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Morton's Microscope (and More): Jaccob Slavin

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Hello, this is a new weekly feature that will focus on the play of one Hurricane from an analytical and/or film-based point of view. This week, Canes rookie defenseman Jaccob Slavin takes his turn under the microscope and talks about how his career has taken off this year.

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Throughout the existence of the Carolina Hurricanes franchise, one of the major weaknesses has been a lack of ability to find NHL players beyond the first round of the NHL Entry Draft.

Take for example the players the Hurricanes drafted outside of the first round between 2000 and 2009. In that time span, the Hurricanes used 59 draft selections that were not first round picks. Depending on your definition of what it means to be an NHL regular, either as few as eight or as many as 11 of those picks went on to become NHL regulars. Of those, only two (Chris Terry and Michal Jordan) are still with the organization today. Only Niclas Wallin was ever really a key piece of a Hurricanes roster, and even he was far from what would be considered a foundational piece.

Fast forward to today, and it's needless to say that things have changed in Carolina. Whether it's through vastly improved scouting or just dumb luck, the Hurricanes have evolved into one of the best drafting teams in the entire NHL. Since 2010, the Hurricanes have found key players and top prospects like Justin Faulk, Victor Rask, Phil di Giuseppe, Brett Pesce, Alex Nedeljkovic, and Sebastian Aho outside of the first round. One glaring omission from that list just happens to be the subject of this week's microscope, and his name is Jaccob Slavin.

The Acquisition

Sometimes in hockey, things have a weird way of working themselves out. I mentioned this on Twitter previously, but Slavin was actually not selected with one of Carolina's original draft picks. The 2012 4th rounder that would eventually be used to pick up Slavin was acquired alongside Joe Sova from the New Jersey Devils in exchange for... wait for it... Alexei Ponikarovsky.

It's funny to me how those random free agent signings that end up playing for bad teams and ultimately get dumped for mid-round picks can bring back a huge asset if the team is successful in the scouting and drafting process, and that's exactly what happened here.

Slavin, at the time of his drafting, was seen as somewhat of a long term prospect, as most drafted in his position are. His size and skating ability were his most visible characteristics, and his 30 point season in his draft year in the USHL suggested that there was some offensive upside. However, it seems likely that even the most optimistic of prognosticators in the Hurricanes front office would not have been able to expect just how big of an impact Slavin would make in such a quick fashion.

Among those who weren't sure what Slavin's future held were Slavin himself. "That's kind of how it's been my whole life, flying under the radar," he says. "We didn't know if I was going to get drafted that year. It gives you some motivation to prove some people wrong. I didn't plan to start [this season] in the NHL, so I was just going to work as hard as I could to make it hard for them to send me to the AHL."

But just how good has Slavin been in his rookie campaign with the NHL club? Let's take a look at some of the numbers to get to the heart of that question.

Early Returns

As is the trend in the NHL these days, job of defensemen has moved from the physical, crease-clearing job description of old to the modern responsibilities of driving play up the ice and limiting shots and scoring chances against through more cerebral acts such as stick play and positioning. To paraphrase TSN's Travis Yost, if you are a defenseman that can't make an outlet pass or move the puck, you aren't a stay-at-home defenseman. You're just a bad defenseman. Slavin's puck moving abilities are terrific, and as a result his rookie year success is no exception to this idea. All of the following stats have been pulled from war-on-ice.com.

The 'Canes have recently become known as somewhat of an analytics darling, and Slavin has quickly settled in as a key cog in Carolina's puck management game. Below is a chart that should help to visualize the success that Slavin has had when it comes to even-strength on-ice shot attempts, shots on goal, and high danger scoring chances.

As you can see, the Hurricanes come out firmly in the positive in all three respects while Slavin is on the ice. While some of those margins may seem rather thin for a strong possession team, it's important to note that the Hurricanes actually aren't as solid as one may think without Slavin, especially when it comes to the high-danger scoring chances with category. With Slavin off the ice, the Hurricanes are actually in the red there, controlling only 49.4% of such chances, but with Slavin on the ice, that number balloons all the way up to 52.7%. As such, Slavin's HDSCF-Relative of +3.3% puts him second among the team's defensemen, trailing only fellow rookie Brett Pesce.

When it comes to driving play, there are two ways that a player can have a positive impact on his team's metrics. Either he can be above average in shot/chance generation, meaning that more shots/chances happen for the team while he is on the ice, or he can be above average in shot/chance suppression, meaning that fewer shots/chances happen against the team while he is on the ice.

