In general, the summer of 2021 was a busy one in terms of player additions and subtractions. Now basically at the midway point of the season if not for games canceled due to COVID, today’s Daily Cup of Joe takes a look at the reworked blue line thus far and also looks forward to the playoffs.
The carry forward — Brady Skjei / Brett Pesce
Admittedly, my early assessment of Brady Skjei was not positive. The circumstances were odd with a few games just prior to the COVID layoff followed by jumping straight into the playoffs after nearly a full off-season layoff, but my early read was that he just made too many errors to be a steady top 4 defenseman on a good team. But he has proceeded to settle in nicely and mesh well with regular partner Brett Pesce. A significant positive is also that his game seemed to elevate for the playoffs. With Slavin out against the Predators in the 2021 NHL Playoffs, Skjei/Pesce logged a ton of ice time and performed well before maybe running out of gas a bit in the Lightning series. His recent goal-scoring burst has also been a pleasant surprise. His current 12-goal pace is a huge contribution for a defenseman who does not see power play ice time. In short, one part of the blue line that needed to be steady in the transition has been exactly that.
The anchor for the other top pairing — Jaccob Slavin
Like Pesce, Jaccob Slavin has been so consistent at what he does well that it has become boring (in a good way) and might at times even be underappreciated. His physical ability in terms of skating, agility and his stick is at such a high level that even the low rare low points in his game are still usually at least good enough.
The new guys — Tony DeAngelo, Ethan Bear, Ian Cole, Brendan Smith
With the returnees playing at a level hoped for and expected, next is to consider the effort to replace Dougie Hamilton and to a lesser degree Haydn Fleury, Jake Bean, Jani Hakanpaa and Jake Gardiner.
Thus far, that significant player changeover has gone very well, but the real test comes in the playoffs.
When Dougie Hamilton departed, it was going to be more of a group effort to replace him versus a single player doing so. The expectation starting the season was that Tony DeAngelo would fill the gap offensively and likely that Ethan Bear would log more of the even strength minutes in the top 4 next to Jaccob Slavin. Fast forward to today, and thus far Tony DeAngelo has exceeded expectations by a significant margin. His six even-strength goals with only 26 games played is a pace higher than Hamilton’s eight even strength goals (and 10 total) in 56 games in 2020-21. The Canes power play has not missed a beat with DeAngelo in Hamilton’s spot on the top unit. And maybe most significantly, DeAngelo has been better than expected defensively. His aggressive, always leaning forward style defensively is a double-edged sword. He has made a number of very good defensive plays aggressively stepping up to challenge pucks, and that style matches well with how Slavin and Pesce excel. The downside is that DeAngelo is prone to overcommitting at times and finding the puck behind him. In total in the regular season, his ability to play up into the top 4 with Slavin has been better than expected. But in the playoffs against teams like Tampa Bay, Florida and Toronto the question will be whether they can exploit his over-aggressiveness at times.
Ethan Bear has mostly been as advertised. His game is generally that of a steady, even if unspectacular, #4 defenseman maybe a bit like Calvin de Haan. He generally makes simple, safe plays and stays out of trouble and skates well enough to defend top NHL forwards. With DeAngelo rising up the depth chart, Bear has more so been logging minutes in the bottom pairing, but I would not say that is so much from his level of play. Come playoff time when things tighten up and a single mistake can decide a close game, I could see Bear logging more minutes in the top 4 next to Slavin, but I guess time will tell.
Ian Cole entered with high praise for his leadership, character and all of the other intangibles that matter come playoff time. Those positive traits have been on display during the regular season, and you can never have enough of that come playoff time. That said, I think at this stage of his career Cole’s ceiling is that of a third pairing defenseman.
When in the lineup, Brendan Smith has brought a physical edge, a bit like Ian Cole. But the downside of Smith’s game has at times been his ability to defense 1-on-1 or even 2-on-2 against the rush. This Achilles’ heel has the potential to be problematic in the playoffs against teams like Tampa Bay, Florida and Toronto especially who attack quickly in transition across multiple lines making it really hard to hide a third pairing defenseman or two who can be overmatched against speed.
Summing it up
Thus far through 33 games, the transition on the blue line has worked well. DeAngelo has mostly replaced Hamilton’s scoring production and offensive roles and been better than advertised defensively. Bear has been a steady #4/#5 defenseman. And Cole and Smith bring a more physical and veteran bottom part of the blue line. The burning question is if/how well the regular season success will carry forward into the playoffs. Despite being better than expected defensively so far (compared to what I expected anyway), DeAngelo’s potential weakness is his susceptibility to costly errors. In addition, I think Slavin is required to make that second top 4 pairing go, so I question whether the Canes could survive needing to bump everyone up a slot in the event of a playoff-time injury to Slavin, Pesce or Skjei.
But in putting down the crystal ball and focusing on actual results thus far, the reworked blue line has been a solid part of having the Hurricanes tracking toward playoff hockey where we get to see how that works out. That is a success thus far.
What say you Canes fans?
1) What is your assessment of the Canes blue line through 33 games of the 2021-22 NHL season?
2) How would you rate/assess the new additions (DeAngelo, Bear, Cole, Smith)?
3) Do you think this group is good enough to stand up against and win a seven-game playoff series against the NHL’s top teams?