Coming into the season, pundits and fans alike expected the Hurricanes’ defense corps to be among the best in the league. So far the group has lived up to the hype with solid defensive play all over the ice and offensive contributions led by Dougie Hamilton.
But the talent alone doesn’t separate this group from the rest of the pack. A coaching staff and philosophy that allows them to play confidently and aggressively puts the Canes’ defenders in positions to prolong offensive attacks and contribute to them themselves.
Rod Brind’Amour’s system doesn’t involve the defensemen so much as it frees them. Instead of drawing up specific situations in which the defensemen are expected to pinch or jump into the attack, the Hurricanes have allowed their d-men to use their judgement to contribute. There have been several instances already this year where the freedom has been evident.
Joining the Attack
The most noticeable instance of defensemen being aggressive comes when they jump into the play. It most often occurs with a defenseman carrying the puck up ice himself, or jumping into an ongoing rush on the weak, or back, side of the play.
In this clip, Jaccob Slavin jumps into the weak side of the play and although the initial pass misses, Slaving recovers the puck and finds Dougie Hamilton for the goal.
It should be noted, that Hamilton also joins the play late. While Slavin is in the corner, there are five Hurricanes below the tops of the circles. Hamilton’s drive takes the man tasked with covering him out of the play, opening up tons of space for Hamilton when he curls back out to the point.
In the clip below, Hamilton carefully watches the play move up the boards and glides with it. When he sees a loose puck, thanks to a good battle from Sebastian Aho, Hamilton pounces.
The risk in this play is that if the Islanders are able to hold the line, Hamilton may be too far up ice to recover defensively. But when it works, it leads to instant offense.
Here in four on four play, Hamilton has sprung into the offense already and remains up in the play. He finds Andrei Svechnikov for a breakaway and instead of admiring his pass, Hamilton continues up into the play and is in a position to receive a pass and score again.
The Hurricanes offensive zone sets are also aided by aggressive pinches, especially down the walls. Although it doesn’t result in a goal, the clip below perfectly illustrates how the Canes involve the pointmen on offensive zone draws. Joel Edmundson streaks down the wall and maintains Carolina possession. It allows Svechnikov to find Brock McGinn for an open look in the high slot.
While the defensemen will receive most of the praise, none of this success through aggressiveness is possible without help from the forwards. Normal systems call for defensemen to pinch only if one of their forwards is high, typically around the tops of the circles. But the Hurricanes allow their d-men to pinch whenever they see a chance. That puts a lot of pressure on the forwards to recover. In the clip above, McGinn does well to find the open space that Edmundson vacated.
In the clip below Jaccob Slavin pinches down the wall even though all three Hurricane forwards are below the dots.
Brian Gibbons immediately recognizes the pinch and does a nice job covering for Slavin. When the pinch proves fruitless, Gibbons is in a good spot to mitigate any San Jose counter attack and allow Slavin to return to his position.
Traditionally, when defenders pinch or jump up into the play they are instructed to return to their typical position manning the blue line as soon as possible once their job is done. When the Canes’ defensemen jam down the wall or join the rush, they are given the freedom to hang around and see if anything develops. Several times already in the young season it has paid dividends.
In the clip below, Brett Pesce does a fantastic job pinching down the wall to hold the zone. After his initial bid is turned aside, Pesce is not in a hurry to return to the blue line and instead stays in good position to receive the puck. Svechnikov finds him and Pesce buries.
In San Jose, Hamilton scored yet again. After holding the zone and throwing a puck towards the goal, Hamilton lingers and finds open ice. The puck works to him and he makes no mistake.
Lingering puts a particular strain on the opposition’s defensive systems. When Hamilton stays low, the Sharks lose track of him, expecting him to promptly return to the blue line. It’s difficult to lose track of a man as big as Hamilton, but when it happens, he makes San Jose pay.
The Hurricanes’ hot start has been thanks to solid play from everyone on the roster, but it certainly been propelled by a defense corps unafraid to make a difference and a coaching staff that allows them the freedom to do it.