With a run of off days and so much happening on the Canes blue line, my hope is to profile 1 of the Hurricanes 7 NHL defenseman per day over the course of this week. First up is John-Michael Liles.
When John-Michael Liles was acquired by the Carolina Hurricanes it was simply a desperation move swapping 2 struggling veteran defensemen with big contracts for each other in hopes of rejuvenation. The Canes sent Tim Gleason to the Toronto Maple Leafs. In return, they received John-Michael Liles. After signing a big contract with the Leafs he had fallen to some combination of struggling, healthy scratched and even playing in the AHL.
Upon arriving in Raleigh, he stepped into the lineup in a lesser role. I have used terminology along the lines of ‘needing time to recover from Toronto.’ And that is exactly what has happened over time. Ironically, he played a stretch of pretty good hockey in the first half of the 2014-15 season in the top 4 with none other than Tim Gleason who was bought out from his contract in Toronto.
He entered the 2015-16 season expected to again play in the top 4 but to have new veteran help in James Wisniewski. When Wisniewski tore his ACL on his first shift of the season, the original plan was mangled and Liles suddenly found himself as the veteran presence in a pairing that would include an inexperienced rookie. The first go around was with Michal Jordan trying to step up into the top 4 and also move to his off side. Jordan is an older young player at age 25 with a ton of AHL experience and about half of a season of NHL experience, but he seemed to struggle under the weight of adjusting to playing his off side and also stepping up from bottom pairing work to the top 4. The result was a struggle just getting the puck to Liles’ stick and up and out of the defensive zone. Lost in Jordan’s struggles was how well Liles played constantly under duress receiving the puck in tough places without much time or space. Plan B lasted only 6 games. Plan C was to recall 20-year old rookie Brett Pesce who had only a
exactly 0 games (corrected) only a handful of games of professional experience (AHL and NHL) entering this season and parachute him right into the top 4 next to Liles.
The headline is Brett Pesce receiving a ton of credit for his poise and readiness beyond his age and experience level. And there is validity to this story. But behind the scenes, the other story is the tremendous job that John-Michael Liles has done in smoothing Pesce’s transition to the NHL.
- Took responsibility for getting the puck up the ice early making sure not to put Pesce in bad situations even if it meant forcing the puck forward a bit.
- Providing a safety valve when Pesce had the puck on his stick.
- Vocally directing traffic and barking orders when needed.
- Doing a bit of coaching on the bench (and probably in the locker room).
John-Michael Liles’s arrival in Raleigh was a bit happenstance but could not fit more perfectly for the task at hand helping young defenseman learn the NHL game. His minus 6 in 12 games is incredibly misleading and his lone assist does not do justice to his work initially trying to hold together a second pairing and later to lead a better 1.
The next step for Liles is a bit dependent on Brett Pesce’s development. After only 5 games there are already signs of Pesce becoming more comfortable with the puck on his stick. The next step is for Liles and Pesce to open things up a bit and start trying to push pace to help create a bit more offense.
Longer-term, Liles’ role as a mentor and trainer could factor into whether he is retained past this season when his contract ends. Regardless of the longer term, if Liles plays much of the 2015-16 season next to impressionable Brett Pesce and also with Ryan Murphy and Noah Hanifin, he could have a significant impact on the blue of the future for the Hurricanes and play a significant role in the future of the team.