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What Went Wrong, Part Two: Team Defense

This past season, Carolina Hurricanes goalie Cam Ward had the best regular season of his career.  He made more saves than any other goalie in the NHL and his .923 save percentage was tied for 5th best in the league, (among goalies who played 30 games or more.)    Looking at those stats alone one might assume the Canes had a very successful season, but there is much more to the story.

Even with Ward's outstanding play, the team allowed more goals against them than they scored, a total of 239 against, which placed 21st in the league.  So how could Carolina have allowed so many goals if Ward played so well?

The Hurricanes allowed more shots on goal, (33.2 per game), than any team in the NHL. 

What makes that stat even more alarming is that Carolina also led the entire league with 566:57 minutes of powerplay time.  The Canes were among the league leaders at drawing penalties, but had trouble converting, hence that huge number.  They had a full 20 minutes more ice time with the advantage than second place Toronto and 40 minutes more time than fourth place Pittsburgh.   

As unlikely as it would seem to be able to lead the league in both categories, that's exactly how bad Carolina's team defense was last year.  Considering those stats, one could make a valid argument that they had the worst team defense in the league.

Now, how do they fix it?

At his end of season press conference, Jim Rutherford stated that the team played "too open" of a game and that led to too many shots against, but there were other contributing factors to that glaring, negative stat. 

  1. Faceoff percentage:  When a team loses too many faceoffs, especially in their own end, that leads to more shots against. Carolina finished 29th in the league with a 44.6% winning faceoff percentage.  If they could improve on their faceoffs, especially if they could get up above 50%, that would automatically reduce the shots against totals and would increase their shots for.   
  2. Puck Possession:  Some teams have a philosophy of keeping possession of the puck as long as possible.  A wise coach once said, "As long as we have the puck, the other team can not score."  One way to increase puck possession time is by cycling it and grinding it in the offensive zone and that is really not Carolina's game.  More often than not, it seemed the other team was controlling the puck in the Hurricanes' zone.  Somehow, the team should reverse those scenarios.
  3. Physicality:  Sometimes it just comes down to brute strength and having the ability to win one-on-one battles along the boards, being able to clear bodies out of the crease, and being strong enough to take the puck away from your opponent.  But not only were the Hurricanes one of the youngest and shortest teams in the league, they were also the very lightest team in the league last season, (average weight.)  While that benefits team speed, it doesn't help in other important facets of the game.  After Tim Gleason, (3rd) and Jay Harrison, (6th), the other defensemen placed low in total team hits.  Joni Pitkanen has good size, but would not be considered physical.  Joe Corvo and Jamie McBain had minimal hits and Anton Babchuk had a measly two hits in 17 games while with the Canes.  Since his acquisition, Bryan Allen has helped in that area a lot and will be a help next season, but will he be enough?  The ideal situation would be to have one physical defenseman and one good puck mover in each pairing.   
  4. Forwards:  When only one player on the team is in double digits with a positive plus/minus, something is amiss.  Brandon Sutter was +13 for the season.  The next closest forward was Cory Stillman at +5, then Jussi Jokinen and Jeff Skinner at +3.  For whatever reason, there appeared to be poor communication on this team because quite often when a defenseman pinched, there was no forward to take his place at the blueline, and that resulted in numerous odd man rushes coming back the other way.  Improvement should come with experience and with more intensified coaching, but improvement needs to come in that area. 
  5. Blocked shots:  As a team, Carolina blocked a fairly good number of shots and finished in the middle of the league, but the forwards might want to help out more in this area as well.  As one might expect, the top shot blockers were all defensemen, with Gleason, Pitkanen, Corvo, McBain, and Harrison leading the way.  Coincidentally enough, to go along with his team best plus/minus, coming in 6th place was Sutter, who was the leading forward with 73 blocks.  The next closest forwards were Patrick Dwyer with 63, then Jokinen and Ruutu with 38 each.  One could say that Sutter padded his blocked shot totals because he led the team with the most shorthanded ice time.  But coming behind Sutter and Dwyer with the third most ice time for forwards on the penalty kill was Chad LaRose, who only had a total of 23 blocks to go along with his team worst -21.  That might be one way LaRose could help step up his defense on a personal level, learn to be a better shot blocker. 

The Hurricanes are in a bit of a pickle because as one of the lightest and smallest teams in the league, they seem built for an open, fast skating game.  On the other hand, it's a no-brainer that they need to reduce their shots against totals next season.  Can they be successful in a more conservative, slower grinding game? 

The blueline should have a familiar look next season.  Gleason(-11), Corvo(-14), McBain(-8), and Allen(+4) are already under contract, and Joslin(+7) and Harrison(+5) are expected to return.  There will probably be just one new body as a replacement for Pitkanen is brought in, (if he is not re-signed). 

Will new assistant coach Dave Lewis be able to improve them? 

(In case you missed it, check out "What Went Wrong, Part One: The Powerplay"