For anyone catching up, a menu of previous player (and also coaching and GM) report cards can be found at the bottom of the article.
Brett Pesce’s starting point for the 2016-17 season
During a 2015-16 season that saw a transformation of the Carolina Hurricanes’ blue line to a younger group, Brett Pesce was actually first on the scene. He had a strong preseason and looked surprisingly calm and capable despite making a big jump from NCAA to NHL (preseason anyway) hockey. He and Jaccob Slavin were a couple of the last cuts, and he headed off to Charlotte to continue his development in the AHL. That changed quickly when veteran second pairing, right shot defenseman James Wisniewski was felled by a a season-ending knee injury in his first shift in a Hurricanes uniform. The Hurricanes tried a couple other options first. And Francis did not follow my initial call to at least give Pesce a look in the hole previously filled by Wisniewski on the right side of the team’s second defense pairing but did recall Pesce soon thereafter which prompted me to write this optimistic article on the eve of Brett Pesce’s NHL debut. And from the category of ‘every once in awhile even a blind squirrel finds a nut,’ it actually worked.
John-Michael Liles proved to be an incredibly good fit and an even better mentor and partner while Pesce worked to adapt and bring his game to a much higher level. Initially, Liles did a tremendous job of playing a cautious game with the puck on his stick and being careful not to put Pesce in bad situations, but as their time together wore on they developed into a strong shot suppression/defense first type second pairing that was maybe a little light on generating offense but worked well together as a unit, was sound defensively and made incredibly few mistakes. Pesce played the vast majority of his 2015-16 ice time alongside Liles until Liles departed at the trade deadline. He then finished the season playing mostly with Noah Hanifin.
When the 2015-16 concluded, Pesce had impressively parachuted almost directly into a top 4 defense role straight out of college hockey and looked incredibly comfortable doing it. Heading into the offseason, he was rising. Pesce posted a modest 4 goals and 12 assists in 69 games at the NHL level to go with a respectable minus 7 on a team that was more minus than plus.
The questions headed into the 2016-17 season were mostly normal stuff for a second-year player. Would he hit a sophomore slump? Could he bring more offensively? And maybe most significantly, was he really a top 4 defenseman, or did he just find lightning in a bottle landing with a seemingly perfect defense partner and maybe riding the initial adrenaline rush of making it to the NHL?
Brett Pesce’s 2016-17 season with the Carolina Hurricanes
With John-Michael Liles out of the picture, Pesce was part of Coach Bill Peters’ effort to reshuffle the returning defensemen. He started the season in a second pairing with Ron Hainsey, but after a couple of games and some struggles for the team defensively, Peters quickly adjusted and put second-year defensemen Jaccob Slavin and Brett Pesce together. Almost instantly, the duo became Peters’ top pairing and started seeing as many of the tough minutes as Peters could get for them.
And it was magnificent. Any fears of sophomore slumps faded very quickly into the background, and the questions turned to assessing just how good the pair of young players was and how much better they could become. The newly-minted blue line comprised of two 22-year olds when put together, spent the fall and winter learning to play together and at the same time mostly shutting down many of the NHL’s best scoring lines. Though somewhat different in skill set, the duo did two things incredibly well. First was playing aggressively especially on the puck. They challenged the puck and took away time and space especially on the rush. Second is that despite playing an aggressive forward-leaning brand of defense, both had a sense for how to support such that even if one was caught too far forward occasionally, there was at least help behind.
That continued through late February when the Ron Hainsey trade changed the mix. From that point forward, Pesce played most with Noah Hanifin who stepped into Hainsey’s slot in the top 4 though Peters did intermittently go back to Slavin/Pesce when the situation warranted it. In his report card, I rated Hanifin’s transition into the top 4, and Noah Hanifin first and foremost deserves credit for that. But just as I credited Liles with his significant role ushering Pesce into the NHL the year before, I think Pesce’s steady and sound presence played a role in Hanifin’s success in the last 25 games after dealing with instability in the slot next to him for most of what preceded the trade deadline.
Pesce finished the 2016-17 season with headline statistics of 4 goals and 16 assists. A look at the next level is probably the better measure of his season that was incredibly good on the defensive side of the puck. I get that there are issues with the plus/minus statistic especially over small sample sizes, but Pesce’s plus 23 that tied Slavin do tell a simple but important story that his team won when he was on the ice. Pesce was edged out narrowly for the team lead in blocked shot by partner Jaccob Slavin and also finished near the top of team in takeaways. Pesce also played a leading role on the blue line for the team’s top-end penalty kill. All in all, Pesce had a tremendous 2016-17 season that is not captured in headline level numbers.
Grading Brett Pesce
Graded as: Young top 4 defenseman aiming to pick up where he left off at the end of the 2015-16 despite a new situation adjusting to a new defense partner.
Grade: A-. Is it an A or an A-? I went back and forth and took just a tiny bit off on the offensive side. And I will be disappointed if there are not at least a few comments from people grumbling about me tacking on the minus. He easily gets the same A that his partner Jaccob Slavin did on the defensive side of the puck. I would go so far as to say that Pesce might have even been a tiny bit better than Slavin in that regard. But in today’s NHL where success can be heavily depending on depth scoring, top 4 defensemen who can kick in even modest scoring make a big difference. I give him a passing B offensively and view another level scoring-wise to be a challenge within Pesce’s reach.
Important to note is that scoring for defensemen is largely a function of power play ice time and role, and Pesce was light in this regard. Also important to note is that if Pesce plays exactly like he did in 2016-17 and his ceiling proves to be low 20s for points, he is still a solid top 4 defenseman and solid part of a good, playoff-worthy NHL team. Finally, I think he does have some offensive upside especially on the rush. On the Hurricanes, I would rate him second only to Justin Faulk (and by a small margin) in terms of figuring out where to go/what to do when he is at the front of the play on the rush through the neutral zone and entering the offensive zone. That has the potential to lead to more scoring.
Looking forward to 2017-18
With another veteran top 4 in Ron Hainsey departed and the possibility of a summer addition, Brett Pesce will enter the 2017-18 season inked into a top 4 slot on the Hurricanes’ blue line but with some uncertainty as to who he plays with. Sticking with Slavin/Pesce is an easy ‘if it’s not broken don’t fix it’ option for Peters, but the possibility of separating the two to better balance the defense especially on the road also has merit.
Regardless of partner and slot in the lineup, the Hurricanes just need more of the same defensively and if possible a little bit more scoring-wise. Something like 30-33 points would actually be a decent mark if Pesce’s role on the power play remains limited. If he finds his way to more power play ice time, 40+ would be a bigger but maybe reachable target.
What say you Canes fans?
With these going up a bit late, much of the discussion of Pesce and similar has already started in the Thursday Coffee Shop where the topic is appropriately the top 4 defensemen for the 2017-18 season, but in case people also want to bandy around Brett Pesce topics here, the usual couple conversation starter questions are below.
As arguably the steadiest defenseman of the bunch, do you think Pesce could do exactly what Liles did for him only two years ago and be the stable and predictable partner that Noah Hanifin needs to complete his ascension into the top 4? Or do you prefer to keep things simple and go with Slavin/Pesce again in 2017-18?
Do you think Pesce has untapped offensive potential from his 20 points in 2016-17, or should we just be thrilled that he is as good as he is defensively?
Previous report card articles