The Carolina Hurricanes built their team from the blue line out, and over the past couple of seasons, those efforts have finally led to tangible results in the regular season and postseason.
It’s been a bit of a mixed bag through the first 50 games of the 2019-20 season, though.
At the top of depth chart, the Hurricanes feature three elite-level defensemen, but as you work your way down, the story changes a great deal. You find some youth, some depth, some relative disappointments, and some uncertainty. That means, when you lose your best defenseman due to injury, something’s gotta give for the Canes to get where they want to go.
The team will have a lot of questions to answer in the second half, but for now, we’re left with 50 games worth of hockey to look at. Here, we’re going to give each defenseman a grade for their first half.
Stat line: 50 GP, 4 G, 8 A, 12 PTS., 18:19 ATOI, 51.52 CF%, 49.47 GF%, 47.41 xGF%
Acquired in the Justin Faulk trade in September, Edmundson was brought in to fill a very specific role. He was supposed to man the third pairing, be tough to play against, make defense the priority, and perhaps most importantly, bring “sandpaper” to the blue line.
He did a sufficient enough job in most of those areas early in the season, but after going 17 games without a point to start his Hurricanes tenure, he exploded for a career-long six-game point streak, wherein he scored two goals and logged six assists on a pairing with Brett Pesce.
That was shocking, and probably a bit lucky. His career-high in points is 17, and he did that in 2017-18, so there was no real evidence of that kind of offense in his game. Naturally, things evened out quickly as he had just one point in the 14 games immediately following his streak and four points in his last 27 games before the All-Star break.
It’s been an up-and-down season for the big defenseman, but as a whole, he’s performed above expectation. He’s had his issues in the defensive zone, mainly with breaking pucks out, but he’s been a physical force who has been quick to stick up for his teammates. He’s also third among defensemen in shorthanded ice time on the third-ranked penalty kill in the NHL.
It’ll be interesting to see what the pending unrestricted free agent’s future will hold. He’s fit in well in the locker room, but Carolina’s farm system remains deep with projectable NHL defensemen. None of them appear to have the grit of Edmundson, though, and none of them have a Stanley Cup pedigree.
Stat line: 27 GP, 2 G, 4 A, 6 PTS., 11:29 ATOI, 53.64 CF%, 35.93 GF%, 52.63 xGF%
For a couple of months there, it looked like the prophecies of 2019-20 being Fleury’s big “prove it year” were wrong.
Fast forward to the injury that took place last week in Columbus.
After going through much of the 2019 portion of the season as the extra defenseman and sometimes 7th defenseman who saw as little as three minutes of ice time in a game, Fleury has recently been relied on as an everyday player on the third pairing alongside Trevor van Riemsdyk.
This is big for him. He had been in that NHL/AHL tweener purgatory for a couple of years. Not playing was never going to help the former seventh-overall pick. This opportunity comes at a huge loss for the team, but Fleury needs to prove he belongs in this lineup.
He’s been good. He’s scored his first two career goals this season, which is a big monkey off of his back, and he looks quicker and more engaged in the offensive zone. He’s been fine defensively, he’s seen some shorthanded minutes, and he’s using his body a bit more effectively.
His future with the organization is still very much in question (he will be a restricted free agent this summer), but I think he’s getting better. He just needs to see the ice consistently to prove it.
Stat line: 50 GP, 3 G, 10 A, 13 PTS., 16:29 ATOI, 55.22 CF%, 38.09 GF%, 51.99 xGF%
Gardiner’s season has been perplexing. He was a proven top-four defenseman and power play quarterback when the Hurricanes signed him in September, but through 40 or so games this season, his mistakes on the ice, coupled with his oft-talked about plus/minus, made him look like one of the worst defensemen in hockey.
Based on his long track record and even his advanced numbers this season, he is not one of the worst defensemen in hockey. That’s where the disconnect was.
When it came down to raw results, though, he just was not good in the first half. That’s a fact.
He didn’t do what he was brought in to do. He was blocked out of the top-four because of Edmundson’s miraculous offensive expedition, so he ended up getting roughly 16 minutes per night with a rotating door of defensive partners. It was a tough situation for him, but he wasn’t helping himself with his overall play.
The past couple of weeks have been drastically different, though.
Since being united with Brett Pesce on a consistent basis, Gardiner has suddenly seen his plus/minus (*insert my spiel about how I think plus/minus is a fundamentally flawed stat every time I talk about it here*) and his unsustainably low PDO (on-ice shooting percentage + on-ice save percentage at 5-on-5) improve game-by-game.
With their Norris candidate likely out for the season, the Hurricanes need Gardiner to pick up the pace offensively and keep building on the noticeable improvements he has made defensively as of late. He looks much more comfortable now as compared to even three weeks ago, almost night-and-day different for the better.
After going through a miserable 36-game stretch with six points and a minus-21 rating, Gardiner has five points and a plus-one rating over his last ten games while averaging well north of two additional minutes per game. In the three full games since Hamilton’s injury in Columbus, he is averaging 20:22 of ice time while continuing his best stretch of hockey as a Hurricane.
