It has been an interesting off day on the Hurricanes blue line. With Ryan Murphy out with a concussion, this morning the Hurricanes announced that they had signed Tim Gleason to a tryout contract.
Then at about dinner time, the Hurricanes announced that they had recalled Jaccob Slavin from Charlotte. Slavin has been playing on Charlotte’s first pairing with Trevor Carrick and playing on his off side. (He is a left shot playing on the right side.) In my Daily Cup of Joe for this morning which you can find HERE, I questioned whether this was out of necessity or part of a broader plan. The short version of Jaccob Slavin’s season so far in Charlotte is that he has adjusted well, is playing heavy minutes in a top role and is leading the team with a plus 6 +/- and 7 assists (tied with Di Giuseppe).
I talked about this a bit in the Gleason post earlier today, but there are multiple dimensions to sorting out the Canes blue line right now:
Most basic, but incredibly boring explanation
First, I think it is important to note that this could easily turn into a Brett Pesce first call up false alarm. With Murphy injured, the Canes have only 6 healthy defensemen and the Charlotte Checkers are far away in Texas with matching Friday and Sunday games. With the volume of defensemen injuries in Charlotte right now, Slavin is the only healthy right defenseman even close to NHL level right now. So out of necessity, he might just be an emergency extra in the press box for a couple games.
But my hunch (and it is only a hunch) is that this is a smoke=>eventual fire scenario just like when I was clamoring for the Canes to give Pesce a look in the slot left when Wisniewski was injured.
Replacing Ryan Murphy
Short-term the team could go with 6 defensemen and no healthy extra, but that is risky over time. If the team just wanted a healthy extra to sit in the press box, Slavin would be an unlikely choice. As a player just entering the professional ranks, he needs ice time to develop. So best bet is that Slavin is being recalled to very soon (as early as Friday) step into the lineup.
That’s the tactical part of it…
Trying to boost the offense from the back end for the here and now
I yammered on endlessly about the need to add defensemen who could move the puck as part of the solution to boost the offense across the board versus just hoping an entire set of forwards all just suddenly played better. Ron Francis did the best he could on a limited budget adding James Wisniewski to bolster the second pairing, but that plan was destroyed before it even launched when Wisniewski was injured. Liles has had a solid season defensively and is serviceable in that respect. Pesce has exceeded even the greatest hopes of what you could ask from him being parachuted straight into the top 4. But at this stage of his career, I do not think Liles is the puck-mover/distributor that he was in his prime and Pesce is still figuring it out. When you net it out, the duo harkens back to Hainsey/Bellemore from a couple years back in that they are pretty good defensively but they just do not generate much offensively. (As an aside, I think that may come for Pesce, but how soon is the question.) And the bottom pairing had Murphy and Hanifin both in theory skating/attacking defensemen, but they were both playing a ‘let me make sure I don’t make a bad mistake’ type of hockey early in the season. Murphy has gradually opened things up and the results have been more good than bad. Hanifin has recently shown signs of getting his feet under him and starting to play more of the brand of hockey that got him drafted fifth overall this summer. But with Murphy out and Hanifin maybe just on the cusp offensively, I actually think the reach for Slavin is a move to improve the today version of the Carolina Hurricanes offensively.
…Combined with collecting information that Francis needs to map the rest of the season
The other thing going on the background is Ron Francis trying to figure out how to get from the today version of the Hurricanes blue line to the tomorrow version and understanding what is possible in terms of timeline for that. Right now, Ron Hainsey is struggling but probably still has modest trade value in a sellers’ market for defensemen. John-Michael Liles is a free agent this summer anyway and is playing well enough that he probably has market value as short-term veteran help for a team looking for depth.
When you consider that neither of these players are making the Hurricanes good right now anyway, there has to be a part of Ron Francis that would like to collect whatever value he can, (somewhat importantly) cut salary costs for this season and fast forward to the future a bit ahead of schedule. That transition would be way ahead of schedule and risky. Francis needs to get a read on what his options are and how ready/good they are. He is trying to get a read on if Tim Gleason could be part of the bridge and at what level. And he also needs to figure out which, if any, of the young defensemen are capable of developing at the NHL level. He has a pretty good read on Hanifin, Murphy and Pesce and all are favorable thus far. Faulk is obviously part of the long-term equation. That makes 4 which means he still needs Liles and Hainsey unless he thinks Jordan can be part of the equation. Gleason could help plug a hole, but the bigger thing would be if Slavin or possibly Carrick is ready to learn in a positive way at the NHL level ahead of schedule.
The worst case scenario is that Francis goes out on a limb and trades Liles or Hainsey and then Slavin plays a few games and just clearly is not ready for the NHL yet and Tim Gleason is not either. The Canes are definitely rebuilding, and it might cost the 2015-16, but best to steer around all all-out train wreck that also could impact the development of the young players.
We could at least be on the path to more fun times at PNC Arena
One of my biggest disappointments and concerns this season was watching a Hanifin/Murphy combination played a conservative, ‘survive the shift’ style of hockey early in the season. In this post, I had ‘3 wishes’ 1 of which was for the coaching staff to dial them up, tell them to push pace and attack (basically play their game to their strengths) and live with the mistakes.
The path to scoring (and winning) in today’s NHL is pushing pace and attacking with speed. Look at the Finals last year. Neither Tampa Bay nor Chicago were big physical teams, but they were skilled and fast both at forward and on the back end. The Canes blue line future is built exactly for this style of play. There will be some growing pains and figuring it what works/what does not at the NHL level, but as 1 of the too few people in the seats at PNC Arena these days, I will GLADLY sit and watch a bunch of talented young kids fly up the ice and work to transform this team into a fast attacking team.
Who goes where?
I will be surprised (even after it took Pesce 2 call ups to see the ice) if Slavin is not being recalled with the intent to be in the lineup for at least 1 of the 2 games this weekend. The interesting question is who goes where. Since he has been playing on the right side in Charlotte, simplest would be to slot him right into Murphy’s slot on the third line next to Noah Hanifin. That seems safest, best and most likely short-term. But if Ron Francis is also working to sort out the longer-term for 2015-16 with regards to Hainsey and Liles as I noted above, the clue would be if/when Slavin ultimately moves across to the other side since the Canes already go Faulk-Pesce-Murphy on the right side once Murphy returns. An alternate path could be to start looking at Hanifin higher up the depth chart, i.e. next to Pesce. They did skate together at practice 1 day last week. That could start to look at life without 1 of the veteran lefties in a lineup that sees Hanifin move up and either Jordan, Gleason or Slavin (or I guess even Carrick) slide into a bottom pairing slot next to Murphy. That would be the path forward to trade 1 of the veteran lefties even if Slavin is not ready yet.
I guess we will know more after tomorrow’s practice, but my wild guess is that Slavin eases into the lineup in a somewhat protected role next to Hanifin. But if/when Hanifin sees ice time next to Faulk or Pesce or if/when Slavin moves across to the left side would be an indication that Francis is trying to assess what the team looks like minus Hainsey and/or Liles.
If nothing else, we get the excitement of yet another NHL debut. That is 4 already including 3 on defense, and we also get to watch the future develop before our eyes.