The current Carolina Hurricanes roster saw a major personnel changeover last summer but still includes a group of young players who were with the team as rookies only a couple years ago. Today’s Daily Cup of Joe takes a ‘then and now’ look at these players and how each has grown over the past couple years.
His game, strengths and style of play are pretty similar to his starting point as a rookie a couple years ago. But what jumps out at me with Slavin’s play is how infrequently he gets caught out of position and is beaten given how aggressive he is jumping up on the puck at the defensive blue line or in the neutral. As a rookie, he played the same way and had success with it, but he did have occasional ‘oopses’ as he adjusted to NHL speed. Fast forward to today and he ranks as one of the most aggressive defenders on the puck in the NHL yet rarely sees the puck get behind him because of it. Though he is still a defense-first defenseman, his offensive game has grown step-wise as well. He has not had as many of late, but his ability to slow the game down with the puck on his stick in his own end and find an occasional stretch pass for a breakaway was not part of his game as a rookie.
His game has grown by leaps and bounds in just two years since his rookie season, but what jumps out to me most is his gains in his straight line speed and acceleration. By no means was Aho slow as a rookie, but his ability to quickly transition from defense to offense and gain a massive amount of speed through the neutral zone is at a significantly higher level today. Where it shows up most is his play at the offensive blue line. As a rookie, he had a bit different role as a wing, but when he did have the puck at the offensive blue line, he had a tendency to do a quick curl just inside the blue line to buy time and space in a safe area. He was effective from there assessing the second wave of players entering and passing for scoring chances, so it is not as if he was not generating offense then. But the 2018-19 version of Aho has the ability to forge forward into the teeth of the defense when he backs up defensemen and/or shifts slightly to the outside to carry around the net. The result is that he puts more pressure on the defense to sort things out with speed coming at them, and he also gets the puck closer to the for starting point for a shot or pass. Sebastian Aho is still only 21 years old.
Version 1.0 of Brock McGinn as a rookie featured the same consistent pedal down pace and physical play. But that first version of McGinn mostly just chased and banged without consideration for angles, positioning on situations. On a line with Jay McClement, the result was too often that he was a step slow getting to the puck and without any sense for how to forecheck through a first passing lane. Regularly, the puck was regularly behind McGinn with speed. Often with only McClement to try to slow play through the neutral zone, the second effect was a 2-on-2 or a 3-on-2 with a head of steam entering the Hurricanes defensive zone and putting the defensemen in a tough place to defend. Fast forward to today, and McGinn brings the same tenacity, but I think has a better sense of angles and positioning such that he more regularly disrupts the start of the rush up the ice and generates more turnovers. His game as a penalty killer has also matured. Again, the early version of McGinn was a bit raw. From the outset, he had the willingness to step in front of a shot and aggressiveness trying to disrupt the puck coming up the ice. But I think where he is significantly better is his positional awareness and defensive play once the opponent sets its power play up in the Canes defensive zone.
As a rookie, he was leaps and bounds ahead of any projectable starting point in terms of his defensive play without the puck and his ability to avoid big ‘oopses’ handling the puck in the defensive zone. To this day, I give a huge amount of credit to his first partner John-Michael Liles for helping Pesce acclimate to puck-handling duties at the NHL level with a partner who did not put him in situations of duress. That is the part of Pesce’s game that has matured the most. Whereas version 1.0 of Pesce almost unanimously settled for simple plays and when necessary the smallest mistake/low risk low reward play, the 2018-19 version of Brett Pesce is more comfortable and patient with the puck on his stick such that he dumps the puck less and maintains possession more. He still does not project to be a high-end puck-moving defenseman, but he has made strides in terms of maintaining puck possession in situations that require a bit more patience and/or sorting out.
Teravainen logged a couple years with the Blackhawks before joining the Hurricanes, so his reference point is not technically as a rookie but as a young player on a new team. The initial version of Teravainen showed flashes offensively, but his game was shallow in two regards. First, though many NHL scorers are streaky, Teravainen was at an even higher level in that regard. He was prone to couple-game outbursts with big scoring totals and then absolutely nothing for extended stretches. Equally significantly, his play aside from his scoring could be sub-par during the scoring droughts. He was not one to grind out a scoring play here or there, and more significantly he was prone to occasional defensive lapses that could be costly. Fast forward to today, and Teuvo Teravainen’s defensive play has matured by a significant margin. He has gone from too often being a liability in terms of two-way play to being a cerebral defensive player and one of the Hurricanes best forwards in this regard.
Important to note is that Haydn Fleury’s runway is shorter than the players above, as Fleury is only in his second year. Though not at the same level, Fleury’s start reminds me a bit of Pesce’s. As a rookie, Fleury was serviceable even if not quite up to speed as a top 4 defenseman playing next to Justin Faulk for a good portion of the 2018-19 season. With his size and skating ability, he was able to skate the NHL game as a rookie. But version 1.0 of his game lacked two key ingredients. First is that he lacked the Jaccob Slavin-like instincts on when to step up, attack the puck and take away time and space. Instead, Fleury seemed to too much just keep backing up to make sure he did not get beaten. Not getting beaten is a good thing, but too much so Fleury left too much time and room to maneuver in front of him. Second is that he was so incredibly conservative with the puck on his stick that we was virtually a nothing offensively. In his second year in the NHL (though now back in the AHL), I do not think Fleury has made significant strides in either area. The result is that regardless of the Hurricanes added blue line depth, right now Fleury is appropriately slotted as a #6 or #7 defenseman who will not kill you but just does not do enough defensively or offensively to be more than that. The next step up for Fleury is a comfort level and patience with the puck such that he can contribute a bit more offensively and the instincts to know when he can step up and challenge the puck.
What say you Canes fans?
1) What do you see as the differences/developments in each of these players games over the past couple years?
2) What do you see as next steps for each of these players?