Entering the 2016-17 season, the Hurricanes’ blue line was believed to be a strength both for the current season and also leading the team’s ascent back to the playoffs either now or in the future.
Positive signs in 2015-16
That opinion was bolstered greatly in during the 2015-16 season when Noah Hanifin proved capable of learning at the NHL level and made the NHL roster coming out of training camp. That opinion was bolstered further when Brett Pesce parachuted right into a top 4 role and looked amazingly comfortable doing it after James Wisniewski was injured. And that opinion was supported even further when Jaccob Slavin arrived at the NHL level to stay in early December and grew to become the team’s best defensemen down the stretch of the 2015-16 season.
The belief that the blue line would eventually lead the Hurricanes back to the promised land, the playoffs, received another vote of confidence when the next wave of Canes’ defensemen, Haydn Fleury and Roland McKeown, had strong preseason campaigns prior the start of the 2016-17 season. General Manager Ron Francis (rightly in my opinion) opted to add depth from outside the organization to finalize the NHL roster for the start of the season, but it should be noted that Roland McKeown won the preseason tryout for for the last blue line spot before Francis decided to go a different direction in the best interest of long-term development.
A change in plans thus far in 2016-17
At least for 2016-17, the expectation was that young veteran Justin Faulk would lead the young blue line and anchor the team’s top defense pairing. He started in exactly that role alongside Jaccob Slavin, but that combination lasted only 2 games before the shuffling started. Along the way, now 28 games deep into the 2016-17 NHL season (written before Tuesday’s game), Faulk and Slavin were separated, Slavin/Pesce became the top pairing as Faulk has struggled to find his defensive game. I wrote about Justin Faulk’s slow start and role in the Hurricanes defensive collapses in the first week of the season. More recently, I wrote about the first third of the season for Faulk.
At the most basic level, I think Faulk must play at a higher level with the real test being on the road where opposing coaches are intentionally matching the leading scorers against the Hainsey/Faulk pairing with success. I noted the need for Hainsey/Faulk to play at a higher level as the team’s second defense pairing as a key requirement for the Hurricanes to be in the playoff hunt come late March.
An altered view of the Hurricanes’ blue line
Many might take that a step further and say that Justin Faulk needs to reassert himself as a top pairing defenseman. Though that would obviously be a positive development, I actually do no think it is necessary for the vision of a playoff Hurricanes’ team led by the strength of its blue line to be realized. One third of a season is too early to declare it final, but thus far Slavin/Pesce has leapfrogged Hainsey/Faulk and become the team’s top shutdown defense pairing. More significantly, they have looked completely competent and comfortable in that role. (As an aside if you missed it on Sunday, this week’s Canes Chronicle featured a slew of external articles on Jaccob Slavin and Brett Pesce.)
There is nothing wrong with changing the view and/or slotting such that Slavin/Pesce are now the top pairing.
If the Slavin/Pesce pairing can continue to play at the level they are right now, just maybe there is a path to Hurricanes blue line greatness that has Justin Faulk in a #3 or #4 role without the story being hindered. After a strong start, Faulk’s offense has cooled off, but somewhere along the way, he developed into a strong offensive defenseman. Before injury derailed the second half of his 2015-16 season, Faulk was among the league leaders in terms of both defensemen and power play goal scoring. That built upon his breakout campaign in 2014-15 that saw him net 15 goals and collect 49 points.
Though it was not the original plan, I think there is a valuable role for Faulk as an offensive-leaning, defensively competent #3 or #4 sitting behind Slavin/Pesce who take on the shutdown role. Interestingly, that might also be a better place for Faulk to sit and wait with a spot open next to him for Noah Hanifin to eventually claim. Hanifin’s greatest skill is his ability to skate and carry the puck. This skill set could fit incredibly well in driving fast transitions and possession into the offensive zone paired with a scoring-focused forward line and Faulk as a ready trigger man from the point. Thiis potential future scenarios could provide the offensive boost that takes the Canes’ emerging blue line from being not only competent defensively but also a catalyst for an attacking offense.
Importantly, both Faulk and Hanifin have work to do right now before that happens, but at a conceptual level the possibility is enticing. Faulk very simply needs to find a higher level of play defensively and get back to a level that he has seen but maybe not in pure form arguably since the departure of Andrej Sekera. Hanifin is gradually starting to use his skating ability to transport the puck through the neutral zone with speed but still needs to tighten up his defensive play before being ready to be ready to play in top 4 role.
But that future, if it materializes, meshes well with the shutdown-leaning Slavin/Pesce line.
That future also leaves an opening for the next wave of Hurricanes blue liners like Roland McKeown, Haydn Fleury, Trevor Carrick, Jake Bean and possibly Ryan Murphy to jockey for position to at least initially step into a somewhat sheltered third pairing role.
What say you Canes fans?
The view of the Hurricanes blue line present above looks a bit different than what most envisioned only a few months ago but arguably no less promising.
Are you okay with this alternate future?
Do you see Justin Faulk finding a higher gear and reclaiming a place in the top defense pairing?
What remains on Noah Hanifin’s work list before his moves up into the top 4?
Who from the ‘next wave’ do you think will ultimately seize roles in the third pairing or possibly even higher?