It is too early to declare the seasons over for the Maple Leafs and Hurricanes, but when you consider the 2014-15 season results and the current place in the standings for each team, many will label this as a battle of teams who are rebuilding for tomorrow more so than playing for today. The Leafs enter on a 5-3-2 run that has the Toronto media bandying around the word ‘playoffs.’ It seems premature for a team sitting in fourteenth place in the Eastern Conference, but the trajectory is good right now, and I am a big fan of holding on to playoff optimism as long as possible.
Per my post this morning which you can find HERE, there are both differences and similarities to how the 2 teams are going about building for the future.
In terms of looking at the 2 teams specifically with regard to tonight’s game, 2 things jump out:
1) A significant portion of the Hurricanes future will be on the ice tonight when we see 3 first year defensemen in Noah Hanifin, Brett Pesce and Jaccob Slavin on the Hurricanes blue line tonight. Noah Hanifin is the wily veteran of the group with 15 games of NHL experience. Pesce has 11 games under his belt. Jaccob Slavin is the latest entry to ‘learning and development at the NHL level’ making his NHL debut tonight.
2) The Leafs lineup does have some youth on defense and also rookie Byron Froese at forward, but most of the big names of the future for the Maple Leafs are developing below the NHL level. The AHL Marlies are the official training grounds for the future Leafs, and the NHL roster has a good number of veterans on short-term deals who are likely to be dealt for more futures come February if the Leafs are not a surprise playoff competitor.
Mostly from a Hurricanes standpoint, here is ‘What I’m watching’ for tonight’s game:
1) Jaccob Slavin
If the defense pairings from yesterday’s practice hold, Jaccob Slavin will make a rapid transition from college hockey last season to first pairing AHL defenseman in October to first pairing NHL defenseman in his NHL debut in mid-November. If you make a fancy line chart for that, it goes straight up. He was practicing next to Justin Faulk yesterday and might start there on Friday.
Regardless of who he plays with, I will be watching a couple things in Slavin’s debut and going forward over the next few games.
- First, I will be watching how well he sorts things out and defends with the puck in front of him. His strength and most advanced part of his game is playing with the puck on his stick. He showed a pretty good ability to carry the puck even with the jump up to better competition in preseason, but the harder transition for offensively skilled defenseman is that that darn ‘defense’ thing.
- Second, I will be watching for a reaction and recovery after he has a tough shift. Slavin already saw time next to Justin Faulk in the top pairing in a late preseason game against the Capitals. In that game, he had Alexander Ovechkin undress him early for a ‘welcome to the NHL kid’ type of goal, and he never really recovered from it. By midway through the first period, he had a few other struggles and was re-slotted down the lineup off of Faulk’s pairing. He is going to have those shifts where good players beat him. Ovechkin does it pretty regularly even to good NHL defensemen. The key for young players like Slavin is the ability to quickly move forward, have an uneventful next shift and not let 1 tough shift lead to a spiral. I think that has been a significant strength of Noah Hanifin thus far. He has had some tough moments and even games, but he has also shown an ability not to let a bad play snowball on him.
- Third, I will be watching how well he picks his spots to carry the puck versus making safe Pesce-like plays to get the puck across to Faulk to led him lead the way a bit.
Shorter version: I think the gauge for NHL readiness for Slavin will be how well he defends without the puck and avoids turnovers in bad places while he figures out how/when to carry the puck. Just like with any defenseman, it is more about minimizing bad plays than maximizing good ones.
2) Like and dislike for other D pairings
I really like the idea of pairing John-Michael Liles with Noah Hanifin. I think Liles played a huge role in Pesce’s smooth transition to the NHL especially when you consider that he entered with 0 games of NHL experience and only a handful of games at the AHL and jumped right into the top 4. Early on, he was incredibly good at doing the heavy lifting moving the puck, providing puck support for when Pesce needed it and constantly barking instructions on the ice. Pesce obviously deserves credit for his solid play, but Liles’ role should not be underestimated. With Pesce, the initial project was to keep Pesce and his pairing out of trouble even to the point where he pushed forward with the puck into dump situations rather than putting Pesce in bad situations.
I think Liles’ role in in Noah Hanifin’s development could actually be the opposite. In getting his feet under him through 15 games in the NHL, Hanifin has played a fairly buttoned down game that has leaned toward making safe passes across or short passes into the neutral zone. The Joni Pitkanen-like rushes that we saw some in prospect camp in July have been rare. It is reasonable to give Noah Hanifin a period to adjust to the speed of the NHL game, so I would not call this cause for alarm or any indication of what he can ultimately do at the NHL level. But this said, at some point Noah Hanifin needs to work up to playing his game and using his wheels to push pace, attack, create offense and more generally play to his strengths.
John-Michael Liles showed his hockey smarts and awareness in helping Pesce get his feet under him and start to grow as an NHLer. With Hanifin now with 15 games of NHL experience, might the timing be perfect for Liles to take on his second mentoring role with Noah Hanifin?
