The blue line as ‘the’ driving factor (my opinion) in Canes’ rise
Obviously there were a number of other positive factors too, but when the Hurricanes maybe jumped ahead of schedule and made the 2019 NHL Playoffs in Rod Brind’Amour’s first year as head coach, my opinion is that the blue line was the single biggest factor. Jaccob Slavin and Brett Pesce had officially established themselves as top-tier defensive defensemen who played an aggressive style that offered nothing for time and space for skilled forwards. Primarily separated after playing together in previous years, they represented a strong cornerstone for both of the first two pairings. After starting slow with his new team, Dougie Hamilton settled down defensively, surged offensively and meshed well with Jaccob Slavin. In also adding Calvin de Haan and not moving Justin Faulk after some rumblings and rumors, the team was also deep with players who could play in the top four. Calvin de Haan played quite a bit in the top four early in the season, and Justin Faulk settled into that slot later and played there in the playoffs. That meant that the team had an extra top four to cover in case of injuries, could have one to slot down (as Faulk and Hamilton both did for stretches early in the season) if not playing well and regardless of who was there had an incredibly good third pairing, especially with the steadiness of Trevor van Riemsdyk as the other half. Haydn Fleury managed only 20 games at the NHL level for the 2018-19 season because of the volume of quality veteran depth.
Complete changeover except for the two cornerstones
Fast forward to today, barely two years later, and of the team’s top seven defensemen only the cornerstones Jaccob Slavin and Brett Pesce remain.
By no means was the Canes blue line bad in 2020-21, but I do think the group went from being great to good. That was minus Calvin de Haan, Justin Faulk and Trevor van Riemsdyk. A 2021 trade deadline deal and off-season maneuvering saw Haydn Fleury and Dougie Hamilton depart.
Brady Skjei is maybe not as steady and as desired for a top four defensemen, but he has the physical tools and skating ability and has generally been capable playing next to Pesce.
Jake Gardiner will start the season on long-term injured reserve after another bout with a back injury. If, when or how much he can contribute going forward is up in the air.
Be it because of preferred strategy or just lack of equal or near equal options, the Hurricanes seemingly replaced Hamilton and filled the slot previously help by Haydn Fleury and then Jani Hakanpaa with a committee more so than direct replacements.
Ethan Bear acquired from the Edmonton Oilers in exchange for Warren Foegele is currently slotting next to Jaccob Slavin as a top four defenseman. Bear is an up and coming 24-year old defenseman who has the potential to be a steady and dependable defensive defenseman maybe a bit like Calvin de Haan. But he does not bring the nearly as much offensively as Hamilton.
That offense could come from controversial free agent acquisition Tony DeAngelo. On paper, DeAngelo is a great risk/reward addition if one looks past his checkered past (already wrote in some detail about that when he was signed). He finished with an impressive 53 points in 68 games for 2019-20 season and seemed to be on the rise before plummeting back to Earth when a locker room confrontation shortly thereafter saw him essentially booted from the New York Rangers. That pace is not significantly less than Hamilton’s blistering scoring pace from that season before his injury. DeAngelo can have his ups and downs defensively, so at least his starting point is probably safely down in the third pairing where Brind’Amour can manage match ups a bit, but he does have the potential to be a difference-maker offensively and fill a power play slot.
Ian Cole is more back in the category of steady even if unspectacular defensive defensemen. At 32 years old, he figures to be a steady veteran presence on the bottom pairing but could possibly slot higher for stretches if injuries or other issues necessitate it.
Finally, Brendan Smith adds low-cost depth the form of another player who could potentially fill a third pairing and power play slot. At a sub-$1 million salary, I would view him as depth that could help and cannot hurt.
What does it take to work?
I was torn on re-signing Dougie Hamilton, but my big question was how the team would replace him if he left. And here we are.
At least on paper, I think the blue line is underwhelming. I think the key is to what degree Slavin and Pesce can not only play well but also boost the level of play of their partners. For me, that is the path for the current blue line managing to play at the same level or close to what appeared to be stronger groups in recent years. The duo needs to be among the team’s best players in 2021-22, but that is actually not too big of an ask as the two are among the NHL’s best defensive defensemen and still in their prime.
With that, Ethan Bear could prove to be the key. Historically, I have never been particularly high on Skjei in a top four role, but giving credit where it was due, I thought he did his job in 2020-21. Especially in the Nashville playoff series when injuries had the blue line patched together with medical tape, he rose to the occasion, played a ton of minutes and helped the Hurricanes survive a challenging series. So if you start from believing that Skjei/Pesce are a capable second pairing which seems reasonable, the spotlight shifts quickly to Slavin’s pairing and the hole left by Hamilton’s departure. As noted above, Bear will not replace Hamilton offensively, but that is not necessary for things to work. In today’s NHL, you really only need one defenseman per power play unit, and there are other options for that. And the potential is there to make up Hamilton’s forward quantity goal scoring just by getting more goals from forwards. But what Bear does need to do is be competent defensively playing against the NHL’s best shift in and shift out. If Bear can hold his own doing that, the current configuration could work. If he cannot, I question whether any of the other options are well-suited to do so.
If things do not work as currently configured, Don Waddell has proven pretty adept at swinging trades in-season, so that is a possibility. Though spending a first and a third round draft pick and generally having a bias toward keeping draft capital, it does not seem like the Hurricanes have budgeted for such a deal. But now more in a ‘win now’ mode, I guess the team alters course if needed.
What say you Canes fans?
1) Do you agree with my assessment that the current group is much thinner and with more question marks than any Canes blue line in the Rod Brind’Amour era?
2) Do you think that Slavin and Pesce are strong enough players to boost who they play with and be the cornerstones of a rebuilt top four that is competent or better?
3) What do you see for role and success level for newcomers Bear, DeAngelo, Cole and Smith?