The “defenseman for a forward” trade rumor has become a Carolina Hurricanes tradition unlike any other, and after the trade of Justin Faulk ahead of the 2019-20 season, someone had to take up his role as the primary “trade bait.”
Enter Brett Pesce.
Over the last couple of years, it’s been Pesce’s name that has been brought up in these trade speculations. Some of them have been laughable, like the Kasperi Kapanen saga, but others have been more feasible, like William Nylander or Nikolaj Ehlers and Patrik Laine in Winnipeg.
While many things have changed and many players have been dealt across the league, there is one thing that hasn’t changed - Brett Pesce is a Carolina Hurricane, and thank goodness he is.
This season, he has been the team’s best defenseman, and it hasn’t been particularly close. He has been literally everything that the Canes have needed en route to their 10-3-1 start. Jaccob Slavin missed time due to COVID, Dougie Hamilton hasn’t quite gotten up to speed, and you don’t expect elite play from anyone else on the team’s defensive depth chart.
To go a step further, you can make a real case for him being one of the best defensemen in hockey, thanks to his steady contributions both offensively and defensively. Over his last nine games, he has recorded eight points while constantly facing other teams’ top players and averaging north of 23 minutes of ice time per game.
At 5-on-5, Pesce has the best on-ice expected goals-for per 60 (2.84) among Carolina d-men while trailing only Slavin and Jake Gardiner in expected goals-against per 60 (2.06). There’s an added difficulty factor there, too, when you consider how he has been swapped around with different defensive partners throughout the early stages of the season. He has played 120:54 with Brady Skjei, 75:46 with Gardiner, and 48:22 with Slavin. He is constantly being moved around because the reality is that he makes everyone he plays with better.
Hurricanes D-men 5v5 xGF% with and without Pesce
|Player||xGF% w/ Pesce||xGF% w/o Pesce|
|Player||xGF% w/ Pesce||xGF% w/o Pesce|
In every sense, he is the glue of Carolina’s defense. He is what connects everything together in a way that allows this team to be successful. Without him, the transition from the top pairing to the rest of the d-corps becomes extremely turbulent.
We’ve all been spoiled by how good the top half of the Canes’ blue line is, and that is especially the case for Pesce as he has been often forgotten about due to the national attention that Slavin and Hamilton rightfully receive.
It’s important to remember the journey that Pesce has gone on to get to this point.
On February 22 of last year, Pesce suffered another shoulder injury that required surgery. There was legitimate concern surrounding that situation as it wasn’t the first time that he had to go under the knife to aid an issue that had plagued him for years. Thankfully, this most recent repair might have finally been the one that can carry him through the longer term.
“Yeah, you know what, I actually think I feel more confident than ever with my shoulder,” Pesce said last week. “It was a little bit unstable there for a few years. I put all my trust in the doctor who opened me up. It just feels sturdy. I feel good out there.”
Even in the midst of a down season by his standards in 2019-20 (possibly due in large part to his nagging shoulder problems), the Canes dearly missed him in their playoff run that ended unceremoniously in a five-game series with the Boston Bruins. That was another reminder of how critical he is to this team’s hopes of being a Stanley Cup contender, and that point has been hammered home over the first few weeks of the 2021 season.
His numbers are outstanding this season, and his heat maps and charts back up what has been clear on the ice - he is limiting high-danger chances around the Carolina net and serving as a real offensive weapon both in transition and with his mobility and willingness to jump into the play in the offensive zone.
“I’m just doing what I can to kind of get pucks through as best I can,” said Pesce. “In this league, the amount of times a guy is going to score a pretty goal, it’s so rare. It happens in the dirty areas. If you can get the puck to the net and create a rebound, good things tend to happen.”
He’s done a noticeably better job of getting pucks through to the net, and several of his assists to this point have been thanks to him navigating pucks to the right place in the offensive zone.
All the while, he is still an absolute tank in the defensive zone, routinely making key plays that are both noticeable and easily missed. He is the total package as a player and is perhaps as close as you’re going to get to a prototype modern-day defender.
Brett Pesce, an absolute mad lad in the defensive zone. pic.twitter.com/Nh3t7YH678— Brett Finger (@brettfinger) February 3, 2021
So, to go back to the initial point, the Hurricanes have never waivered on their belief in him, and they have been very right in doing so. While insiders and fans alike have thrown his name around like some sort of “trade bait,” the Canes know who they have and the cap-related value at which they have him.
Whether people outside of Raleigh realize it or not, Brett Pesce is as instrumental to this team’s success as anyone. He is the quiet x-factor whose value to the Hurricanes supersedes almost any value that they could get for him in return.