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Carolina Hurricanes 2017-18 Season Preview: Defensemen

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The Carolina Hurricanes just so happen to have the NHL’s best defense. Don’t believe me? Just watch.

Noah Hanifin fends off a Tampa Bay Lightning forward in a recent pre-season contest.
Jamie Kellner

The 2017-2018 Hurricanes are a team that looks to be much improved over its predecessors in all facets of the game. However, the team’s defensive unit, the strength of the team from the last two years, still appears to be its most dominant feature.

The group that ended last season as the team’s top four remains perfectly intact thanks to some fortuitous rules in regards to this summer’s expansion draft (only one of the group had to be protected) and they look to establish themselves further as one of the NHL’s elite groups.

However, two new faces figure to be among the six that represent the team’s finished product on defense on opening night. Let’s re-acquaint ourselves with the old, meet the new, and see just how good this unit projects to be this season.


Jamie Kellner

Jaccob Slavin

Age: 23
2016-2017 Totals: 82 GP, 5 goals, 29 assists, 34 points
Acquired: 4th Round (120th overall) pick, 2012

Slavin avoided the sophomore slump in outstanding fashion last season, as he continued to establish himself as one of the best defensemen in the NHL. He’s starting to get some very high praise from respected voices around the league, but that did not translate to him being ranked as one of NHL Network’s top 20 defensemen, nor did it lead to him cracking TSN’s list of the top 50 players in the NHL. I assure you all that if Slavin builds on his performance from last season or even repeats it, both of those will change. It should help that the ‘Canes are going to make the playoffs, too.

Besides shooting the puck, there’s not a single element of being a premier defenseman in the modern day NHL in which Slavin does not absolutely excel. Breaking up zone entries? Yup. Spending little to no time in his own end? Yup. Turning possession around with regularity in the rare occasion he does get caught in his own end? Yup. High-end stretch passes that lead to chances for his forwards? Yup. Heads-up passes in the offensive zone that most defensemen may not see? Yup.

Look, we all know how good Slavin is defensively, and the uptick from his rookie season’s 20 points to last year’s 34 was impressive. But folks, to borrow a reference from Game of Thrones, a show I do not watch... points are coming. He’s going to score more than five goals this year, and as long as he plays a full season, I’d be stunned if he doesn’t hit 40 points, especially if he spends the majority of his time paired with the next guy on this list.


NHL: Preseason-Carolina Hurricanes at Edmonton Oilers Perry Nelson-USA TODAY Sports

Justin Faulk

Age: 25
2016-2017 Totals: 75 GP, 17 goals, 20 assists, 37 points
Acquired: 2nd round (37th overall) pick, 2010

Faulk continued his run as one of the NHL’s best goal-scoring defensemen last season as he put up a career-high 17 tallies, which is up from 15 three years ago and 16 two seasons ago (maybe... 18 goals this year? we’ll see).

But while Faulk’s shot is by far his most prominent weapon, it’s far from the only thing that he brings to the ice. His puck-rushing ability is above-average, and still getting better in my estimation. The same thing holds true for his play in his own end.

With the strides that Slavin has taken over the past two years, a lot of weight has fallen off of Faulk’s shoulders. He no longer has to be this team’s best defenseman in all three zones, as he did from around 2013 to early 2016. He no longer has to take on the opposition’s toughest offensive matchups on a nightly basis, and he’s free to feast on lower lines and pairings in the offensive zone.

That may change a little bit if the pairing of Slavin and Faulk that we’ve seen in the pre-season carries over into October, but playing with Slavin would mean spending a lot of time in the offensive zone, which is where Faulk is at his most dangerous.


Jamie Kellner

Brett Pesce

Age: 22
2016-2017 Totals: 82 GP, 2 goals, 18 assists, 20 points
Acquired: 3rd round (66th overall) pick, 2013

It’s hard to imagine a player in the NHL to whom the descriptor “solid but unspectacular” applies more than the University of New Hampshire product.

You look at his stat line, see 20 points, and go “meh” but if you just look at the boxcar numbers, you miss the massive impact that a player like Pesce can have on a game at times. Poised with this stick, strong on his skates, rarely out of position, and nimble enough to recover in the rare occasion where he is, there aren’t many players in this league who are as good at being pure defenders as Pesce is. You look at the Niklas Hjalmarsson’s of the world, that’s the type of player that Pesce is on track to be if his development continues on the path that it’s on right now.

Pesce has been skating with Noah Hanifin in the pre-season, so it’s possible that he’ll go into the regular season not playing with Slavin as he did so often last year. I’d expect him to be able to handle that just fine, and for Bill Peters, the option of reuniting the two will always be in his back pocket.


Jamie Kellner

Noah Hanifin

Age: 20
2016-2017 Totals: 81 GP, 4 goals, 25 assists, 29 points
Acquired: 1st round (5th overall) pick, 2015

Hanifin enters the 2017-2018 season locked into a top four role for the first time in his NHL career. After spending the majority of two seasons on Carolina’s bottom pairing, the trade that sent Ron Hainsey to the Pittsburgh Penguins at last year’s deadline opened up a spot in one of the league’s premier top four units.

