With most of it for next week when the Canes have a layoff, I hope to take a look at each of the Canes defensemen with a special emphasis on the young ones who are the core of the team’s future.
The team entered the summer with a bright future on the blue line and exited it with even more hope and optimism as the youth movement looked good first in prospect camp, then in Traverse City and finally in preseason. Now 10 games into the NHL season, the cause for optimism has grown even more with Noah Hanifin jumping right in at the NHL level and looking ready to learn at the highest level and now with Brett Pesce also stepping up and not at all looking out of place in a top 4 role through 3 games.
Both of these players and the others on the way will inevitably have their ups and downs along the way, but the future has never looked brighter (literally) for the future of the Canes defense. During the Canes layoff next week, I hope to profile each of the defensemen with a ‘where are they now/what’s next’ format especially for the kids. But for today’s Daily Cup of Joe, here is an appetizer with a few random thoughts on the 2 players who could make up the Canes top D pairing in the near future.
Faulk’s trend from Thursday and a possible relapses are something to keep an eye on. He has been slow out of the gate a couple times in his career but not this year. Through 9 games, his handful of mistakes in the middle of solid play have almost all been the result of trying to do too much a few times to help the scoring woes. But he had a rough outing against the Islanders on Thursday. Maybe more significantly, it was not simply a poor decision or 2. Physically, he just seemed stuck in cement.
Over the course of a long 82-game season a couple downer games are inevitable and a few stretches where a player is just not as sharp physically because of injury or fatigue is also normal, but specifically with Justin Faulk I think there are a couple things to watch:
1) Can he dial his game down to a simpler level to click off shifts on these off nights without trying to do what he just cannot and having breakdowns in the process? Maybe he leans on his partner to carry the puck a bit more. Maybe he has to just play a steady gap on the rush instead of stepping up to attack at the blue line. And maybe he needs to pass on a chance to fully join the rush and instead settle for being available as a back pass. Faulk had ‘oopses’ on Thursday in each of these categories.
=> Playing at the highest level every game just is not an option. Can Justin Faulk recognize when he just does not have the last gear and adapt his game?
2) Will he go through growing pains trying to add ice time? Last season, Faulk averaged 24:26 of ice time, so trying to step up to 27+ seems like an insignificant increase. But it is not as simple as tacking on an additional few reps at the end of a workout. Instead, it is like taking a workout that is already challenging and then doing more sets in the gaps that were previously used for recovery. When I think of watching players like Lidstrom, Pronger, Niedermayer, etc. eat up crazy amounts of ice time basically playing every other shift, the thing that always stood out to me was how easy they made it look. There was an element of being in great physical condition and being great skaters, but there was also an element of picking their spots on when to spend energy. Justin Faulk plays a very rugged brand of hockey that requires more energy than less physical defensemen. Pronger was similar, but I am not sure many of the other minute-eaters in today’s NHL are.
=> It is too early to make judgments based on 1 rough game, but it is possible that Faulk will need to adapt his game slightly to take on even more minutes over a full 82-game season and still stay fresh.
3) Will Coaches Bill Peters and Steve Smith be able to help manage Faulk’s energy level and skating legs if necessary? Peters received the obvious message on Thursday and dialed Faulk back a bit. Even with a shift in overtime, he logged only 22:23 of ice time. His only game with less was the 4-1 loss to the Caps that saw Coach Bill Peters wisely conserve him in a game that the Canes were out of early.
=> With a young blue line, can the coaching staff still find a way to manage Faulk’s ice time especially when energy levels and skating strength warrants it?
I wrote that I think some time to ‘go be 1 of the best players on the ice’ in the AHL could be a valuable component to Noah Hanfin’s 2015-16 development. This is not an indictment of his level of play or his ability to compete at the NHL level. You can read that in total HERE if you missed it.
Rather, it is a vote for 2 things:
1) The importance of having great young players spend time playing in situations/leagues where they can truly be great.
2) Making sure that great young players do not stray too far from their identity and natural style of play in trying to just survive and adapt at a higher level.
On that note, I am mostly okay (despite voting otherwise) with keeping Hanifin at the NHL level. But I am strongly against what Coach Bill Peters did this week in saying that Hanifin would stay at the NHL level for the full season. Might this prove to be the best course of action? Yes. But what if it does not? What if Noah Hanifin hits a physical wall around the 40-game mark (which is about where his season used to end)? Or what if he just hits a rough stretch and his confidence seems to dip such that a stint of easier play could help?
Ron Francis chose his words carefully all summer to suggest that the team thought Noah Hanifin could play at the NHL level this season, but also balancing that purposefully and carefully with language to the effect of ‘doing what is best for Noah Hanifin’s development.’
=> With Peters’ comments this week, a trip to Charlotte if it ever made sense is positioned much more as a demotion or a failure to play well enough to stick to the committed plan.
I do not think that is a good place to be with Hanifin at this early juncture of his first season in the NHL as an 18-year old.
=> It will be interesting to see if GM Ron Francis tries to go over the top of this Peters’ statement to buy a bit more flexibility and decrease any negative perception that could now come from time in Charlotte.
Why am I so concerned if I think Hanifin has looked capable so far at the NHL level?
The reason that I am so sensitive to this situation is because I think a factor in Elias Lindholm’s current situation is a result of then GM Jim Rutherford’s mishandling of his rookie season. Rutherford touted Lindholm as a surefire NHLer before he even set foot in Raleigh. Lindholm then proceeded to have a rocky lead up to the start of that rookie season. He injured a shoulder early in prospect camp in July and missed part of that. It was serious enough that he was still dinged up a month later. He then was injured again in preseason. By the time the NHL season started, there were questions as to his physical readiness and adjustment to the smaller ice surface. And lack of reps and preparation did not put him in the greatest place preparation-wise. But since it was already pre-ordained that Lindholm was to be an NHL player for the 2013-14 season, there seemed to be no backing out. I have to wonder if Lindholm’s modest step-wise development is partly a function of getting too far away from his game in trying to adapt what he had before he was ready to survive. He was labeled as a Peter Forsberg type coming into the draft. There are flashes of that kind of physical play, but they are very intermittent. In trying to survive and avoid injuries past the first 2 in his rookie year, did he adjust his game away from what it should have been? As a player who was maybe only depth player capable in his first and maybe even part of his second NHL season, did Lindholm settle into a middle level because he spent too much time not being called upon or able to regularly be 1 of the best 2-3 players on the ice?
So getting back to Hanifin, while I think he ‘can’ play at the NHL level, I worry about 2 things:
1) Could he benefit from at least some stretches of time when he can just go out and play with the mentality to take over the game?
2) In trying to take a big step up to the NHL level is there a risk that he buttons things down too much during the early learning phase and strays from the core of his game which is that of a skating, puck-carrying defenseman?
One thing is certain. Having an 18-year old defenseman even worth the debate of whether he is best served at the NHL or AHL level is a very good problem to have, and it bodes well for the team’s future.