Unless you’ve been living under a rock as the Hurricanes have started their Phase 3 training camp in preparation for next month’s return to play, you’ve likely heard that the team is rather deep on the blue line.
With the return of the injured Dougie Hamilton and Sami Vatanen, the team has nine defensemen, not counting the injured Brett Pesce. Based on comments from Don Waddell, the Hurricanes would likely need to make the Stanley Cup Final for him to play (I’d still give him a roster spot, imagine the boost a healthy Pesce could provide if the team gets that far).
But I digress. Eight of those defensemen have seen NHL time this season and could conceivably play in the postseason (sorry, Jake Bean). Given the likelihood of injuries, and, unfortunately, positive COVID-19 tests, there’s a good chance all eight WILL play at some point if the Canes go on a deep run.
“For as many games as we’re going to play, we need all of them,” said Justin Williams. “That’s first and foremost. Can all eight of them play the first game? Obviously not, but everyone is under the understanding that we’re going to need everybody. Not everybody is going to play right away, but everybody needs to be ready to play. It’s exciting as a forward to see the group we have back there. It’s going to be fun every time you get on the ice. Whoever you throw out there, they’re all top-four defensemen in my opinion. It’s going to be heck for the other team, but it’s going to be a lot of fun for us.”
As Williams said, the Canes will need to figure out a group of six for game one against the Rangers on Aug. 1. What might that look like with eight options to choose from.
We don’t need to spend a ton of time on the top pairing (which has been together each day of camp so far) of Hamilton and Jaccob Slavin. Slavin may be the best pure defensive defenseman in the NHL, and Hamilton is at full health after a Norris-caliber (14 goals, 40 points in 47 games) regular season was cut short by a fractured fibula.
“I feel good,” Hamilton said. “It’s been a long time so I’m just trying to keep improving everything and keep getting better over the next few weeks and hopefully I’ll feel better and better as we go. But I feel pretty good.”
Health permitting, those two are playing.
But what about the bottom four, with six candidates? That’s where the decisions have to be made. Let’s meet the options:
Brady Skjei - There’s a sizeable gap between him and Hamilton/Slavin, but I’d be fairly surprised if Skjei doesn’t play game one or is benched at any point, but with the team’s depth anything is possible, I suppose.
After coming over from the New York Rangers at the 2020 trade deadline, Skeji, who had mostly played on the left side in his career, played on the right out of necessity, but should be back on the left with things more or less balanced and at full health.
Skjei, with a reputation for being a smooth-skating, puck-moving defenseman who could chip in some offense, got off to a bit of a slow start with Carolina, with one assist and a minus-1 in seven games. However, the team in general was a bit of a mess in his first few games following the loss of both its top-two goalies and Pesce (not to mention he was playing his off side).
Skjei averaged at least 18:44 per game for the Canes in each game after the trade, and averaged 2:44 per game on a penalty kill that allowed just two goals in seven games after his arrival.
Brady Skjei goes blue line-to-blue line with the puck, drives down the wing and nearly sets up Nino Niederreiter for a goal. Pavel Francouz with a really good glove save. Skjei looking good again tonight. pic.twitter.com/7A7FXcjZoY— Brett Finger (@brett_finger) February 29, 2020
The Canes gave up a first rounder for Skjei, so he’s clearly part of their future plans. Especially given his penalty-killing abilities, a full training camp to learn the Canes’ system should make Skjei an extremely safe bet to be a lineup regular.
Jake Gardiner - I suppose Gardiner sitting wouldn’t shock me, and, had the regular season ended sooner than it had, I’d peg it as a lot more likely.
After signing a four-year deal with a $4.05 million AAV last offseason, Gardiner’s early results were … poor. In 68 games, the offensive blue liner posted just four goals and 24 points in 68 games, and un ugly minus-24 rating, and made some puzzling defensive plays.
Things were looking up when the season paused, however, and he was playing much better. If you’ve listened to the podcast since the season paused, then you’ve heard Brett say that Gardiner had five points in his last two games, including three assists against Detroit.
Jake Gardiner's just having fun with it.— Brett Finger (@brett_finger) March 11, 2020
A no-look pass to Sebastian Aho for a power play goal. Gardiner has 3 points tonight and 5 points over his last 2 games. Aho has 2 goals tonight. The Hurricanes are up 5-2 in Detroit. pic.twitter.com/1BdI02ezIN
While that’s too far back to put any bearing on it, the point remains that Gardiner seemed to have found his game. He should find himself in the game-one lineup, and stay there if his strong play continues. However, given the Canes’ depth, a return of early-season Gardiner would earn him a quick trip to the press box, or wherever healthy scratches are going to sit in the bubble.
Sami Vatanen - So, this is where it starts to get quite interesting. After coming over from the New Jersey Devils at the deadline, Vatanen had to wait to suit up due to a leg injury suffered with the Devils. It turned out to be a long wait, as a setback kept Vatanen from playing before the NHL hit pause.
Like Hamilton, though, time healed Vatanen, and he’s good to go.
“I think we have a really good team here,” Vatanen said. “These guys play really fast hockey. They want to forecheck hard and move their legs all the time. That’s their game. It was hard to play against them all the time when I played against this team, and it’s fun to see these guys and how hungry they are for winning.”
If I’d done this exercise before camp, I’d have pegged Vatanen as a likely odd man out simply because he’s yet to play a game for the Hurricanes. But Brind’Amour has had Vatanen playing on Skjei’s right side through the first three days of camp, and finding a way to get him in the lineup seems to be a priority.
