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A look at the Hurricanes’ Defense with the Addition of Dougie Hamilton

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What does the Carolina Hurricanes defense look like with Dougie Hamilton and who is the odd man out on the blue line?

Carolina Hurricanes v Columbus Blue Jackets Photo by Jamie Sabau/NHLI via Getty Images

The Carolina Hurricanes were able to sweep the New York Rangers despite being without their best defenseman. Dougie Hamilton has now returned to practice, but what does that mean for the for the rest of the team and who sits out?

With everyone playing well in the qualifying round, Rod Brind’Amour is going to have a tough job determining who exits the lineup. There are two different ways the lineup could change. They could opt to shuffle every pairing or try to keep as many of the current pairings together.

No matter which way you look, Dougie will slide back into the first pairing with Jaccob Slavin, there’s just no way around it, but then what are the down stream effects? Sami Vatanen now has to slide to either the second or third pairing

Vatanen has played well in the replacement roll on the first pairing and on the first power play. At even strength the top pairing still clicked. They handled playing against the Rangers’ top line and Mika Zibanejad well. Vatanen was on the ice for two goals against, but did have a +1 rating and had three assists in the serie, all this while breaking in with a new team playing his first three games as a Hurricanes in the qualifying round.

There was this play, too:

On the power play, Vatanen kept the top unit clicking. While he didn’t provide as good of a shot from the point, he kept the cycle moving. The top unit scored two goals, one in each of the first two games. This is not long removed from a Hurricanes team that couldn’t get anything going on the power play.

So with Vatanen coming off of the top pairing, where does he fit? The options are to break up the Joel Edmundson/Brady Skjei pairing or the Haydn Fleury/Jake Gardiner pairing, both of which are going to be tough to break up as they didn’t let in a goal against at even strength.

Leaving Pairings together

The simplest way to bring Hamilton back and keep most of the lineup together is to keep the pairings together as much as possible. This means Hamilton sliding back on the top pairing with Slavin. The second pairing of Skjei and Edmundson was very successful in the opening series. They were able to play in all situations and did heavy lifting on defensive zone starts against the Rangers’ bottom three lines.

This would also keep a new player in Skjei together with Edmundson, who he has learned to play with well. Skjei has looked like the most complete defenseman on the team not named Jaccob Slavin. He has played good defense, brought the body, and kept the plays alive in the offensive zone. He had one of the heaviest hits of the entire series just 30 seconds into the series.

“Obviously [Skjei] got traded here pretty late in the season, so it’s just a lot of communication on the ice,” Edmundson said. “We’re good friends off the ice, so I think that translates onto the ice. He’s a good skater, so he makes it easy to play with him. I hope it’s vice versa too. But just communicating. After every shift, we’re talking about what we could have done or what we’d like to do.”

With Skjei being comfortable and coming into his own with Edmundson, it would be risky to break this pairing up. Keeping the pairings as similar as possible is the easiest plan for the defensemen. They keep clicking without having to learn new partners tendencies and playing styles. This way you only break up one pairing, the third pairing, and only effect two players, Vatanen and his new defensive partner.

Breaking up pairings

Breaking up pairings is a little more complex because now Vatanen moves to the second pair and plays with either Skjei or Edmundson. The big question is right now the Canes have been deploying strong defensive defensemen in Slavin and Edmundson with the new additions on the blue line.

Edmundson was the best defenseman on the team in terms of possession. His 60.6% Corsi is better than his partner Skjei’s 52%. He also led the blue line in hits with six and blocks with seven. However, he did stand out at certain points looking lost in the defensive zone which allowed for high-danger chances against. It ended up being no harm no foul with both goaltenders coming up big with saves. Below you can see how the defensive pairing loses a player in the slot on this play but is bailed out by Petr Mrazek.

Brind’Amour leaned on Edmundson in defensive situations with just a 40% offensive zone start percentage which was lower than his partner. This gave the team more flexibility not having to rely on just the top pairing at key defensive moments. They could be left for the top line.

Skjei stands out more with his flashy skating and passing which generate offense. The two combined for four points and 10 shots in the last three games. If he is paired with Vatanen it could lead to a high-risk, high-reward pairing that will generate a ton of offense but would give up plenty of chances the other way.

That means the most likely new second pairing is Vatanen and Edmundson. They still become a pairing that can be used in all situations and take pressure off Hamilton and Slavin when it comes to defending tough situations. The pairing is somewhat balanced with a defensive minded player and one that can start and lead breakouts mimicking the current makeup of the second pairing, but this would require one of them to play his off side.

Odd man Out

Either way you look at it the same two players are on the chopping block, Jake Gardiner or Haydn Fleury. Skjei and Vatanen play a very similar game, so regardless of who else is sliding down to play on the third pairing the decision is the same.

I liked the way that Fleury played in the qualifying round. He looked fast and comfortable. Jake Gardiner has also looked better each passing day, so it is tough to decide who has to go.

Gardiner and Fleury were used the least of the defensemen with 10:14 and 12:34 average time on ice for the qualifying round respectively. The biggest difference between the two players is in possession. Gardiner ranks second among defensemen with 60.6% Corsi where Fleury ranks last at 46.8%. Neither was on the ice for a goal against in the series.

Both are also utilized on special teams. Gardiner quarterbacks the second power-play unit and played the second most power play minutes with 2:55 on average per game. Fleury, on the other hand plays on the second penalty kill unit and has the fourth most shorthanded time on ice with 2:17 per game. Now you look at which role is easier to replace, and it would have to be the fourth penalty killing defenseman.

Now I know what you are thinking “Doesn’t Gardiner lose his job on the second power play?” With Hamilton coming back he will take back his role on the first power play team meaning that the second team could be led by either Vatanen or Gardiner. While Vatanen could take the job, the unit has been working with Gardiner since they came back from the break. Keeping Gardiner keeps consistency for that unit to build on. Options on the power play are always a good thing.

Hamilton also played 2:20 of shorthanded time during the regular season which makes up for the 2:17 of time Fleury was playing. The penalty kill will just be the top two pairings without any shuffling to make it work. With Gardiner playing well and having a longer leash with Brind’Amour, it makes the most sense that he would stay in and play with Vatanen. This makes the most likely pairings Slavin-Hamilton, Skjei-Edmundson, and Vatanen-Gardiner with Vatanen and Skjei possibly swapped.

One more potential option that might make sense to keep pairings together would be to simply replace Vatanen with Hamilton. It seems weird to talk about sitting out a guy who was playing on the top pairing, but Hamilton should step right into his old role alongside Slavin and on the top power-play unit, replacing Vatanen.

If Gardiner keeps his spot on the second unit, it’s tough to see a defined role for Vatanen. Vatanen had his moments against the Rangers, but he also looked rough at times in game three, as his lack of foot speed was exposed on Kreider’s opening goal.

Replacing Vatanen with Hamilton would allow the Canes to reunite one of the best top pairings in the NHL this season, and keep the second and third pairings of Skjei-Edmundson and Fleury-Gardiner that were so effective against the Rangers intact.

Whichever way you slice it, Brind’Amour is going to have a very tough decision to make when choosing who comes out of the lineup. With Hamilton back, the Hurricanes are back to having an embarrassment of riches on the blue line, even with Brett Pesce not on track to return until September.