Worried about (sounds nicer than dislike): Hainsey/Pesce
For stepping into a top 4 NHL role as a 20-year (now 21) defenseman straight out of college, one could not hope for better than we have seen from Brett Pesce thus far. He is advanced way beyond his experience level in terms of consistently making simple, smart and correct plays. He gets assignments and what to do when and more significantly can do it pretty well at NHL speed which is astounding. But a part of his success as noted above, has been the cerebral play of John-Michael Liles not just playing good hockey within the context of the game but also incorporating consideration for his inexperienced partner. I understand that Murphy’s injury and other issues on the blue line cause the need for some changes. I also acknowledge that at some point young players need to go it on their own. But at the same time, there are risks, most importantly to development, of removing Pesce from Liles’ chemistry, support and mentorship that played a role in his early success only 11 games into his NHL career.
Theoretically, Ron Hainsey offers another experienced NHL veteran who could provide similar support. But my concern is that Liles and Hainsey are completely different players in terms of handling/moving the puck. This is a moderate strength of Liles in terms of doing it himself and the recent run has shown an incredible strength in terms of making decisions to minimize the volume of times that Pesce had to handle the puck in tough situations. I thin the opposite is true of Hainsey. Moving the puck just is not his strength. The extreme example that I always point to is the Hainsey/Bellemore pairing that saw the 2 defend pretty well but struggle constantly to get the puck out of their own end. Hainsey is not a natural puck carrier himself, and more significantly I do not think he plays the game at nearly the same level as Liles in terms of supporting the puck when his partner has it or making well-timed passes across that do not lead to his partner receiving the puck with not enough time and space and therefore under duress.
Yesterday on Twitter, I posted a quick poll asking if people wanted to hear an out of left field idea for reworking the Canes defense. I am going to keep that in my pocket right now. The logical timing for it is probably after seeing Slavin for a few games and also getting Ryan Murphy back, but it does involve Brett Pesce.
In the new Hainsey/Pesce pairing, I worry that Pesce suddenly gets tasked with being the primary puck handler and also needing to do it without the support he would have had with Liles. The Canes blue line has a bunch of moving parts right now which necessitates some change, but I am not a big fan of removing Pesce from a situation that has been a big positive in his development thus far. I guess the potential upside is that he is ready for and takes on a bigger role playing with the puck on his stick and makes another step in his development.
3) Does the SCORING arrive?
Lately, not a day goes by where Twitter does not offer me a graphic or 2 that say that the Carolina Hurricanes are doing a bunch of stuff right offensively. We are winning in terms of shots, possession, scoring chances and just about everything you can count offensively hockey-wise. The most surprising was actually a chart that showed the Canes as at least middle of the pack in terms of getting high-quality scoring chances which dispelled the ‘can’t finish because the shot quality is low’ hypothesis.
But when it comes to the most basic of stats in terms of offense/scoring the Canes do not fare well. The team is 29th in terms of goals per game.
So if recent history continues, tonight seems destined for another night of the Hurricanes earning enough opportunities, but the question is whether the team can find some timely finishing. Jeff Skinner has had enough chances lately to easily be on 1 of his goal-scoring binges but just has not found the back of the net. Not a game goes by where there are not a few whiffs and misses on good chances.
Is tonight the night that the Canes find the back of the net? Because in the end, that and stopping the other team from doing the same is all that matters.
4) An interesting benchmark on system implemenation
Bill Peters struggled out of the gate as the Hurricanes coach last season. There were many things to pin this on including Jordan Staal’s injury, lack of true NHL talent and implementation of a brand new system. Peters has now had a full NHL season with most of the players and nearly 20 games with the players added this season. Regardless of wins, losses and talent level, it seems like a reasonable checkpoint for implementing the system and getting players to play it correctly.
In that regard, I think Friday’s game offers an interesting checkpoint. Peters and to a large degree his strategies, tactics and style of play come from his years as an assistant coach under current Leafs coach Mike Babcock. Babcock just assumed the helm in Toronto this summer, so he is only 20 games into his rework of the Leafs team and systems and has arguably a similar level of sub-par talent based on last season’s results.
So regardless of score which can be impacted by players’ ability to finish, goaltending and other things we have witnessed, one would expect the Canes to at least stack up as farther down the path to playing a cohesive brand of hockey. One game is not perfect to measure this and there are not stats for this kind of comparison, but I think it is still worth watching for even if anecdotally.
5) If you can get past the headlines, positive stories exist
Despite the struggle in the win/loss column, Canes hockey keeps dishing out firsts that are worth witnessing (Hanifin’s first game, Hanifin’s first goal, McGinn’s first both in a fun debut, Pesce’s first game and now Slavin’s first game).
Taking an optimistic stance on the 2015-16 season, my personal motto continues to be “The Future Is Now.” If fans can detach themselves a bit from the standings and game by game outcomes, I think some of the underlying stories with the future of the team taking shape right in front of us at PNC Arena are incredibly fun and interesting to watch unfold.
How cool is it be a little kid for a few minutes and eye Jaccob Slavin as he hops over the board for his first shift in the NHL and imagine what he is thinking?
And every time either Brett Pesce or Jaccob Slavin pulls back their stick for a one-timer, how can you not lean forward in your seat realizing that you might be about to witness their first NHL goal?
I get as frustrated as the next die-hard fan when we lose another game, but at the same time I can easily find fun stories worth tracking right now. If you are not enjoying Canes hockey right now because of the results, I challenge you to find a couple stories on the path to a better future and enjoy those right now.