When you look back only 2-3 years ago, the Canes future on the blue line was Justin Faulk, Ryan Murphy and not too much else. Ironically, the Canes were deemed to be deeper at forward. If you fast forward to today, the progress on stocking the system to build the blue line from within very soon is absolutely astounding.
Justin Faulk has gone from being a 2nd-rounder who could develop into a pretty good top 4 to a player who at 23 years old already is a top 2 and still has room to improve.
Ryan Murphy has not yet cracked the NHL on a permanent basis, but he has collected a good mix of NHL ice time followed by some extended stints in the AHL to work on things. As of the end of the 2014-15 season, he had not yet put it all together, but perhaps his time is coming. I am not sure if he will ever become a top 4 defenseman, but he has the skill set to be an elite 3rd pairing, “dial up the offense” defenseman. There is value and a need for that especially if the Canes can build out the top 4 from the other options.
Then you have the top still prospect defenseman from each of the last 2 drafts in Haydn Fleury and Noah Hanifin. (I use “still prospect” to sneakily exclude Aaron Ekblad who completely skipped the prospect step and was already a good top 4 defenseman in the 1st year after being drafted.) With his size and skating ability, Hanifin has the tools to be elite. I am not sure if Fleury’s ceiling is quite that high, but he would not have been rated in the top 10 in last year’s draft if he did not have at least top 4 potential.
So how about this for a starting point 2-3 years out:
1st pair: Hanifin/Faulk
2nd pair: Fleury/____
3rd pair: ____/Murphy
That is a great starting point and easily something you could fill in with depth players or veteran additions.
But wait. It gets better. The Canes have literally a half dozen defense prospects drafted in the past 4 years that are all tracking toward much better than their mostly mid-round draft pedigree.
–Roland McKeown (2nd round 2014): He came over in the Sekera trade with pretty high marks. He gets a ton of points for character. His ceiling might not be as high as someone like Hanifin’s, but he seems to project to be an NHLer a couple years out.
–Jaccob Slavin (4th round 2012): He is one of those mid-round picks based on raw potential or something a scout saw who panned out. He makes the move from college to the AHL this year. Physically, he looks a bit like the standard as a left shot defenseman with both good size (6-2, 205) and skating/puck-moving ability.
–Trevor Carrick (4th round 2012): He was drafted pretty much alongside Slavin and has similarly already outperformed the norm for his draft pedigree. And whaddya know, he is another left shot with decent size (6-2, 186) and skating/puck-carrying skills.
–Brett Pesce (3rd round 2013): There it is again. Another defenseman with pretty good size (6-3, 200) who is pretty good with the puck on his stick and skating-wise. Pesce is a right shot and therefore 1 of a couple options to grow into the #3/#4 slot right below Faulk on the right side.
–Josh Wesley (4th round 2014): He is a bit farther out, but every time he re-arrives in Raleigh, he looks improved especially in terms of his skating. Like the others, he has good NHL size.
–Tyler Ganly (6th round 2013): As a 6th-rounder who earned a contract, he is also ahead of average for his draft pedigree. He is cut out of a bit different mold as a scrappy, physical defenseman. With the skill set of the group, just maybe he fits perfect as a penalty kill/physical 3rd pairing defenseman to complement some of the skating and skill.
The volume of young, but unproven defensemen is so immense that one is prone to almost skip over the generation in front of them. But there is just enough time for players like Michal Jordan, Rasmus Rissanen, Keegan Lowe and Danny Biega to take a small helping of NHL ice time and seize a slot and keep it before the kids are ready. 2015-16 could be a make or break year for some of these players.
Things could blow up with a miss on Hanifin and/or Fleury, but if they work out such that 1 is good enough to play next to Faulk and the other in the top pair, you get a future blue line that looks something like this:
Fleury or Hanifin / Faulk
Fleury or Hanifin / McKeown or Pesce
Slavin, Carrick or Wesley / Murphy or Ganly
Obviously not every player at these early stages of development pan out, but if the Canes get Hanifin and Fleury to develop, there seems to be plenty of possible options to fill only 3 more blue line slots from within.
A key player in all of this – Mark Morris in Charlotte. I wrote in detail about his role in the future of the team HERE. Pretty much the entire set of players here has progressed ahead of or above target, but each one (guess Hanifin could prove to be an exception) has multiple steps to go to reach the NHL level. It is Mark Morris’ job to usher as many of these players as possible through that process. If he is successful, we could see a Hurricanes blue in 2017-18 built almost entirely from within the system.