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Are the Carolina Hurricanes unique in insisting defensemen play on their natural side?

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The Hurricanes are lucky to have three right-handed shots at the NHL level. How important is this balance to a team’s success?

Jamie Kellner

Hockey traditionalists typically prefer for a right-handed defenseman playing on the right side of the blueline and a left-handed shot on the left, but oftentimes things get in the way of this formula. The primary issue is that the pool of NHL caliber defensemen is not evenly divided into left and right-handed shots. But other times, it’s a player’s - or even a coaching - preference.

Bill Peters was fond of Klas Dahlbeck and he viewed the Swede as a kind of Swiss army knife on the blueline. Peters paired Dahlbeck, a left shot, with fellow lefty Jaccob Slavin for just north of 2.2 percent of even strength time throughout the season, as well as with rookie lefty Haydn Fleury for about 2.6 percent. While his decision to run Dahlbeck and sometimes other D-men on their offhand seemed confusing, the Canes really didn’t do it nearly as much as some other NHL clubs. This is mostly a result of the fact that Peters and Steve Smith were in a good position with their blueline in terms of a balance of left and right shots, a luxury that many other teams don’t have.

For instance, out of the Philadelphia Flyers’ six defensive regulars last season, five of them are left-handed shots. This left Dave Hakstol and company in a really tough spot each night with two defensemen playing on the weak side.

The overarching issue in these cases is that good right defensemen are few and far between. As noted, the Hurricanes’ roster is actually in a better state than a lot of teams in terms of balance on the backend. Justin Faulk and Brett Pesce are two right-handed defensemen who fill top-four roles well, while Trevor van Riemsdyk brings a much needed right shot to the bottom pairing.

The Canes’ pipeline, though, is not nearly as balanced. Among Carolina’s top defensive prospects, the only right-handed shot belongs to Roland McKeown. The hottest prospect on the blueline, Jake Bean, brings a left-handed shot (who has, however, logged some time on the right side), and basically everyone else close to being NHL ready also wields a lefty stick. These are important things to think about, especially as the Canes defensive pool could have less right-handedness very soon.

Many successful defenses throughout the NHL actually embrace the imbalance, most notably the Lightning, Golden Knights, and Flyers this past season. The acquisition of lefty Ryan McDonagh put the Bolts at odds, forcing many of the left-handed shots to cycle in on the right side down the stretch.

The Golden Knights’ expansion draft and summer showed how limited the available RHD are, as they only had two on the roster in their successful inaugural season. Brayden McNabb and Nate Schmidt fit together perfectly despite being of the same handedness.

Other players, like Niklas Hjalmarsson and some guy named Rasmus Dahlin, actually prefer to play on their off-side, allowing for them to be a more immediate shooting threat and sometimes have a better edge with their sticks in the defensive zone. This all comes with the trade-off of making a lot more plays along the boards on their backhands and often being in worse position to pass the puck quickly.

NHL defenses are characterized by a group of six or seven guys who usually don’t fit together perfectly, and the Hurricanes were lucky enough this past season to have three men of each handedness. But losing right-handed shots may rid the team of the blueline balance that it has enjoyed the past few seasons. With van Riemsdyk a pending RFA and the rumors flying about a Hurricanes team ready to make a splash, who knows what this defense may look like next season. While the front office listens to offers and curates next year’s roster, they shouldn’t forget how valuable a good RHD is in this league.