In Slavin's case it's pretty clear that the offensive side of the puck is where he really makes his mark. With Slavin on the ice, the Hurricanes surrender 11.08 high danger chances against per 60 minutes. That's actually the third highest mark among Canes defensemen. That's not to say that Slavin is bad defensively, just to point out that he does have some room for growth in that aspect of the game, which is to be expected at his age. However, with Slavin on the ice, the Hurricanes generate 12.35 high-danger chances per 60 minutes, which is higher than any other defenseman on the roster. That's also a strong number league-wide, as he places 5th among NHL defensemen under the age of 24 with at least 400 minutes of 5-on-5 time on ice this season.

Coach Bill Peters minces few words in discussing Slavin's play since his callup in November. "Just an unbelievable, pleasant surprise," is how Slavin's coach describes him. "He got an opportunity here, and he seized that opportunity. I think there's a little more offense to come, and it will come over time. Everything we've asked him to do, he's been able to do, and that's very encouraging. His confidence has to be sky-high."

Further, Slavin's ability to generate shots and chances doesn't stop at the team level. He also performs quite well in doing that on his own. He fires 4.74 shots on goal per 60 minutes, which when placed in comparison with Justin Faulk's mark of 5.18, makes it clear that he definitely has a knack generating offense on his lonesome. This is to say nothing of his points per 60 minutes mark of 0.73, which trails only Faulk's mark of 0.80 among the team's defenders. If you needed anything else to sell you on this young blue-liner, he's also the only one on the team who has drawn more penalties than he is committed. That's rather rare for defensemen, seeing as they are logically more likely to take a penalty on an opposing player than they are to have an opposing player haul them down. As such, he's doing more than his fair share to ensure that the Hurricanes spend more time up a man than they do down a man.

In terms of things that are less quantifiable and more visible, Slavin obviously has his fair share of strengths, which Peters can recite like a kid's Christmas list. "He's a big guy. He skates well with a long reach and a good gap. His skating allows him to be gapped up, so he's good defensively. His ability to make plays on the backhand is phenomenal, in my opinion." Rarely caught out of position, Slavin excels at skating the puck out of the defensive zone and through the neutral zone with a mind toward setting up the forwards for offensive opportunities. In essence, Slavin is a defenseman who has an extraordinarily high understanding of how members of his position need to play the game these days to be successful.  Peters recognizes that, and has rewarded him with huge minutes against top competition in Justin Faulk's recent absence.

The Road to Here

Slavin, a native of Erie, Colo., northwest of Denver, stayed close to home for his college hockey, returning to play at Colorado College after spending parts of three seasons with the Chicago Steel of the United States Hockey League. He turned professional following his sophomore season at CC, and spent all of fourteen games in Charlotte before his callup to the Canes.

It's a meteoric rise for a player who has seen plenty of changes in his life in just a few months: his first professional contract in July, getting married in August, pro debut in October, NHL debut in November.

"It's been one heck of a ride so far," Slavin says, in what may be the understatement of the year. "Getting married was the best thing that ever happened to me. Getting sent to Charlotte, finding an apartment, getting called back up and living in a hotel for a month and a half, then the Canes telling me to find a place in Raleigh. I was out of town while my wife was trying to move. It's been stressful on her, but she's been there to encourage and support me so far."

As anyone who follows Slavin on social media knows, he answers to a higher authority, hashtagging many of his posts with "#AGTG" - all glory to God. NHL locker rooms are typically rather secular places, but Slavin wears his faith on his sleeve - echoing another former Canes defenseman, Glen Wesley, both on the ice and in the room - and he leaves no question where his priorities lie. "I think that's the most important thing in my life. I know that I'm not here to impress anybody, but to give all the glory to God and just work 110% for Him."

And if you've ever wondered if the second C in Slavin's first name has any significance, it most certainly does, assuming you're an OCD type that values consistency: all five Slavin children (Jaccob is the third) have names that start with J and contain six letters. So he became Jaccob, with one of the more unique first names in hockey.

"My time at CC and in the USHL was great, but I think [playing in the NHL] has been one of the most exciting things of my life," says Slavin. "It's been a fun time and a real adventure, but it's a long career and you just have to try to stay healthy and keep doing the right things."

All of this is to say that the Hurricanes definitely found themselves a steal when they selected Slavin at 120th overall in the 2012 Entry draft. Slavin's progress over the coming weeks, months, and even years is going to be very interesting to monitor going forward. It's hard to set a ceiling for his potential at this point in his career, but I feel fairly strongly that if he continues on his current path, he will be an above average #2 defenseman in this league moving forward. With players like Justin Faulk already established as an elite blue-liner, and the highly touted rookie Noah Hanifin looking to join him in that regard in short order, the development of other defenders like Slavin and Brett Pesce is just the icing on the cake of what should soon grow into being a very, very special defensive unit guarding the nets in Raleigh for many years to come.