With a somewhat disappointing but also mostly positive overtime loss in Boston on Tuesday, the Carolina Hurricanes forged another game deeper into the season still in playoff position. With only 16 games to go, the team is in territory not seen since prior to the Bill Peters era. Obviously, there are multiple contributing factors. FINALLY getting at least league average goaltending (the Hurricanes are 12th right now but have been even better than that in the second half of the season) has been a huge boost. The change in attitude with Brind’Amour and Williams leading the way should not be discounted. The significant change in the roster during the summer played a role. The addition of Nino Niederreiter has had a larger effect than I think anyone could have anticipated.
A summer restart on the blue line
But when I way the various choices, I think that the single biggest factor is the emergence of a top of the league blue line. Since the emergence of Jaccob Slavin and Brett Pesce and the drafting of Noah Hanifin, the young blue line had been touted as the strength that would lead the team back to the playoffs. But though the potential was always there, the blue line had never quite materialized to be more than potential. Slavin and Pesce were fine as a shutdown type pairing, but neither scored much which is not ideal for a top pairing. Faulk was capable offensively but seemed to be in decline defensively. And for as much potential as Noah Hanifin had, he had yet to become more than a third pairing defenseman.
Then this past summer happened. First, the team added Calvin de Haan as a free agent to bring another steady, veteran, stay-home defenseman into the mix. Then the team parted ways with Hanifin and his high-end potential and replaced him with a proven defenseman. Suddenly, the Hurricanes had five top 4 type defenseman, a steady Trevor van Riemsdyk behind them and some youth for depth.
The 2018-19 season
The start of the 2018-19 season was a mixed bag. Slavin/Hamilton seemed to have plenty of skating and skill, but the duo just seemed disjointed at times. Newcomer Dougie Hamilton went from wowing with his skating ability to being ‘meh’ in regular season game action to worse. Slavin was better, but the pairing seemed to come up short of what one would hope for. De Haan/Faulk actually struggled a bit early but then seemed to click and become at times the team’s best defensive pairing. Faulk was not scoring much, but he looked better defensively next to de Haan. And Brett Pesce seemed overslotted initially in what would be considered the third pairing, but he played well.
When I net out the first couple months of the season for the blue line, it was decent and probably improved from the 2017-18 season, but especially given the amount of salary budget invested in the group, it did not seem to be firing on all cylinders.
But perhaps, the group with two new defensemen out of six just needed some time to jell. And that seems to be what happened at the midway point of the season. All of a sudden, Dougie Hamilton was playing the more aggressive fourth forward brand of offensive hockey that put him among the leading blue line scorers in 2017-18. At least temporarily separated from Hamilton, Slavin seemed to get back to his roots as a tremendous on the puck defender. Pesce remained steady. Faulk (a bit later) started scoring. And de Haan seemed to tidy up his game a bit too.
And maybe most significantly, the group started to drive the offense more. That, I think, marked a critical turning point for the defense. In today’s NHL, it is not enough to be steady and sound defensively. In a league where scoring balance is needed, good defenses produce offensively and help tilt the ice down hill for the forwards. A quick look at the Hurricanes defense scoring shows that sure enough the team turning the corner in the win-loss column came with a higher gear in terms of offensive production.
Points per game and goal scoring both doubled in January and have continued strong in February. Though I do think the play of the depth forwards has played a role in the team’s improved scoring, I think the catalyst is actually the defense.
What say you Canes fans?
1) Do you think the team playing better in January boosted the blue line scoring? Or do you think the arrival of the blue line scoring in January boosted the team?
2) Per my article awhile back, do you think it could be viable at least through 2019-20 to keep five top 4 type defenseman? Or does salary budget and the impending expansion draft mean that the team should trade a defenseman this summer?
3) For those who track the rest of the league reasonably closely, where do you figure the Hurricanes blue line ranks across the NHL?