Today’s Daily Cup of Joe does the same exercise with the defensemen.
Bona fide top 4 defensemen capable of top pairing — Dougie Hamilton, Brett Pesce, Jaccob Slavin
The starting point for building the Canes blue is the trio of players at the top. Jaccob Slavin and Dougie Hamilton have found chemistry, complement each other well and were a legitimate top NHL pairing in 2019-20 before Hamilton’s injury. Brett Pesce has similarly proven capable of holding his own in a top pairing role against other teams’ best players. Also significantly, he showed the ability to be the foundation for a good second pairing as the leader of that pairing.
Just like the previous article which considers only actual play in the 2019-20 season with the Hurricanes, I think the list of players who are sure things for the top 4 ends there.
#4/#5 defensemen with potential to be capable top 4 defenseman — Haydn Fleury, Brady Skjei, Jake Gardiner
The next category includes two players who could round out the top 4. Both Fleury and Skjei have the physical skill set with good NHL size and good skating ability.
But where I differ with some opinions is that I do think there is a meaningful gap between Pesce and this group both in terms of level of play and certainty/being proven in this role.
After step-wise, gradual path to the NHL, Fleury made significant strides in 2019-20 and will enter the 2020-21 season on an upward trajectory. But important to note is that Fleury’s rise occurred mostly in a somewhat sheltered third pairing role that Brind’Amour shields a bit in terms of match ups. In my book, you can earn an audition for a top 4 role by playing well in a bottom pairing, but it is important to recognize that those are not remotely close to being the same job and that projecting good bottom pairing play into top 4 capability is fraught with peril. The two areas that held Fleury back previously were his gaps defensively and his propensity to make too many ‘safe turnovers’ opting to clear pucks to the neutral zone versus knowing how to find stick to stick outlets and having the patience to do so. Fleury made some strides in both areas, but this part of his game is still the deciding point between being a steady, competent third pairing defenseman versus being a top 4 who can log regular minutes against the opponents’ best players.
After being acquired at the trade deadline, Skjei played only two short stints with the Hurricanes separated by months because of the pandemic. I was not overly impressed with Skjei during the regular season stint. His propensity for ‘big oopses’ matched the negative part of reports I got on him from people who track the Rangers closely. He had a few too many of the high danger kind of turnovers in his own end, and he seems to have trouble sorting things out defensively under duress sometimes. With not quite the same level of scoring ability, Skjei reminds me a bit of Hamilton when he arrived. Hamilton arrived with everyone giving him credit for having top 4 or better skills physically, having the capability to play at a top pairing level but also a rap as making too many mistakes sometimes. My first impression of Skjei was the same. He had a run of solid hockey in a top 4 role alongside Joel Edmundson in the playoffs to get back to ‘half full’ in my book. I could really see him meshing well with Pesce who is as steady as they come to provide stability and also clean up a few messes if needed.
Gardiner struggled mightily in his first half season with the Hurricanes, but he did rebound roughly when the calendar flipped to 2020. He would seem to have top 4 capability based on previous experience and maybe his better play from January on, but my admittedly pessimistic outlook for Gardiner sees him only as a good #5. I just do not think he has the quickness and lateral mobility to consistently defend the top tier of NHL forwards. But at the top of his game and with a partner with chemistry, Gardiner is yet another defenseman who could slot into the top 4.
Most likely gone — Joel Edmundson, Trevor van Riemsdyk, Sami Vatanen
The top two tiers total six NHL level defensemen who are earning top 4 type salaries. Because of the depth and the budget already spent on the blue line, I would not expect the Hurricanes to re-sign any of Edmundson, van Riemsdyk or Vatanen. All three should get better offers from teams that more desperately need blue line help.
Depth — Jake Bean
Jake Bean is unproven at the NHL level, but as a player who has worked his way up the ladder and mastered the AHL level in 2019-20, he is ready to at least fill in at the NHL level. How he works out remains to be seen, but he is above the level that most teams have for depth in the #7 slot or below. Here is hoping that Brind’Amour gives him a decent audition and has the confidence to use him if injuries require depth.
Netting it out
If healthy, the Hurricanes have both top-end talent and depth/balance to again ice one of the best blue lines in the NHL.
Where I think I differ from many is considering quantity of depth and quality of top-tier talent to be interchangeable. I think Pesce is a full notch above the players in the next tier, and I also think pairing two of Skjei, Fleury and Gardiner to make a second pairing would be high risk.
Assuming I am correct that Pesce will not be considered for trades to add another forward, I think the key to the entire blue line (besides the injury wild card) in 2020-21 will be how well Pesce meshes with Skjei or Fleury. The Hurricanes are good enough at the top with Slavin/Hamilton. And the team has enough proven depth to be good in the third pairing. The tipping point for being decent versus great will be the level of play of the second pairing.
What say you Canes fans?
1) What are your thoughts on slotting the Hurricanes six experienced defensemen into these two groups?
2) Do you agree that Pesce is a notch above the other options for a second pairing and as such the foundation of the second pairing?
3) What are your thoughts on Skjei, Fleury and Gardiner for slotting into the second pairing? Could any of three work alongside Pesce? Or do you see one as more capable?