The Joni Pitkanen injury is seared into my mind. On April 2, 2013, in what amounted to a meaningless game in the last month of the season, Pitkanen raced down the ice for an icing call and was checked into the boards by Troy Brouwer. His injury, a broken heel, was described as a race car injury, because it takes such a large force to cause.
I remember watching the game with my brother, who is a Caps fan. Without saying anything he walked upstairs and came back and handed me a drink. He knew Pitkanen was one of my favorite players (I have a soft spot for defensemen), and we knew it was serious. We had talked for years about the hybrid icing rule, which has since been implemented (largely as a result of Pitkanen’s injury), and that just confirmed our points.
Initially the injury looked like it would keep Pitkanen out for the remainder of the 2012-2013 season, and maybe the 2013-2014 season. However, it became apparent that he may never return as the player he once was.
Oh the Memories
Pitkanen was the source of so many fond memories just years before. In Game 4 of the Devils series in 2009, he set up Dennis Seidenberg with the game winner with .2 seconds left. That goal caused Devils goaltender Martin Brodeur to break his stick in an all-time temper tantrum. Then, later in the series, he set up Jussi Jokinen for the game tying goal in Game 7.
Pitkanen was a great puck mover, with 225 career assists in 535 career games. He had a cannon which forced the opposing players to step up to play defense and created space for everyone else in the zone. Joni was not a selfish player, so he would gladly pass the puck to someone who could finish the job.
His 282 total points equates to a .52 point per game pace. He was also a top-pair defenseman logging minutes against the opposing team’s top players. Think Justin Faulk’s production (or just a tad better) with Brett Pesce’s defensive responsibility. Who wouldn’t want that type of player on their team?
Now the Canes lose that player, with little hope to replace him.
The Next Joni Pitakanen
With the Finnish defenseman gone from the roster, the biggest question was, who would replace him? That season the Canes had Joe Corvo, Jay Harrison, Jamie McBain, Tim Gleason, and Justin Faulk also playing in the NHL. Corvo was at the end of his NHL career, and Gleason was near the end. So the thin defensive corps did not hold up well in the 2012-2013 season.
That offseason the Canes made a move that may not have happen had Pitkanen stayed healthy, sending a second-round pick and Jamie McBain to the Buffalo Sabres for defenseman Andrej Sekera. Sekera filled in well in the role that the Canes needed, but they had to give up a piece on defense to make it happen. While I was never a big Jamie McBain fan, the Canes sacrificed depth in a position as well as a draft pick to improve in that same position, thus fixing a hole by causing another hole.
The rest of the defense moved on shortly after. Gleason retired after another two seasons which were split between the Canes, Toronto Maple Leafs, and Washington Capitals. Harrison stuck around for two more painful seasons, and Faulk thankfully evolved into a top-four player.
However, Pitkanen’s injury highlighted the thin nature of the blue line. His loss resulted in a weaker defense corps, plenty of goals against, and may have led to an organizational drafting strategy of prioritizing defensemen above all others. While this did lead to Brett Pesce and Jaccob Slavin, the Canes have also drafted 12 defensemen who have not played with the team since.
What Might Have Been?
Pitkanen’s injury in 2013 certainly did not cause the Canes’ rebuild singlehandedly, but it also did not help by any means. With GM Jim Rutherford at the helm for two more years, the Canes continued to make transactions that pushed the rebuild off further.
Like I previously mentioned, the Canes sent a second-round pick to Buffalo for Sekera, and also made various other quasi-forced deals during this time with sub-optimal returns. This eventually led to the departures of both Jim Rutherford and Kirk Muller, which changed the Canes for years to come.
With Pitkanen, the Canes might have been able to extend their window to be able to make the playoffs. Pitkanen would have remained on the top pairing also serving as Justin Faulk’s mentor. Jay Harrison would not have had to play what amounted to top pairing minutes, which would have drastically helped the goal differential during the 2013-2014 season.
With the improved defense and the offensive production of Eric Staal, Jeff Skinner and Alex Semin, the Canes would have a much better chance to make the playoffs in the Metro against the weakened Washington Capitals and New Jersey Devils. However, you can also look at Cody’s post from yesterday to see the rest of the comedy of errors that was the 2013-2014 Carolina Hurricanes season.
So while a healthy Joni Pitkanen wouldn’t have solved all of the Hurricanes’ problems, it definitely would have increased the plasticity. They would have been able to handle injuries better with better depth. However, the Canes did have a multitude of issues that did not end with this single injury.
If the Canes did continue to struggle, Pitkanen would have likely been dealt just like the rest of the 2012-2013 blue line. However, the Canes would have been able to get a second or first rounder out of the deal. If they would have been able to do this in the 2013-2014 season, the season that saw goaltending being held together by chewing gum and scotch tape, the Canes could have drafted someone like Josh Ho-Sang or David Pastrnak in the late first round.
Again, neither of these players would drastically change the future of the Canes; 2014 wasn’t the greatest of entry drafts. But, each of those players would improve the Canes’ current scenario by adding a scoring forward with top six potential.
So in the long run, the Pitkanen injury didn’t change too much about the Canes’ immediate future, but it did come at the cost of building fan excitement around the team. The saddest part of the entire scenario is that a capable and popular player had his career cut short because the NHL resisted hybrid icing until it was too late for him.