Yes, it is only three games, but enough cannot be said about the Carolina Hurricanes blue line through those three games. The group on the back end has put the team on its back and carried it offensively, defensively and otherwise to a 3-0 start to the 2019-20 season.
Today’s Daily Cup of Joe offers a set of quick hitters on the team’s blue line.
–The second ‘C’ stands for checking. Maybe lost amidst all the scoring, Jaccob Slavin has very clearly made a point to be more physical early this season. I would love to hear him speak about this in an interview to see if it is just a new initiative, if it is maybe leading by example now as an alternate captain or if maybe he would blow it off as nothing really, but my read through three games has him making more of a concerted effort to bang people. He dumped the mighty Alexander Ovechkin stepping up at the blue line on Saturday and did the same to a Lightning forward in the corner on Sunday in addition to finishing a couple checks harder than his historical average in Thursday’s opener. Time will tell, but I think we are seeing a new element to Slavin’s game.
–His game-tying tally on Saturday joining the rush in the middle lane from a ways back was a thing of beauty. That type of third attacker is very difficult for opposing teams to defend because if Slavin has even the slightest edge in the neutral zone even a hustling forward is going to be a step or two behind. Pesce did the same and just missed far side wide on Sunday. The wrinkle is that via communication or just structure off the rush, when entering 2v2, the Hurricanes forwards are regularly pushing to the outside which leaves the middle lane wide open for a third player, often but not always a defenseman, to join the rush from behind and step right into a grade A scoring chance.
I admit to having him pegged as a serviceable #4/#5 who could fill that role but ideally was pushed down the depth chart. Through three games, I think I underestimated him. What I like most about his play is that he has the same type of ‘leaning forward on his toes’ style as Slavin and Pesce in that his natural tendency is to step up and engage the puck whenever possible That will occasionally get you beat, but in today’s NHL I think taking away time and space is critical. And though he will not likely morph into a scoring defenseman, he is capable receiving and moving the puck. Edmundson very much makes the Hurricanes at least 5 1/2 players deep in terms of top 4 defenseman. That provides depth in case of an injury or a player slumping a bit. It should also go a long way toward balancing ice time to keep players fresh.
He is increasingly underrated. Without power play ice time, his scoring will likely lag at least a couple of his counterparts, but just like in 2018-19, his even strength scoring is likely to be on par with the group. In addition, I continue to think he is the steadiest of the defensemen defensively. He just makes so incredibly few mistakes especially for a player who plays an aggressive, forward game. He has also grown to become, in my opinion, the team’s best back end penalty killer. Add it all up, and whenever the broader hockey community wants to finally elevate Slavin into the top group, Pesce should be there with him.
Has he been the team’s best offensive player so far this season? I think so. With the possible exception of Erik Haula, Dougie Hamilton has played arguably the leading role on a power play that has scored timely goals so far this season. He has also contributed offensively at even strength. He even chipped in a shootout game-winner. When Hamilton is playing well like he is right now, his ability to play a fourth forward role with good judgment and without being a liability defensively is a game changer in the direction of new NHL offense that has five players reasonably capable of shifting positions to exploit time and space openings offensively. As a player who historically starts slow, will he be able to just skip that this season? If so, is a Brent Burns type of season possible in terms of offensive production? Three games is a bit early to count on it, but it is never too early to dream a bit.
As the player probably with the second greatest offensive defenseman resume to maybe only Dougie Hamilton, Gardiner has actually been fairly quiet except for his loud overtime game-winner on Saturday. I actually think his trajectory could follow Hamilton’s. Hamilton looked a bit lost at times early last season, and at times I think he was out of sync with teammates who did not yet know what to expect from his rover ways. Once everyone got on the same page, Hamilton exploded offensively in that fourth forward role in the second half of the season. I think it is possible that Gardiner requires a similar acclimation period for him to learn to read the forwards and vice versa. The good version of his quiet has been his defensive play. As a player with a reputation for leaning offense sometimes at the expense of defense, Gardiner has been steady without the puck so far which is encouraging.
I offered mixed reviews of Fleury in my recap from Sunday’s win over Tampa Bay. Though I am maybe less high on him than I was a few weeks ago, I think interesting is to consider whether the benchmark is just too high for a third pairing defenseman given the strength and depth of the Hurricanes group. There are teams that have much much less trying to fill bottom slots. The burning question for me is whether this represents a chance to just collect value for Fleury, move on and back fill the slot with someone like Forsling or whether the high benchmark problem suggests more patience. Edmundson and van Riemsdyk are both scheduled to be unrestricted free agents next summer, so the Hurricanes could find themselves needing more capable, inexpensive depth. Even if Fleury gets bumped out of the top 6 defenseman for much of the 2019-20 season, he might be significantly more valuable and another year more experienced right when Hurricanes need it for building the 2020-21 roster.
Trevor van Riemsdyk
From the underrated category is Trevor van Riemsdyk. The Hurricanes struggled mightily to get even serviceable from a third pairing with two young players for multiple years. Van Riemsdyk solidified the third pairing and in the process made for a good environment for young players to develop. In a game that requires a solid 12-14 minutes of ice time out of his role, quiet and steady should not be underappreciated from van Riemsdyk.
What say you Canes fans?
1) Who else wants to rave about the Hurricanes blue line? Over the course of the 2019-20 season, will it prove to be the absolute best in the NHL?
2) With the mobility, green light to jump into the play and (I think) system tweak to leave the middle lane open for defensemen on 2v2 rushes, what do you think is the ceiling for this group in terms of scoring for the 2019-20 season?