Perhaps the biggest surprise though the first quarter of the Carolina Hurricanes’ 2017-18 season has been the poor play of co-captain Justin Faulk. The 25-year-old Minnesotan has been the Hurricanes’ most offensively productive defenseman by a a landslide since his 2011 debut, but has yet to show that form this season.
Faulk’s most impressive offensive season to date was 2014-15, a year in which he tallied 49 points (15g, 34a). He was operating at a 0.60 point-per-game efficiency, good for 18th-best in the league among defensemen. Although his offensive productivity has declined slightly over the past 2 seasons, he has shown that he has both elite offensive potential as well as a No. 1 defensemen acumen. However, with the exception of a few games, Faulk’s play on both sides of the puck has been noticeably off this season.
His offensive production has more or less disappeared, tallying just one goal and seven points in 23 games. Over the past three seasons Faulk has quarterbacked the Hurricanes power play, leading in time-on-ice, shots, points, and goals. But despite again leading the team in power play TOI this season, Faulk has tallied only 5 assists and no goals. Faulk’s bread and butter has always been the power play, and much of the Canes’ special teams struggles early this season can be attributed to Faulk’s own slump in 5v4 situations.
But while Faulk the player is certainly expendable given his underperformance, the Canes can’t afford to sacrifice his roster spot in the pursuit of a top center.
The NHL is evolving, and a lot of that evolution is manifesting itself on the blueline. The obvious example is Senators’ defensemen Erik Karlsson, who racked up 71 points (17g, 54a) last season — good for 17th best in the league and only one point less than Evgeni Malkin. Just five points up the board from Karlsson was defensemen Brent Burns, who led all defensemen with 76 points (29g, 47a). These highly offensively productive players are defining a new prototype of elite NHL defensemen. General managers and coaches are now mindful of the advantage that an offensive defenseman brings to the table, and they have become some of the most highly coveted players in the league.
So why is Faulk’s presence on Carolina’s blueline so important? If offensive D-men are such hot commodities, why not move the three time All-Star to address the void that’s been in the center of the Canes’ lineup since March of 2016?
Simple: in a modern NHL where defensemen are driving offensive play, a Hurricanes defensive corps without Justin Faulk is among the worst in the league in point production.
There is a lot of buzz around Carolina’s young defense and the exciting prospects still in the pipeline. This makes it easier to imagine a Hurricanes defense without the longtime stalwart. However, the team would be at a significant disadvantage without Faulk in the lineup.
As it currently stands, the Hurricanes’ defense sits tied for 27th in the NHL in points. Remove Faulk from that equation, and they’re tied with the Canucks for dead last in the league. Yes, the Canes’ defensive corps is young and exciting, but I would argue that it has a glaring hole in it.
Each playoff team last season boasted an offensive leader on the blueline. Of the 16 playoff teams, 13 of them had at least one top-20 point producing defensemen, while some of them had more than one. Furthermore, half of the playoff teams had defensemen within the top 10 in offensive production.
The Hurricanes need significant point production from their blueline, and the only player on the roster right now who’s proven himself capable of that is Justin Faulk. The only defenseman in the pipeline who looks to have the potential to produce large offensive numbers in the NHL is Jake Bean, who has three goals and 22 points in 21 games for the Calgary Hitmen of the WHL. Bean could shape up to be a very good offensive defenseman in the NHL, but defensive development is slow enoufg that he is likely still a season or, more likely, two away from making the jump to a full-time NHLer.
Faulk is slumping, there’s no question about that -- but a return to offensive form could see him producing points at double his current rate. The Hurricanes need elite offensive talent to fill the void in the middle of the top line, but parting with the franchise’s only point producing defensemen is the wrong way to address it.