One of the easiest bets you could make prior to the Carolina Hurricanes’ return to the Stanley Cup playoffs after ten years in the wilderness was that the rest of the league would see just how talented the Canes’ defensive corps is. But even given that expectation, there were few who would have predicted that Jaccob Slavin was about to catapult himself into the conversation alongside some of the game’s greats.
Entering the eleventh game of his playoff career, that’s exactly where he is. Slavin has 11 assists, already a franchise record for a defenseman in a single playoff season, and he needs two more points to match Frantisek Kaberle’s club record in that category, set in 2006. How many other defensemen in NHL history have topped Slavin’s points total in the first ten games of a single postseason? Six.
Their names? Bobby Orr, Larry Robinson, Larry Murphy, Al MacInnis, Paul Coffey and Brian Leetch.
That’s six Hall of Famers, who combined for 16 Norris trophies. Of those six, only MacInnis, who had 12 points in 1984, stands above Slavin for points in his first postseason. It’s rarefied air that Slavin is living in now.
“He just seems like he’s feeling it,” said Canes captain Justin Williams, with emphasis. And how.
Slavin has long been a shutdown defenseman, partnering with Brett Pesce for most of his career before spending the majority of this season next to Dougie Hamilton. It was a given that Slavin would draw the most difficult defensive assignments, regularly seeing the likes of Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom in the first round and Anders Lee and Mathew Barzal in the second. That’s indeed been the case, which makes his offensive explosion even more remarkable.
Williams, though, says that Slavin’s sterling defensive play - never in question - has served as the springboard for his contributions at the other end of the ice. “He’s gone to another level, absolutely. He’s been a phenomenal defender, and because he’s defending so well he’s getting opportunities offensively.”
For his part, Rod Brind’Amour bristles at the insinuation that Slavin’s offensive revelation came totally out of the blue.
“The people that have grown up with him know how good he is,” Brind’Amour said Thursday. “This is not surprising. He’s an elite defenseman, and whether he’s on the scoresheet or not, his value is the same.
“We didn’t use him as much in the past in the offensive situations. Now we are, because he is that good. I think he’s just going to get better and better, as he learns more of the offensive side of things. I don’t know that was necessarily his game a few years ago, and now he’s going ‘why can’t I do that too?’ You start to see him get more confident with the puck.”
Pesce, who has seen Slavin’s game evolve up close during their four years in the NHL, agrees. “I think his offense has always been there. He’s such a special player, it’s good that he’s getting recognition right now. I can’t say enough about him. He’s really stepped it up a notch offensively at such an important time of the year. It’s awesome to see.”
Unsurprisingly, he isn’t exactly going to wave the stat sheet in his teammates’ faces. To hear Pesce tell it, in fact, Slavin would probably never even mention it. “You’ll have to fight it out of him for him to tell you that. He’s such a humble guy, but we all know how well he’s playing. He’s so good, and he’s been so good for so long.”
It comes at quite a remarkable time personally for Slavin, who turned 25 on Wednesday. He and his wife just welcomed their first child, and Slavin took a personal day to fly back to North Carolina between games 1 and 2 of the Washington series to be present for his daughter’s birth. The Slavins are adoptive parents, which means plenty of additional paperwork and attendant requirements. How he’s been able to juggle everything going on in his life just adds to the budding legend.
Williams, a father of two himself, says that all the overnight diaper changes - and there are plenty that come with a newborn - might be Slavin’s secret weapon to unlocking this new phase of his game.
“He’s got dad strength now.”