A few days ago, I wrote a short series of blogs that spelled out “next steps” for many of the Canes prospects and young players. The funny thing is that while not considered in this category, Justin Faulk is actually fits the group age-wise, especially if you make an adjustment for the fact that defensemen mature slower. Yet at age 23 Justin Faulk has already established himself as the leader of the Canes blue line and an emerging young star in the NHL. But I think he still has one more level to reach from where he is right now.
Let’s start by looking at how he arrived where he is today:
2011-12: As a newly-signed 19-year old, the hope was that he would look decent in training camp before heading off to Charlotte for a year of development in the AHL. Right from the start, he was way ahead of schedule. He had a phenomenal training camp, did not look to be in over his head at all and seized a roster spot. But he then looked absolutely horrible in the first three games of the season and was quickly sent the AHL. He returned about a month later and settled in for the rest of the season. It had its ups and downs, but he was clearly way ahead of schedule for being at least a serviceable NHL defenseman.
2012-13: The lockout might have been a blessing for Justin Faulk. It gave him a solid run of time in the AHL in preparation for the shortened NHL season. Over the course of that second season in the NHL, Faulk emerged as defensively capable at 20 years of age. He was still prone to a few short stretches of inconsistency as is normal for young defensemen and he did not light it up offensively, but he clearly progressed.
2013-14: Finding immediate chemistry with Andrej Sekera, Faulk had a breakout year in 2013-14. Faulk along with Sekera were logged first pairing assignments and first pairing minutes the entire season and held their own. Faulk quietly made modest improvement offensively (32 points in 76 games) and also claimed a spot on Team USA’s roster for the Olympics. He had truly arrived as an emerging young talent on defense.
2014-15: Last season was a strange one. He started poorly out of the gate and offered little help when the team was mired in its season-starting slump. He eventually righted the ship defensively despite a few other short stretches when he struggled. But it was hard to even notice what he was doing because he had such an out of the blue breakout season scoring-wise. I know I did not see it coming. He finished with a big 15 goals firing away accurately from the blue line at both even strength and on the power play all season. He came up just one point shy of 50. And along the way, he grew by leaps and bounds in his ability to carry and distribute the puck and even occasionally just beat unsuspecting defenders and forge a path straight to the net. The biggest gain was the new offensive side of Justin Faulk.
When you add it up, Justin Faulk enters the 2015-16 season having displayed about everything you could ask for in a defenseman during different stretches of his development
For me, there are three potential steps forward for Justin Faulk this season:
1) Depending on his partner, he will start this season without Andrej Sekera by his side for the first time in a couple years. Unless the Canes make another move, he will have a partner (Hainsey and Liles seem most likely as the roster stands now) who is the lesser half of the pairing. Another step forward for him would be to play at that elite level that players like Lidstrom, Niedermayer and Chara reached in their prime where by themselves they were capable of making a pairing pretty sound defensively.
2) 82-game consistency and a higher floor. I think what makes truly great defensemen elite is how high their lows are. There are many talented players who can have stretches, extended ones even, when they play at an elite level, but the great ones can seemingly do it for each and every one of 82 games. In reality, even these elite players have ups and downs during the long NHL season, but the falloff in their low is so small that it is impossible for a casual observer to see and even difficult for people who are around the team constantly to pick out. Faulk has yet to reach this level. He has played elite hockey for long stretches and even most of seasons, but so far he has also had at least some stretches where he just was not that good. There is still another gear for Faulk to find by playing at an elite level for many games just like in years past but then playing at least a serviceable level even on the rough nights.
3) Putting it all together at once. The last thing is to bring all of it at once – the offensive upside, the shutdown capability, the ability to just play sound and steady hockey and click off shift after shift without incident, etc.
To be clear, the 2014-15 version of Justin Faulk was a darn good one. It is not like he is looking to improve to establish himself as an NHLer. But I do think there is still another level for him. If he can be the leading half of his pair minus Sekera who played as an equal, add consistency/the ability to boost the bad stretches and bring the offense again, I think he officially reaches the elite tier of the top 10-15 defensemen in the entire league and maybe even pushes into the Norris Trophy discussion.