In yesterday’s Daily Cup of Joe, I suggested calling up not 1 but 2 Charlotte Checkers forwards to see if they could help jump start the NHL offense. You can read that post HERE. The fact that it might make sense to try to jump start the NHL by adding 2 AHL players says something about the state of the Canes forward ranks right now. The group of young players at the NHL level in general are not performing right now and the prospect pool at forward is not considered strong by the experts. Here is hoping a couple players can emerge ahead of schedule from the current players in the system.
The story on defense is much brighter. The Canes entered the season with high hopes for a good number of defenseman prospects in the system. The summer boosted that optimism further, and Brett Pesce’s early emergence at the NHL level adds even more to a great situation. The Canes are tracking toward having too many NHL-capable defensemen which is obviously a wonderful problem to have. Based on that, I wrote the following post that suggests at some point Ron Francis might consider trading a defense prospect or 2 for a forward to balance out the roster.
I do not want to prematurely declare Brett Pesce’s rise to the NHL finished and a success. He will inevitably have setbacks along the way like even good NHL defensemen do. But the fact that he has been able to step into a top 4 role at the NHL level and look pretty good is obviously a huge step forward in his development and at least 1 year ahead of schedule. Roland McKeown and Haydn Fleury are playing at a lower level in juniors, but they are both doing very well there which is what you want. You can read the latest update on Fleury, McKeown and other Canes prospects not at the NHL or AHL level in this week’s ‘The Pipeline’ HERE. Jaccob Slavin and Trevor Carrick are the first pairing in Charlotte and are playing pretty well and putting up points. And of course Ryan Murphy and Noah Hanifin have been at the NHL level all season. And it is important to remember that though he is a veteran and leader of the blue line, Justin Faulk is only 23 years old.
GM Ron Francis has some sorting out to do for this season, next season and the future, and all of these puzzles are intertwined.
For the current season, I think you could actually make the argument that the Canes are short on defense in a couple regards if the goal is to compete and win this season not just build for the future.
Faulk/Hainsey: Justin Faulk is a fine anchor for the first pairing. I am not thrilled with Ron Hainsey’s play thus far this season despite his penchant for scoring some big goals, but I think he works as a left shot, veteran, stay-home type for next to Faulk. And even if he did not, it is not as if Ron Francis is going to spend a fortune in salary and trade to upgrade, so it is what it is and will need to be good enough.
Liles/Pesce: John-Michael Liles has quietly had a very good start to the season defensively despite a challenging position. When his expected veteran partner James Wisniewski was felled by injury in his first shift of the season, Liles was chucked into the role of veteran trying to prop up a very inexperienced partner and do so in a second pairing. The first try with Michal Jordan failed. Jordan was uncomfortable handling the puck on his off side and just struggled in general. Liles made the best of it and kept that problem contained. Jordan was replaced by Pesce who has looked incredibly good in that slot given his age and relative inexperience. The 2 have a natural chemistry which I attribute to Pesce being advanced beyond his years in terms of knowing where to be and what to do and Liles doing a very good job of incorporating ‘have a rookie partner, so I don’t want to put him in bad spots if I can help it’ into his decision-making process. The result has been a serviceable, pretty good actually second pairing defensively. But that is the key – “defensively.” For as good as Liles has been defensively and at least moving the puck out of trouble, he has contributed very little offensively. The situation harkens back to Hainsey/Bellemore from awhile back. That duo was pretty good in its own end and at winning pucks, but it struggled so much moving the puck that they and the forwards on the ice with them spent far too little time playing offense and especially getting high-quality chances off the rush or from playmaking from the back end.
I am torn on what I would do about this. On the 1 hand, I hate the idea of upsetting the apple cart in terms of Pesce’s acclimation to the NHL. On the other hand, I think it would be interesting to see Ryan Murphy take a run next to Liles. I generally like Murphy’s game recently, and I think he at least has the potential to boost the offense generated from the back end. The trade-off is how much offense is gained, and how much defense is lost?
