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Hurricanes Have Pieces In Place To Build An Elite Defense

Canes fans and management are eagerly awaiting the arrival of top defensive prospect Jamie McBain, who could be the young linchpin in a rebuild Carolina defense. Photo by LTD

I try to not look too far in the future simply because you never know what will happen. But when I look at what the Carolina Hurricanes defense could be next year and beyond, I can't help but quiver with anticipation. An outsider might look at the Canes’ blueline and think the group could have the kind of success the 2006 Stanley Cup-winning defense had: effective, but essentially a no-name group that is greater than the sum of its parts.

Such outsiders would be wrong. This defense — from skating and offensive potential to physicality and defensive positioning — has the potential to be good. Really, really good.

Let’s start with Olympic silver medalist and fan favorite Tim Gleason. It didn't take the fans long to forget about reports that GM Jim Rutherford didn't get enough return for one-time third overall pick Jack Johnson when he acquired Gleason as the centerpiece of the four-player deal prior to the 2006-07 season.

The 27-year-old is now in his fourth season with Carolina, and his steady improvement hit a new high with his solid play for Team USA at the Winter Olympics in Vancouver. And while Gleason played well in the short tournament, his hallmark scowl and team-first attitude wasn't as noticeable in relatively scrum-free international play. That's not to say Gleason needs to be facewashing and fighting opponents to be effective, but that part of what he does makes him a feared foe and even more effective in the other facets of his game.

More and more, Gleason is evolving into a new era Jason Smith, but with more offensive upside. 

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Like I mentioned earlier, outsiders might look at the Carolina D and think "OK, but not great." A lot of people feel that way about 27-year-old Joni Pitkanen, too. But a closer look reveals that not only is Pitkanen emerging as a reliable defender in both ends, but he has begun to put up elite numbers. 

Now in his sixth season with his third team, Pitkanen has had a standout season on a team that struggled horribly the first half of the year. Not only does he lead all NHLers in average ice time (27:12), but he's tied for 11th in defenseman scoring and has shown the willingness to be both physical and intimidating — when needed — despite his normally stoic demeanor. 

Unfortunately, many remember Pitkanen as a dynamic but mistake-prone 20-year-old in Philadelphia instead of realizing he has emerged into a reliable and calm force on the Carolina backend, and still has his prime in front of him. Does he take poor penalties from time to time? Sure. But his growth and improvement since those days he was labeled a player "you couldn't win with" are clear as day. 

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Speaking of 20-somethings, Brett Carson has been steady in his first shot at being a full-time NHLer. How well has he played? Wrap your brains around this: Carson might be the best rookie to suit up for the Canes since Eric Staal. Don't believe me? In 37 games, Carson has eight points and is plus-3 — tied for best among blueliners who have been with Carolina all season. The 16:45 Carson plays each night is the most a truly contributing Carolina rookie has played since the move to Raleigh — even more than the 16:39 Staal averaged in 2003-04. More than Erik Cole and Shane Willis, too. The playoff contributions from rookies like Cole, Cam Ward, Jaroslav Svoboda and Chad LaRose may come to mind, but only Cole, Willis and Staal can say they had a better freshman regular season campaign than the 24-year-old native of Regina has had in 34 games so far this year. 

Carson may not have the marquis player potential of Cole or Ward, and his quiet Western Canadian demeanor coupled with his commitment to his own zone doesn't bring a lot of attention his way. But the thing he does have is a spot carved in the Canes top six, and time is on his side.

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From the moment he first steps on the RBC Center ice, Jamie McBain will attract the eyes of diehard Hurricanes fans. The first-year professional has already grown by leaps and bounds in Albany this season. After spending much of the season's first half focusing on playing in his own end, McBain has emerged as an offensive force. He has 34 points in 64 games, tops among all River Rats defensemen and 13th in the entire AHL. But most impressive is that McBain has compiled a lot of those points recently, finishing January with 13 points in 14 games — which included a seven-game point streak. It's also worth noting McBain has taken just five minor penalties all season, a tribute to his top-notch skating and positioning. 

But that's the AHL — what can McBain do against the best in the world? Chances are we'll find out soon. With the trade of Aaron Ward, Andrew Alberts and Joe Corvo, the Canes have journeyman Jay Harrison playing in the No. 6 spot. Rutherford has said McBain will get a look this year — likely at Harrison’s expense — and once he does, Carolina fans will get to see how the team's top defensive prospect fits into the future. Chances are that by next year he won't have to worry about riding AHL buses any more.

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Brian Pothier and Alexandre Picard were both acquired as part of recent trades. Picard, 24, will likely factor in to Carolina’s future plans — Rutherford has made a point of acquiring young, underachieving/underappreciated defensemen and having them emerge in a Hurricanes jersey. For those who fear that this is now Picard's fourth NHL team, remember that Pitkanen and Gleason were each on their third team and 24 and 23, respectively, when they were acquired by the Canes.  

The nearly 33-year-old Pothier and Carolina will be auditioning for each other to see if they want to continue their relationship past the balance of this season when his contract runs out. Both Pothier and Picard could see their respective roles and future determined by how ready McBain is to make the jump to the NHL and eat minutes in perhaps every situation.

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Even if Pothier departs, Carolina has five defenseman that could prove formidable next year and beyond, sporting a combination of size, grit, offense, defense, determination and, perhaps most importantly, youth that few teams can boast. Even if Pothier returns, the Canes would average just a shade older than 26 in their top six with this group, with the team still retaining the rights to Anton Babchuk (26 next year), while youngsters Bryan Rodney, Casey Borer, Kyle Lawson and Michal Jordan are all waiting in the wings, not to mention recent draftees like Brian Dumoulin. Compare that to the top six entering this season, which averaged more than 30 years of age at the start of the season and featured two players on the wrong side of 35.

The same could be said at up front, where the departures of Matt Cullen, Scott Walker, Stephane Yelle leaves just two players who are older than 31: Rod Brind'Amour (39) and Ray Whitney (37), and both could conceivably be gone after this season. Toss in a potential net tandem of Ward (26) and Justin Peters (24 in August), and the Canes could go from the league's oldest teams to one of the younger ones in less than nine months.

So it seems youth will be served in Carolina. But that doesn't mean dark days are ahead. Look no further than the defense to see how bright the future may be.