Sometime after James Wisniewski was felled by a season-ending knee injury, I was accused (rightfully I guess) of having a man crush on Brett Pesce.
Before his NHL debut, I had already:
- Raved about his play in a top 4 slot in preseason game #5 against a mostly NHL Pens lineup in this post on October 1.
In an eerie foreshadowing of things to come, I actually gave Pesce the Wisniewksi slot in the event of an opening there (Wisniewski was out with minor injury at the time) when I said:
He was easily the story of the game for me. I said on Twitter that if the Canes had to play a regular season game tomorrow and James Wisniewski was still out injured, I would seriously consider just going with Liles/Pesce again.
- Vaulted him up to #2 overall amongst the young Canes defense prospects behind only Noah Hanifin in this October 9 post.
In that post I said:
I think you could make a decent argument that out of the entire bunch in this post, he would be the safest/soundest player to drop into the lineup if you had a single must-win game.
He is still very early in his NHL tenure, but I think that statement still holds true.
- Started into full rant mode in this post aiming to give Brett Pesce a shot in Wisniewski’s slot on October 9 a few hours before it was officially announced that Wisniewski would be out long-term.
In that post I reasoned:
The sample size is too small to really project anything, but the way I think of it is that we have not yet seen a game that showed Brett Pesce could not handle this. Until I see that, I am not convinced that he cannot. In addition to quality play in a small sample size, I think there are 2 other reasons to suggest that this just might work. He consistently plays a simple game getting pucks off his stick and forward quickly when he can, playing a pretty sound positional game, etc. That simple style of play translates well to stepping up the NHL and not being a train wreck while adjusting and figuring it all out. The other thing that impressed me about his preseason was his poise with the puck under duress. When plan A did not pan out, he had a Glen Wesley-ish calm and patience about him whereby he had a good tendency to make small mistakes…
Skill set perfect for early transition to NHL
Now through 5 NHL games, Brett Pesce has exceeded even my optimistic hope for stepping into a top 4 NHL slot. In the process, I think he skipped at least 3 rungs on the normal progression ladder. Coming straight out of college, it would have been reasonable to expect him to play up to 2 seasons at the AHL level to refine his game and gain experience against a higher level of competition. Then it would have made sense to step into the NHL in a third pairing role that was a bit limited and protected. Then after that progression, the hope was that he could grow to become a top 4 defenseman.
His ability to bypass multiple steps that usually take years is a function of 3 things:
1) His simple, efficient, generally safe style of play makes the easiest transition to the NHL level.
2) He is incredibly poised. When under pressure, he has a ton of patience and also a natural ability to avoid very bad plays.
3) He is a pretty darn good hockey player which should not be underestimated.
Assessment through 5 games
Through 5 games, Brett Pesce has not been a dynamic playmaker who is winning hockey games. But what he has been is an incredibly safe and sound top 4-capable defenseman that makes it possible for other players to win hockey games. He has generally stayed out of trouble and away from costly mistakes. He has generally made quick and safe plays with the puck on his stick, smartly leaning on veteran partner Liles to do the heavy lifting in terms of moving the puck up the ice. And he has been nearly error-free in terms of making decisions under duress without costly turnovers or coverage errors.
Thus far his game been reasonably buttoned down, but there have been signs of him getting comfortable enough to open things up a bit. Taking closer to a 50/50 share of moving the puck as he builds confidence and develops chemistry and trust with Liles would be the next step in his development.
Brett Pesce’s single greatest asset is his poise and ability to slow things down when pressured and methodically trade down to the the best available option when plan A, plan B, etc. are not there. The path to learning this is littered with the failures of many a high-end blue line prospect who had enough physical ability to make enough good plays to be an NHLer but could never eliminate enough of the bad ones to get the chance.
On top of this core ability which is a foundation for his early success, Pesce does a number of other things well:
- Despite being a young player who will probably play at 12-15 pounds heavier in 3-4 years, he is very good at winning puck battles in the corner using a combination of footwork, positioning and stick skills.
- He makes quick reads and short passes well. He is very good at quickly figuring out where the first short pass is and making it when coming out of a scrum with the puck. This minimizes turnovers and can be the first step to creating scoring chances in transition.
- He generally makes correct reads defensively. Also from the ‘heady hockey player’ category that his poise also fell in, he generally gets assignments right.
- He gets puck support and defenseman 101. I think this is what makes him and Liles appear to have good chemistry so early in playing together. Whereas many young defensemen tend to float a bit without specific purpose when their team has the puck but they do not, Pesce gets how to support his defense partner and also forwards ahead of him. Perhaps the simplest example is how he consistently reads when he can ‘give and go’ with a pass forward on his side. He gets that if there is only 1 defender to stand up at the blue line by passing and filling the next lane, he forces the defender to back up and give up the blue line to the Canes forward with the puck to prevent a pass back for an uncontested breakaway. Importantly, he is reading it correctly not just guessing because he has known to support from behind when the defense has numbers to stand up at the blue line.
- Though he has deferred a bit at the outset of his NHL career, he seems to be comfortable playing with the puck on his stick as demonstrated by his poise under pressure.
- He skates well in small spaces being able to make small moves to create passing lanes, buy time to sort things out or win puck battles.
- He makes good first passes and hits sticks.
Areas for improvement
- He is already a wiry kind of strong and does better than one would expect against bigger NHL forwards, but he can still afford to add a few pounds of muscle over the next few years.
- His skating is fine once he gets going, but he lacks the explosive first couple strides of a Justin Faulk and has room to improve both strength and form getting started skating and also his stride. I am not sure he ever projects to be a Ryan Murphy or Noah Hanifin skating-wise, but then who does. He skates well enough to play in the NHL now but does have room for improvement.
- He has room to open things up a bit more in terms of carrying the puck. I think this last 1 is more a function getting comfortable than ability. He has already shown flashes of being a bit more aggressive carrying the puck when opportunities arise. I would expect that to increase as he settles in.
The key for Brett Pesce is maintaining his high level of play and consistency as the initial adrenaline rush wears off and he plays his way into the long NHL season. It is also important to remember that even Justin Faulk has had setbacks after first cracking the NHL lineup and that this is an inevitable part of the process. He is in a very good situation to learn and continue to improve playing with a veteran and mentor in John-Michael Liles. He needs to keep learning and improving and also be able to bounce back when he has a setback or 2. In terms of style of play, the next step, as noted above, is for him to become a bit more aggressive pushing pace and carrying the puck such that his pairing is fairly balanced.
As far as the future of the Carolina Hurricanes goes, Brett Pesce’s is probably the biggest step forward. I do not mean to take anything away from Noah Hanifin, Ryan Murpy or Brock McGinn, but Pesce entered this summer as a promising player on step 2 or 3 trying to get to 10 to become an everyday NHL player. He will surely have some setbacks along the way, but right now he is in the process of skipping his way to step 6 or 7 and cutting multiple years off of the normal timetable.