In the end, the easiest and maybe smartest thing to do is not to try to hard to fix something that is not broken. Liles and Pesce are playing pretty well together defensively and at least in terms of moving the puck out of the defensive zone. With Liles track record as an offensive defenseman and Pesce gradually starting to do more with the puck on his stick, there is reason to hope that this pairing is on the cusp of starting to grow in terms of generating offense.
Hanifin/Murphy: I am in the minority, but I actually voted to give Hanifin a stint in Charlotte to play 22 minutes per night, be a leader and get back to playing the game of a skating, attacking, puck-moving defenseman. That post from October 28 is HERE. It is not that I do not think he is on track to be a great NHL defenseman – quite the opposite actually. It is simply that I worry that he is gradually straying too far from being a leader/difference-maker on a nightly basis and more significantly is straying from his foundation as a skating, attacking defenseman as he tries to settle into the NHL.
I vote for any of 2 camps with the third pairing:
1) Get Hanifin to open things up a bit and play his game and then live with any mistakes that result. I think he is better off molding ‘his game’ to the NHL even through growing pains rather than adjusting it too much to survive for now.
2) Consider a short-term swap of Hanifin and 1 of the other young guns who is playing well in Charlotte. Trevor Carrick might be first in line as a left shot who is playing well and already has a full season of AHL experience under his belt. Jaccob Slavin is the other option. He is also playing well and is a lefty but is currently playing on his off side (with Carrick).
Brett Pesce’s rapid emergence makes for an interesting picture for 2016-17. With Wisniewski back in the picture and signed through 2016-17, the Canes would have 4 right shot defensemen in Justin Faulk, James Wisniewski, Brett Pesce and Ryan Murphy.
John-Michael Liles and Michal Jordan are both free agents this summer, so either or both could be let go to make room on the left side. I actually like Liles role as a mentor right now, but if he keeps playing like he is, he will have value as a rental trade if the Canes fall out of the playoff chase, and he is easy enough to let go to make room with his contract coming up. I think most interesting would be if Ron Francis instead traded Ron Hainsey and went younger sooner on defense, but that seems less likely. Assuming the most likely which is that Liles is traded or not re-signed, the Canes have only Ron Hainsey and Noah Hanifin from the current roster but also with Haydn Fleury moving up from juniors and Jaccob Slavin and Trevor Carrick from Charlotte. There are multiple options to fill roster spots, but a question might be whether any are ready to vault into the top 4.
If you assume that Liles and Jordan are let go (or possibly signed to a 2-way contract for Jordan) and also do not move anyone to his off side, the blue line stacks up as:
Hainsey / Faulk
Hanifin or Carrick or Fleury or Slavin / Wisniewski
Hanifin or Carrick or Fleury or Slavin / Murphy or Pesce
#7 slot goes to Murphy if he is not in the lineup (because he cannot be freely sent to Charlotte) or otherwise 1 of the others.
The problem of having too many options on the blue line is a good 1 to have, but there is a tricky balance to be struck by Ron Francis in terms of having spots available for youth to step into the NHL but also maintaining (and quickly growing more) experienced players such that rookies are not thrown in over their heads. Per the post above about possibly trading across to get deeper at forward, I think there is also an interesting game to be played with selling high on a couple blue line prospects to more quickly stock the forward lines with good young players.
I think the decisions to be made this summer with the need for more versus less veteran help will drive the need to get more kids minutes at the NHL level to assess where they are development-wise. This will be easier to do later in the season if the Canes fall completely out of the playoff hunt early, but I think it needs to happen to some degree regardless.
Longer-term, one would expect both Ron Hainsey and James Wisniewski to be replaced by the kids in the pipeline. Both have contracts that end after the 2016-17 season, so the kids need to giddy-up to a Pesce-like pace to have enough players ready and ready to play in top 4 roles for this transition to look more like a good young team rising up and less like a team going through growing pains trying to rebuild by having kids learn at the NHL level.