Today, we wrap up our three-part series comparing the Canes’ three skater groups (we won’t torture you with a goalie comparison that has an inevitable conclusion) with the overwhelming strength of this year’s roster, the defensemen.
The trade for Dougie Hamilton, who tied for the league lead for goals among defensemen with 17 and has had four straight seasons of 40-plus points, and the singing of the steady Calvin de Haan gives Carolina an absolutely loaded D corps. The Hamilton trade did cost the team a player with a high ceiling in Noah Hanifin, but Hanifin’s ceiling is what Hamilton is now.
The moves allow the Canes to construct a top four that consists of elite shutdown duo Jaccob Slavin and Brett Pesce, along with Hamilton and de Haan. Rod Brind’Amour can either keep Slavin and Pesce together and pair up the new guys, or shake things up and pair Slavin with Hamilton and de Haan with Pesce. Either way, that’s a formidable quartet.
That pushes Justin Faulk, who had an abysmal season defensively and down year offensively, to the third pairing. Faulk’s down year, however, still saw him pot eight goals and 31 points. Getting those third pairing matchups should make things easier on him in his own zone, and also give him better matchups to exploit with the puck on his stick.
Solid, quiet (in a good way) Trevor van Riemsdyk rounds out the top six, and leaves Haydn Fleury, Trevor Carrick and Roland McKeown vying to be the extra blueliner.
Even if the team trades Faulk for a forward before camp or early in the season, that’s a phenomenal d corps. With him, it’s stacked, and one of the best in the league. Is it the best in the Metropolitan Division? Let’s find out.
John Carlson leads the way here as one of the best defensemen in the league, coming off a career-best season (and being paid handsomely for it) with 15 goals and 68 points. He’ll likely pair with trade-deadline acquisition Michal Kempny, who combined with him to form a solid due during last year’s playoff run.
Dmitry Orlov also got a nice raise after a 31-point season, and should pair with puck mover Matt Niskanen on the second pair. Brooks Orpik was traded to the Avalanche with Philipp Grubauer, bought out and then brought back at a much cheaper price (nice piece of work there, Mr. MacLellan). He should get one spot on the third pairing, with youngsters Madison Bowey and Christian Djoos fighting it out to join him.
The Capitals give the Canes a decent run for their money here. That’s a good top four, and Carlson would probably be the Canes’ best d-man (it’s close with Hamilton). However, the Canes’ top group is still a step above, and the third pairing of Faulk and van Riemsdyk pushes them over the top.
Kris Letang bounced back from an injury-filled season to give the Pens a 51-point season. He leads the way, followed by Justin Schultz, who missed some time but still put up 27 points in 63 games, and Olli Maatta, coming off a 29-point campaign. Former Hurricanes draftee Brian Dumoulin has been a steady hand in Pittsburgh.
For some unfathomable reason, Jim Rutherford decided to give Jack Johnson a five-year contract with an AAV of $3.25 million. Congrats on finally getting him signed? Yeah, I’ve got nothing on that one. Trade acquisition Jamie Oleksiak should snag a spot as well, with Chad Ruhwedel, Stefan Elliott and Chris Summers serving as depth options.
Once you get past Letang here, the pendulum swings pretty quickly in Carolina’s favor.
We continue the theme of each team having at least one standout blueliner, with Shayne Gostisbehere coming off a 65-point season. 2015 seventh-overall pick Ivan Provorov is coming into his own, with 17 goals (tied with Hamilton for the league lead), 41 points and a plus-17 rating in year two.
After that is where things get interesting. The Flyers’ roster actually only lists five defensemen, with major penalty machine Radko Gudas, albatross Andrew MacDonald and free agent signing Christian Folin. Prospects Robert Hagg, Samuel Morin and Travis Sanheim will get a crack at the roster, with at least one of them pretty much a lock to make it.
It’s a pretty steep drop from Gostisbehere and Provorov here. That duo can compete with whatever the Canes’ top pairing is, but after that it’s a landslide.
The Blue Jackets have one of the best d pairings in the league in Seth Jones and Zach Werenski (another top-10 pick from that 2015 class). Markus Nutivaara will look to continue building on a decent sophomore season, and David Savard is a solid, if unspectacular, option.
Ryan Murray has been an injury-prone disappointment since being drafted second overall in 2012, but maybe he still has some potential. Dean Kukan, Scott Harrington and Tommy Cross will vie for the sixth spot.
Murray and Jones are probably better than the Canes’ top pair (though that’s debatable if it’s Slavin and Hamilton), but like the Flyers before them, the Canes’ bottom four is leaps and bounds better.
The Sami Vatanen-Adam Henrique trade was one of those rare deals that works out well for both sides, as Vatanen had 28 points in 57 games with New Jersey after the swap, and should do even better with a full season and training camp with the Devils. Will Butcher was a revelation as a rookie, with his 44 points ranking fourth on the Devils’ roster.
Captain Andy Greene has some miles on him, and while he’s still a steady leader, is not what he used to be. Damon Severson had another solid year, and youngster Mirco Mueller still has some potential. It’ll be between Mueller, Ben Lovejoy and Brian Strait for the last two spots.
The Canes are head and shoulders above the Devils here. Give me Hamilton and Slavin over Vatanen and Butcher, and the rest of Carolina’s dmen over New Jersey’s for that matter, too.
Nick Leddy ranks as one of the better trade acquisitions Garth Snow made on the Isle, and leads the way here offensively coming off a 42-point season, although he is coming off an ugly -42 rating. Ryan Pulock has a cannon from the blue line, and put up 10 goals and 32 points last season.
Johnny Boychuk missed 24 games last season, but still put up 18 points. Thomas Hickey, Adam Pelech and Scott Mayfield round out the group.
The Islanders were one of the worst defensive teams in the league last year, and losing de Haan to the Hurricanes won’t help.
Remember when the Rangers had one of the best blue lines in the league? It’s definitely getting more difficult. The Ryan McDonagh trade leaves this group very thin. Kevin Shattenkirk’s first season in New York was a disappointment and he missed almost half the season, but he’s still the best the Blueshirts have to offer.
Brady Skjei will look to rebound from a bit of a sophomore slump, as he fell from 39 points to 21 and a plus-11 rating to minus-27. Marc Staal is over the hill and at the bottom of the other side of it. Youngsters Neal Pionk, Frederik Claesson, Tony DeAngelo and John Gilmour will fight for spots.
I shouldn’t have to tell you the Canes’ defense is better than this.
Final Verdict: The Canes have the best blue line in the division, and having gone through all the teams, that’s a fairly easy statement to make. There’s one or two teams with a defenseman who would be the Canes’ best, but the addition of a top-15 guy in Hamilton makes that a tougher claim to make.
A handful of the teams can match or better the Canes’ top pair, and a couple can compete with the top four, but it’s the third pairing of van Riemsdyk, and, in particular, Faulk, that puts Carolina over the edge in every case. This d corps isn’t just the best in the Metro, it’s right up there with the Nashville Predators for the best in the league.