Hanifin took that opportunity and ran with it, as it is widely agreed that he played the best hockey of his career when he was regularly paired with Justin Faulk as last season wound to a close.

This is a player whose development will determine whether this team’s defense unit is an elite one or merely a very good one. So far into training camp and the pre-season, the signs are encouraging. Getting a chance to watch Hanifin play on Monday night was a treat. His pace look significantly improved, as did his confidence with the puck on his stick. If Hanifin can develop the offensive side to his game that we saw from his highlight reels at Boston College, then it’s not hard to imagine him being viewed as even better than the number four on this team.


Jamie Kellner

Trevor van Riemsdyk

Age: 26
2016-2017 Totals: 58 GP, 5 goals, 11 assists, 16 points
Acquired: Trade with Golden Knights, June 22nd, 2017

One of the biggest points of weaknesses on last year’s roster that Ron Francis and his team in the front office identified heading into the offseason was the bottom pairing. Between Klas Dahlbeck, Matt Tennyson, and to a lesser extent Ryan Murphy and Noah Hanifin, the players who made up that unit simply were not good enough throughout the season.

Enter van Riemsdyk, who Francis keenly identified as one of the defenders that the Vegas Golden Knights would be willing to deal shortly after the expansion draft process. Van Riemsdyk spent his entire NHL career prior to belonging to three different teams in a two-day span with the Chicago Blackhawks.

Over the last three seasons, TVR has gotten in 15 games of playoff experience. He’s predominantly played a bottom-pairing role, but there have been times where he was forced into a top-four role due to injuries. The book on him seems to be that he’s very well equipped to be an above-average bottom pairing defender that can fill in on a top four in case of injury, but that he’s probably not a long-term solution in a top four.

Regardless, look for van Riemsdyk to represent a massive upgrade over Tennyson, Dahlbeck, Murphy, and even Jakub Nakladal, for that matter.


Jamie Kellner

Haydn Fleury

Age: 21
2016-2017 Totals: 69 GP, 7 goals, 19 assists, 26 points with AHL Charlotte
Acquired: 1st round (7th overall) pick, 2014

After three years of post-draft seasoning that was split between the WHL’s Red Deer Rebels and the AHL’s Charlotte Checkers, the Hurricanes are both hopeful and confident that the 2014 first rounder will be able to make the leap as a full-time NHL player this season.

Heading into training camp, the left-handed spot on the third pairing was seen as likely being Fleury’s to lose. Since Fleury has done nothing but impress in training camp as well as his pre-season appearances, it’s hard to imagine that he’s done anything to lose the gig.

Expect Fleury’s calling card as an NHL player to be his dependability. He’s probably not going to wow us offensively, but he should provide decent puck distribution ability in transition and in the offensive zone. On defense, watch out for Fleury’s reach and ability to disrupt opposing teams’ offensive attacks with his solid positioning and stick play.

While comparing Fleury to Jaccob Slavin is unfair to Fleury from a talent perspective, I think there’s something there in terms of a stylistic comparison. Perhaps Pittsburgh Penguins defenseman and former Hurricane prospect Brian Dumoulin offers a better straight-across comparable for Fleury.


Elsewhere

Trevor Carrick and the aforementioned Klas Dahlbeck appear to be in a camp/pre-season duel for the team’s seventh slot on defense. Both players are certainly good enough for that role, though Dahlbeck does have his limitations as a full-time NHLer. Both of them are waiver-eligible, so whoever the team decides to not award that spot to will be exposed to the whole league. Carrick has upside as potentially a number four or five defenseman in this league. For that reason, I expect him to be the guy who wins out, as he would be a more costly casualty should either player get claimed off waivers.

The first of two Hurricanes’ first round picks from the 2016 draft, Jake Bean has hung around in camp, and he even got a look on Monday night in Edmonton on the bottom pairing alongside van Riemdsyk. I think the sense is that he’s not quite ready to handle the rigors of the NHL yet, but when he is, his tantalizing upside is going to lead to the front office having to make some highly difficult decisions as to which defenseman may go in a trade to upgrade the center position.

Acquired in the trade that sent Andrej Sekera to Los Angeles at the 2015 deadline, 2014 second-rounder Roland McKeown didn’t hang around in camp quite as long as some might have expected him to heading in. There has been some buzz that his rookie season in the Charlotte was underwhelming to some in the front office, and while that might put a cap on his long-term upside, it certainly doesn’t mean he won’t have a chance to make the big club in the coming years. Especially as a right-handed shot, where the team isn’t quite as strong, it’s easy to imagine an opportunity coming along there. Needless to say, this is a huge year for McKeown to prove that he’s making strides toward becoming an NHL player.


Scoring Projections (assuming 82 GP)

  • Jaccob Slavin: 8 goals, 37 assists, 45 points
  • Justin Faulk: 18 goals, 26 assists, 44 points
  • Brett Pesce: 3 goals, 19 assists, 22 points
  • Noah Hanifin: 7 goals, 27 assists, 34 points
  • Trevor van Riemsdyk: 2 goals, 17 assists, 19 points
  • Haydn Fleury: 3 goals, 18 assists, 21 points