The aftermath of the Hurricanes’ 6-3 win over the Toronto Maple Leafs on Feb. 22, 2020 was most notable for the loss of both of the team’s goalies. After all, losing both NHL-caliber players at such a vital position is tough to overcome.
But the loss of the netminders overshadowed an arguably equally-significant subtraction that night, defenseman Brett Pesce. One of the Canes’ best blue liners suffered a shoulder injury that required surgery. He missed the rest of the shortened regular season, and all of the Hurricanes’ postseason action in the bubble.
Now, with the 2021 regular season rapidly approaching, Pesce is fully healed. The shoulder injury was a dislocation, one Pesce had suffered before. He had opted not to get surgery that time, but didn’t have much choice this time around. It was an invasive procedure, but Pesce said one that gives him the best chance of not having future issues with the shoulder.
A fully healthy Pesce is ready to get back on the ice and resume his place in the Hurricanes’ top four on defense.
“I’m good,” Pesce said. “I’m really excited to be back with everybody. It was a long-anticipated wait for me, especially coming in with an extra few months off due to COVID and the season starting late. But it’s good to be back with the guys, and I’m just happy to be playing again.”
It’s a cliche, but the saying often goes that with many defensemen, they did a good job on the ice if you don’t notice them. While Pesce’s offensive game has continued to grow over his career, his best attribute is his solid, steady play in the defensive zone.
Pesce is able to match up with and shut down the opposition’s top players and help keep them off the scoresheet. His strong defensive play was only magnified in his absence.
The Hurricanes managed to sweep the New York Rangers in the qualifying round without him, but the absence of such a steady, sound defender was sorely missed in a first-round loss to the Boston Bruins.
“He’s an elite defender, for me,” said head coach Rod Brind’Amour. “It’s that whole element that he’s bringing, that safety of knowing he’s hard to play against. I can’t say enough about it. If you don’t have it, you really notice it. He’s kind of one of those guys, when you have him in, maybe you take it for granted a little bit because he just does such a good job at what he does. There’s offense there too. He’s a really smart player. When he’s not in the lineup, you certainly miss it. No doubt about it.”
Pesce’s teammates felt his absence as well, particularly the pair for whom he’s tasked with making their jobs easier.
“When he’s on the ice, you know that he’s dependable,” said goalie James Reimer. “I think that’s something that’s big for any teammate, but especially for a goalie. A defenseman, that relationship, when you trust the guys in front of you, that just makes your game a whole lot easier. Pesce’s one of those guys. He’s a rock in front of you. He always seems to make the right play, and he blocks shots. He’s got a great stick. So it’s a lot of fun playing behind him.”
For Pesce, not being able to play in the bubble didn’t sit well. He had plans to meet them in Toronto for a possible return to action if the Hurricanes advanced past the first round.
But that’s not how events worked out, as the Hurricanes fell in five games to Boston. Not getting to play in the postseason a year after his playoff debut and having to watch his teammates go to battle without him was not an experience the sixth-year defenseman enjoyed.
“It’s not a good feeling,” Pesce said. “You want to be out there battling with your teammates. Missing the playoffs kind of took a toll on me even more so on me, because you have an opportunity to compete for a Stanley Cup, which is why everyone plays the game. So that hurt, I had to make a very tough decision for what’s best for the future of my career. I’m hoping to play this game in this league for a long time, so it needed to be done. It’s such a relief to be back with all the boys and working hard with all of them.”
Pesce is not just a valued presence for Carolina on the ice, but off it. When one thinks of players tasked with bringing energy and personality to the Hurricanes’ locker room, forward Jordan Martinook is probably at the top of the list.
But Martinook is quick to point out that Pesce plays a key role in that as well.
“He’s one of the guys that keeps it light and has fun,” Martinook said. “He’s always smiling when he comes to the rink. You’ll get that New York side to him where he gets in your face and chirps you a little bit. I think that’s why everybody’s drawn to him. He’s happy but he can throw jabs with the best of them. And then his play on the ice, it’s like he’s just smooth and steady. That’s how he is in the room. He’s smooth, laughing, throws a jab here and there. He’s a great guy to have in the room.”
Having Pesce back in the lineup for all of this shortened season would play a major role in the Hurricanes’ success. He’s likely to anchor the second pairing alongside Brady Skjei acquired at last year’s trade deadline, a pairing that has a lot of potential with Pesce’s shutdown ability paired with Skjei’s offensive acumen.
As the Hurricanes head into this season coming off their first back-to-back playoff appearances since 2001 and 2002, the team is looking to take the next step and compete for a Stanley Cup. It’s a step Pesce thinks his team is ready to take, and he’s ready to help them get there.
“I think we’ve proven the past few years that we’re a threat to any team in the league,” Pesce said. “We’re only getting better, and our young studs are getting older and more mature. They’re only going to improve. So I think it’s no secret anymore that we’re a good team.”
If the Hurricanes are going to take that next step, and go from a good team to a great team, a healthy Brett Pesce figures to be front and center in those efforts. And, following his lengthy absence, he just might get a little more notice this time.