The former Maple Leaf is entering the All-Star break on a high note. His play as of late has been extremely encouraging, and if he builds on it in the second half, the noise surrounding him should dissipate in relatively short order.
Stat line: 47 GP, 14 G, 26 A, 40 PTS., 23:17 ATOI, 58.45 CF%, 63.59 GF%, 58.67 xGF%
Everyone expected a big year out of Hamilton, but the leap he has taken in less than a year’s time is pretty remarkable.
From day one of the season, he was a Norris Trophy-caliber defensemen. He paced the goal scoring race for defensemen, produced at an at-or-near point-per-game rate, solidified his defense so much that he was relied upon heavily on the penalty kill, quarterbacked a power play unit that made the Canes a top-ten team on the man advantage, led the team in ice time by a considerable margin, and made up 50% of one of the three or four best defensive pairings in the NHL. He was even voted as a Norris Trophy finalist by the Professional Hockey Writers Association in their mid-season awards.
Statistically, he was playing better than any defenseman in Hurricanes franchise history. Not all 47 games were Norris-quality, but most of them were. Even on his off nights, he was able to make the one or two plays that made the difference on the scoreboard. He was just so dynamic and game-breaking.
But, of course, I’ve been speaking in past tense.
He broke his fibula in Columbus, likely ending his season as he recovers. That was a devastating hit for a team that relies on the blue line to drive offense in many situations. He’s as irreplaceable as they get.
The hidden blessing, of sorts, with his injury was that it served as a big wake-up call for the blue line, as a whole. Losing him will require the rest of the defense to step up during a stretch where their focus was lacking. In the three games immediately following his injury, the Hurricanes allowed just three goals in regulation. They’ve clamped down, and they know they have to keep doing so.
Moving forward, the Hurricanes will be hard-pressed to replace the many components of Hamilton’s game, but they’ll look forward to the All-Star’s return, be it in the postseason or training camp.
Stat line: 50 GP, 4 G, 12 A, 16 PTS., 21:57 ATOI, 53.30 CF%, 53.62 GF%, 50.36 xGF%
Pesce has put together a quiet season so far, which is a positive thing.
Despite seeing his fair share of different defensive partners, he has remained his same steady self. He leads the team in shorthanded ice time, plays tough minutes in big situations, and he has done so in impressive style.
He doesn’t get the love he deserves due to his lack of offensive flair, but he’s just about as good as it gets in a big, mobile, defensively dominant defenseman. To boot, his offensive abilities are criminally underrated. He’s a legitimate threat with the puck on his stick.
There’s really not much to say about Pesce. He’s just been very, very good, which is the standard that he has set for himself over the past couple of seasons.
Stat line: 50 GP, 4 G, 19 A, 23 PTS., 22:48 ATOI, 57.55 CF%, 60.26 GF%, 57.71 xGF%
Here, we have the other 50% of one of the top three or four defensive pairings in the NHL.
In the wake of Hamilton’s injury, Slavin was given a well deserved All-Star nod. He’s grown year-by-year with the Hurricanes, evolving from a young, hugely underrated player to a widely known and respected defensemen who can matchup with any player in the league.
The same PHWA mid-season award voters who voted Hamilton as a Norris finalist voted Slavin as the best defensive defensemen in the NHL. They have no argument from me on that one. There isn’t a defenseman who’s more impactful and dynamic in the defensive zone right now.
Just in case you're wondering why Jaccob Slavin is going to the All-Star Game. pic.twitter.com/7F5fy2AdqH— Brett Finger (@brett_finger) January 22, 2020
He plays a very confident game in all three zones. He believes in his abilities, and in turn, when he tries to do something incredible, he’s almost always successful. From his one-man breakouts, to his penguin-sliding pass breakups, to his ability to separate players from the puck, to his strength along the boards, to his endurance, to his passing ability, he is one of the best in the league.
Trevor van Riemsdyk
Stat line: 31 GP, 0 G, 3 A, 3 PTS., 13:34 ATOI, 53.39 CF%, 31.95 GF%, 52.68 xGF%
It’s been a rough one for van Riemsdyk.
The start to his season was delayed due to the shoulder surgery that ended his 2019 postseason, and since returning to the lineup, his performance has been lackluster.
Van Riemsdyk has always been a very simple, reliable defenseman who handles bottom-pairing minutes with efficiency and makes few mistakes. Up to this season, he had pretty much been as consistent and playable as it gets in a number five or six defenseman.
For whatever reason, be it the injury or the decrease in minutes, this season hasn’t been nearly as smooth. He still has just three assists in 31 games, which is low even for him, but that would be totally fine if he was playing steady defensive minutes. He’s making more mistakes in coverage, getting bested in board battles and net-front box outs, and finding himself out of position through the neutral zone.
He has played with Fleury on the bottom pairing since Hamilton’s injury, and they’ve been good enough for a third pairing. Maybe they’ll continue to improve in the second half, but if not, you’d have to think that the Hurricanes would look for defensive help via trade or call-up.
He’s a pending UFA, so we’ll see what his future holds. He seems pretty dispensable at this point, and barring a turnaround in the second half, it’s hard to envision him staying around at the $2.3 million cap hit he current holds.