“You look at, at the time when we got him, Dougie wasn’t in the mix,” Brind’Amour said. “So essentially, it was ‘OK, here’s a guy to take his place.’ Dougie’s back, so now we’ve got to find somewhere else to put him. He’s a talented, talented player. He’s got to be in the mix. You’re talking power play, we’re certainly trying to find him a spot. That’s what he does; he’s good at it. But he hasn’t had any reps with us, and there’s a learning curve. We can’t wait five games to see if it’s going to work with him. So those are things that we’ve got to iron out now, for sure.”
The idea of Vatanen and Skjei together against another team's top six scares me, but there really isn't a true defensive stalwart outside the top pairing sans Pesce.
Though, given their regular-season performance there, Hamilton and Gardiner would seem to be likely power-play D-men, Vatanen could certainly be an asset there. He’s averaged 16 power-play points per full season in his career with New Jersey and Anaheim, and had 10 in just 47 games with the Devils this year.
Notably, Vatanen also brings plenty of postseason experience, with two conference finals appearances with the Ducks. That, however, likely matters less than it would have last year, as fun fact, every defenseman on the roster aside from Skjei, Gardiner and Bean has been to at least the conference finals in the NHL.
While Vatanen has certainly gotten a good look early in camp, and Brind’Amour seems high on trying to play him, it still wouldn’t surprise me if the Canes go with their known quantities, but Vatanen is the first sub in if the power play struggles the way it did in last year’s playoffs.
Haydn Fleury - The calls get tougher as you go. Fleury was honestly playing the best hockey of his career down the stretch with more opportunities. He finally posted that elusive first goal this year, and put up four of those and 14 points in 45 games.
HAYDN FLEURY FIRST NHL GOAL ALERT— Brett Finger (@brett_finger) October 19, 2019
Fleury with a bomb, Niederreiter pointed at him to let him know that it was all his. 4-2 game in Anaheim. pic.twitter.com/TK9IeW7RcZ
Fleury’s game seemed to get better as the season went along, and he played over 20 minutes four times in the final seven games.
The issue is that Fleury plays the left side, like Slavin, Gardiner and Skjei. If all four play, someone’s going to have to play their off side, although Skjei did that after the deadline, and Brind’Amour had Fleury and Gardiner paired for much of Wednesday’s practice (those two have also played together during the regular season).
While it’s possible that Fleury is an initial victim of the numbers game (and the next man up on the left similar to Vatanen on the right), if he plays the way he did down the stretch in camp, the team should find a way for him to play.
Joel Edmundson - Edmundson filled a valuable role for the Hurricanes after coming back in the Justin Faulk trade. He added some snarl and physicality that was missing from the blue line, finishing second on the team and first among d-men with 118 hits, and second in blocks with 91.
Edmundson was third among skaters with 2:48 per game on a penalty kill that finished fourth in the league.
While Edmundson played well and filled that much-needed role in the regular season (and one that should prove valuable in playoff hockey), tough calls are going to have to be made, and it seems like this might be one of them.
Going down the list, it seems Edmundson has made an excellent case to play, as he seven set career highs in goals (seven) and points (20). Such is the Hurricanes’ embarrassment of blue line riches, however.
If the team falls behind early against the Rangers, or struggles with intensity initially playing in an empty arena, inserting Edmundson would be a logical shake up, but it wouldn’t be surprising to see him sit out game one.
Trevor van Reimsdyk - TVR wouldn’t be an afterthought on many teams in the league. Fair or not, he almost is on this one. Though van Riemsdyk struggled a bit this season after starting it late due to off-season shoulder surgery, he’s still a player that can do a little bit of everything.
Unfortunately for him, the Hurricanes’ defense is full of players who can either do a lot of everything or specialize in one area very well. Van Riemsdyk was already filling the sixth/seventh role category during the season, and, with added depth now, there’s nothing to think he won’t stay there.
Though he played well in last year’s playoffs before his injury, TVR seems very unlikely to play early-on. However, you could do much, much worse for an insurance policy as your No. 8 defenseman in a postseason likely to have even more attrition than normal.
Jake Bean - Barring unusual circumstances, not happening. As Brett pointed out, Bean has more than earned an NHL shot, but this team is too deep to give him one at this point. Anything’s possible if the injury or COVID bug bites hard, but Bean playing in this postseason would be very surprising.
In short, the Canes have a whale of a decision on defense. Slavin and Hamilton are locks. Skjei and Gardiner are likely virtual locks, with four players fighting for two more spots. Vatnaen and Fleury seem to have the early leg up there, but those jobs are very much up for grabs in camp.
There will be immense pressure on the D-men who do play to start out with more than capable replacements sitting behind them. And that’s a good thing, because Carolina’s D corps will need to be at its best against a Rangers lineup that oozes firepower, led by the likes of Artemi Panarin, Mika Zibanejad and Chris Kreider. We’ll talk more about that next week, but it should be one of the best strength-on-strength matchups of the Stanley Cup Qualifiers.
“It’s certainly our strength,” Brind’Amour said. “You can’t have enough good D, so I think we’re lucky in that regard. I think, like you mentioned, the Rangers have a very good offensive D. You’re going to have to defend, there’s just no way around it. So we’ve got to do a better job with those guys. You mentioned two of the top, premier offensive players [Zibanejad and Panarin]. We’ll definitely be keying on them. Our defense is going to have to drive the boat. There’s no way around that.”