The first thing you notice in talking to Brett Pesce is just how young he is. Or, alternatively, how old you are.
Question: “Who’s the guy you pattern your game after?”
Pesce: “He’s still relatively young, but I grew up a Rangers fan, and I liked watching Ryan McDonagh play.”
That’s right: Given the choice of every defenseman in the history of the NHL, Pesce chose Ryan McDonagh. The 27-year-old captain of the Rangers was all of ten years old when this writer graduated from high school, and made his NHL debut when Pesce was just 15.
Needless to say, if you ever want to confront your impending mortality, an NHL locker room is a great place to do so.
But it’s telling that at such a young age, Pesce has become a premier stay-at-home defenseman and half of a pairing, alongside Jaccob Slavin, that has massively outplayed expectations in the first half of the season.
Even more incredible is that this is technically Pesce’s (and Slavin’s, for that matter) first full NHL season. They each spent time early last season in Charlotte, although Pesce’s Checkers career consists of all of seven games, three last year before being called up for good on October 22, 2015.
Pesce spent last season playing mostly with John-Michael Liles before Liles was traded to Boston at the trade deadline. This year, 80% of his ice time has been next to Slavin, who Pesce says is a great partner for him.
“Our chemistry is pretty solid, on and off the ice. We’re really good buddies off the ice,” says Pesce. “If we don’t like something during the game, we’re talking about it in the locker room, and I really thing that helps us. I’m used to how [Slavin] plays. He makes my life easy. It’s a good thing we have going.”
Why do they work so well together? Pesce says that both players know their role and trust each other. “The coaches encourage us to join the rush whenever we can,” he says. “But obviously my first priority, and my strength, is defense. I’m a little extra cautious. [Slavin] is very fast and gets in to the rush quickly to make plays. I have to be that last line of defense in case things go south.”
The Hurricanes are a young person’s team this year. In a locker room where Jeff Skinner is a grizzled veteran, Pesce fits right in with the trend of the club. Four Hurricanes regulars - Pesce, Slavin, Teuvo Teravainen and Elias Lindholm - are 1994 birthdays, and Brock McGinn is a fifth.
But, Pesce says, there is enough of a veteran presence to lend an air of authority to the locker room, which certainly helps with the atmosphere inside the room. “I always stress that we have good veterans on the team, and they give you tips on how to be a good pro, and that’s what it’s all about in this league,” he says.
“I don’t know if I’ve ever been on a team that’s so tight-knit. We all get along really well. That’s from the older guys down to the younger guys. Everyone talks to each other, and that goes a long way. It translates to our play on the ice.”
What’s remarkable about Pesce’s rise to the upper reaches of the Hurricanes defensive eschelon is that he’s doing it against the top players in the league every night. The vast majority of Pesce’s ice time is coming against opposition top-six forwards:
This chart essentially answers the question “if you replaced any other Hurricanes defenseman next to player X with Pesce, how would player X’s performance change?” In every case, it would improve defensively, led by Slavin, who is middling next to anyone else but dynamite when paired with Pesce.
Pesce has logged 558 minutes of ice time this season. 449 of those minutes have been spent next to Slavin, so it’s little wonder why they can practically finish each other’s sentences.
Given these statistics, you could be forgiven for thinking that Pesce has played defense all his life, but you’d be wrong. In fact, playing defense was a last resort for Pesce.
“I was kind of out of shape as a younger kid, so I started as a goalie. That didn’t work. So I started playing forward, got into some trouble breathing out there, and so my dad started pushing me to play defense. I kind of had no choice,” he says.
Good move, Mr. Pesce. And so, at age 8, Pesce began a career as a blueliner that has developed into an NHL-regular career faster than almost anyone anticipated.
Bill Peters clearly trusts him. Pesce is second only to Slavin in the number of defensive zone starts per 100 shifts, and right on par with the likes of Justin Faulk and Ron Hainsey in the offensive zone.
Pesce will likely never win a Norris Trophy; up against the likes of Erik Karlsson and P.K. Subban, players like Pesce slide way under the limelight. But every team needs a player like Pesce, who is the heir to the defensive specialist role pioneered with the Hurricanes by the likes of Glen Wesley and Niclas Wallin. The Canes’ seemingly singular focus for years was on puck-moving defensemen, and while Pesce’s 54.5% Corsi-for indicates a good bit of puck possession, it’s in his own end that he truly shines.
It has happened quickly, but Pesce has become a key component of the Canes’ defensive game plan. And he has no plans to become complacent now that he’s earned a spot as an NHL regular.
“I just want to keep getting better every game,” he says confidently.