keeping the puck on his stick and has significantly improved his ability to slow things down to identify skating openings before he heads up ice. The result has been an increase in the inner Joni Pitkanen-like ability that is emerging in his game.
Maybe ironically, I think the next step up for Hanifin lies not in how well he plays but rather in how well he plays when he is bad. Even if the defensive game is slower developing, critical for him to be capable as a top 4 at the NHL level is to rebound quickly when he makes a mistake and not allow things to quickly compound into a bad night overall.
I am starting to think that maybe he is one of those players who is a game player. By that I mean that he seems to find a higher gear and play better than maybe his natural skill set would project to.
In preseason before the 2016-17 season, McKeown rose from probably #10 or #11 on the team’s depth chart to more or less win an opening night roster slot with his play in preseason game action. He passed veterans like Matt Tennyson and Trevor Carrick and also more exciting rising stars like Haydn Fleury and Jake Bean to be the sixth best defenseman based in preseason action. Francis ultimately decided to add veteran help and to give McKeown the year in the AHL to develop, but McKeown’s ability to rise up and seize the opportunity should not be underestimated.
Fast forward to the 2017-18 season, and he now has two NHL games under his belt largely without incident. Sure, his role and ice time have been limited to under 10 minutes in each of the games, but he has not stood out negatively on the defensive side of the puck. He also had a big game offensively in his second start, collecting two assists. Both were second assists but were both also the variety that saw a heady McKeown pass create good shooting opportunity that ultimately led to a goal.
My assessment of McKeown in preseason this year is that at this juncture of his development that McKeown will be challenged by his mobility. He tends to compensate a bit by sitting farther back at times. The positive is that he does do a pretty good job of not letting players/the puck get behind him, but the trade off is that he often leaves too much time and space and lacks the aggressiveness of players like Slavin and Pesce. But in the end, it is less about style of play and more about just getting the job done which thus far in his young career he has in NHL game action.
His absence due to injury solidifies his role as the unsung hero of the blue line. Pesce is not as smooth of a skater or as flashy as his fellow defensemen. His greatest strength ironically is that he does not stand out. He just plays sound, even if unspectacular, hockey at a highly consistent rate. That type of play does not regularly land a defenseman in the three stars or the highlight videos, but that type of play does play a huge role in building a blue line that gives the team a chance to win with three goals most nights.
I am about a week deep into suggesting that Jaccob Slavin be given at least a try out on the power play. IF the power play were functioning well and producing, I like the idea of spending all of Slavin’s minutes playing defense at even strength or shorthanded. But that is not the case. The power play which has a strong potential to swing outcomes of games is floundering right now. It increasingly boggles my mind that the coaching staff is overlooking the fact that potentially the team’s best player is an option to boost the power play.
An interesting aside related to Slavin is a short discussion of the Carolina Hurricanes and the word “fast.” I think “fast” is overused in today’s NHL. The game is trending toward faster and each and every team in the NHL has an element of fast in their lineup and also likes to think that they play that way. To me, fast comes in two basic varieties for NHL hockey. First is the simple definition that just has players flying up the ice and/or behind the defense for breakaways. Second is more quickness in transition such that a team can go from defense to offense quickly and move the puck and attack before the opponent recovers to play defense.
In looking at the first version of “fast”, I think it can be overestimated how much raw speed the Hurricanes have in their lineup simply because of how trendy it is to talk about being and playing fast. I think Jaccob Slavin qualifies as fast as demonstrated by his ability to use even a small gap in the neutral zone to gather a head of steam that backs up opposing defensemen and makes room for him to carry into the offensive zone and gain the offensive blue line by flying to the outside. Noah Hanifin also qualifies as fast in my opinion. But in terms of raw straight line speed, I am not sure any other Hurricanes players really qualify in the pure sense. Skinner has quickness and his unique shifty ability that is hard to defend, but I do not see him as a burner. I would say the same about Aho, Staal, Teravainen and others at forward who bring an element of mobility to their game but not so much the straight line foot race variety.
Trevor van Riemsdyk
He has proven to be a good under the radar acquisition. I am not sure that he is more than a #5/#6 defenseman, but I think that he is a good 2017 NHL #5/#6 defenseman who possesses the ability to move the puck out of the defensive zone. In a league that has mostly transitioned away from the old school, physical stay-home defensemen of years past, a surefire recipe for trouble on the third pairing is to put together two defensemen who are limited in their ability to move the puck. That is a recipe for being preyed on by tough match ups, getting hemmed in the defensive zone and ultimately allowing too many scoring chances.
Van Riemsdyk is new school third pairing in the sense that moving the puck out of his own end is a strength. In addition, that skill set fits very well with helping rookie Haydn Fleury acclimate to the NHL in a situation that keeps him from facing too much pressure to move the puck under duress.
What say you Caniacs?
Who else has observations or comments on the blue line?