One cannot pin the Carolina Hurricanes struggles for the past few seasons on just one thing. There are many contributing factors ranging from stars’ underperformance to goaltending woes to injuries to…etc. But there is a good case to be made that the Hurricanes never recovered from the sudden loss of Joni Pitkanen before the 2013-14 season. When the team last made (and went deep in) the playoffs in the 2008-09 season, he was the team’s best defender and seemingly on the ice constantly. He ate up a ton of minutes and brought the ability to push the pace offensively with the puck on his stick and help generate offense off the rush.
Ron Hainsey was a tremendous pickup helping fill the huge hole left by Pitkanen’s departure due to injury, but he brought a different skill set – that of more of a stay-home defenseman. He was paired with Brett Bellemore as the 2nd pairing for the start of the 2013-14 season and at other times throughout it. The duo was generally solid in its own end. The problem was that they spent too much time playing defense and often struggled to get the puck to the offensive zone and to help create scoring chances. In that season, Ron Hainsey played all 82 games, logged 21:26 per game average ice time and picked up just 4 goals and 11 assists. Brett Bellemore played 64 games mostly next to Hainsey, averaged 17:28 of ice time and picked up only 2 goals and 6 assists. Put simply, that just is not enough offense for a 2nd pairing that logs a bunch of ice time, much of it with scoring-capable forward lines.
I do not think it was constructed that way intentionally but with Pitkanen’s injury, lack of ready help in the system at that time and the personnel that the Canes had on the blue line, the defense was suddenly weighted too much toward stay-home defensemen who were below average at moving and distributing the puck. The timing could not have been worse with the better teams in the league shifting more toward a new NHL blue line that could push pace and help generate offense especially off the rush.
The 2013-14 Hurricanes blue line featured:
–A top pairing of Andrej Sekera and Justin Faulk that was good all-around and contributed offensively.
–Mostly the combination of Ron Hainsey and Brett Bellemore for a 2nd pairing that was offensively-challenged with Gleason and Harrison swapping in when Bellemore was not there.
–A mix of even more puck-challenged defensemen in Tim Gleason, Jay Harrison and Mike Komisarek logging a decent chunk of the bottom-pairing minutes.
–John-Michael Liles offering a bit more offense from the back end, but he mostly sat in a 3rd pairing role and Ryan Murphy who also logged NHL time as a skating defenseman but was still very much learning as a 20-year old rookie.
Out of the group of 9, it splits up as being 2 good puck-moving top pair (Faulk, Sekera), 2 offense-oriented defenseman who time-shared bottom pair minutes (Liles, Murphy), and then 5 defensemen whose strength was not moving/distributing the puck (Hainsey, Bellemore, Gleason, Harrison, Komisarek).
Now if you fast forward to the roster heading into the 2015-16 season, you still have 3 of the 4 offense-oriented defensemen from that 2013-14 roster (Sekera is gone obviously). In addition, Liles is more settled in, and Murphy is much more experienced and maybe ready to challenge for a more regular role. Gone are 4 of the 5 offensively-limited defensemen leaving only Ron Hainsey (who I think actually complements a puck-moving defenseman well). James Wisniewski, whose strength is skating and moving the puck, takes a big piece of that ice time. And while we do not yet know who will claim the rest of it, the pack of kids that will be considered can be almost unanimously be categorized as skating, puck-moving types.
When you net it out, the Canes have completed a stepwise transformation from being significantly below average in terms of generating pace, offense and scoring chances from the back end to being pretty good in that regard and on a path to get even better.
At first glance, this could appear to be random player movement, but when you look a bit deeper at the drivers at the wheel during this change, I think it anything but random
–Bill Peters came from a Detroit team that excelled consistently by mastering a new NHL puck possession style of play even before it became en vogue. Lidstrom was the long-time anchor, but the team regularly also developed and added other puck-skilled defensemen to the mix as needed (i.e. Brian Rafalski).
–Analyst and stats guru Eric Tulsky came aboard part-way into the transformation. Prior to going quiet inside the Canes organization, one of his points of focus was puck possession especially through the neutral zone such that a team entered the offensive zone still with control of the puck (versus dumping it). Some of the personnel changes were before his time, but you can bet that he had something to do with the Canes improved 2014-15 possession stats per the SportLogIQ article and also that his work was one input into the push to add another veteran (for now) puck-moving defenseman in Wisniewski.
–Finally, Ron Francis obviously is the ultimate decision-maker and lead architect of the plan. He immediately went against Jim Rutherford’s MO when he took big, skating defenseman Haydn Fleury at #7 in his first draft in 2014. Hanifin was a bit more serendipity with other teams leaving him there for the Canes at #5 in 2015, but one can bet that Francis was thrilled to have the chips fall this way. And along the way he shed Jay Harrison via trade, decided not to re-sign Brett Bellemore and at least so far has passed on re-adding Tim Gleason as veteran depth this summer. The result is big shift in terms of both current and future Canes defensemen to more of a skating/puck-moving leaning.
I think the next indicator of the Canes desired path in revamping the blue line could come when the team gives Ryan Murphy who is an elite skater who skill-wise fits the model a big chance to seize a role and ice time this season. With the youth coming up behind him, it could be a bit sink or swim. If he just does not look ready defensively still, Francis could decide to move on, but I think Murphy will definitely be given the opportunity.
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