As the NHL’s 2016-17 season nears the halfway point of its course, the Carolina Hurricanes are within earshot of the playoff conversation. The excitement surrounding the team is palpable, with new additions contributing up front and Cam Ward maintaining a solid stat line for the past two months.
But perhaps a bit surprisingly, Carolina’s defensive core has not received quite the same accolades. The members of the group have remained relatively static, with the notable addition of Matt Tennyson on the third pairing, and their numbers consistently reflect strong performances.
So what gives?
The fanbase is used to it now. Anyone who follows the Hurricanes has read a plethora of articles, tweets, blog posts, Facebook rants, etc. over the past year and a half about the team’s “reliable beyond their years” defense.
Jaccob Slavin, Brett Pesce, and Noah Hanifin have each come into their own, but have done it together. Justin Faulk and Ron Hainsey, despite their noticeable struggles at times this season, have been strong performers as well. And the aforementioned Tennyson has been a very pleasant surprise, giving Hanifin a trustworthy and confident defensive partner—something that has been lacking since the departure of John-Michael Liles last season. These are all expected occurrences after the somewhat unexpected positive season last year.
Even if you don’t hear about it as much, the Hurricanes defense is more than likely their strongest asset. Numbers seem to be important evidence these days so here: Carolina leads the League in takeaways with 313 and in penalty kill percentage with 90.6% (yeah that has forwards involved too, but it is a defensive situation), they hold the 11th spot in goals allowed per game with a 2.61, and allow the 4th fewest amount of shots per game at 27.5.
Their advanced metrics tell a similar story, as the Hurricanes have given up the 5th fewest shot attempts to opponents (1390), and the 7th fewest unblocked shot attempts (1039).
But statistics, no matter how fancy or specific, only tell part of the story. To fully analyze a team or player, you have to watch them. The Hurricanes defense garnered plenty of attention last season, with three players below the age of 22 starting regular minutes in the six-man core. They earned praise from hockey pundits and fans alike, and deservedly so.
This year, we have seen much of the same, but some new trends as well—both good and bad. The exits from the defensive zone are still (generally) crisp and clean, and the puck movement during transitions from turnovers in the neutral zone continues to fuel a potent Carolina counterattack.
But we’ve also seen plenty of shakiness in this group. The defensive zone coverage usually breaks down when the wingers fail to cover their men on the blue line, but lately the defense has been beaten repeatedly by plays from behind the goal line. The strategy of putting a player at either post when an opponent is behind the net leaves both defensemen with their backs to the front of the net, and there have been four or five goals in the last two weeks alone from opponents being wide open in the slot.
Last year’s undisputed defensive leader Justin Faulk looked, well, bad at times at the start of this season. His legs were not always there and he seemed to be just one step behind sometimes. To his credit, however, he has righted his ship and found the quickness and vision to find the open space on the ice and give himself and his teammates the best chance to succeed.
After a breakout year for the Canes’ blueliners last season, complacency could have taken firm hold in Carolina—and for a little while it almost felt like it did. But the defensemen have kept their strong numbers, their swift puck movement, and most importantly, their confidence—not just confidence they inspire in themselves, but in their teammates and fans as well. Even when the glittering novelty of having half your defensive-core be at or below the drinking age, and still dominant, has worn off, the players still exude an air of “I’ve got this.”
With the team in position to (hopefully) begin a strong playoff push, the defense will need to be the engine that drives the bus. They have fought through adversity thus far in 2016, and will face more of the same in the new year. But with this confident, smart group on the back end, Carolina can continue to put up points on a consistent basis.