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Hurricanes State of the Position: Defense

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The Hurricanes made a series of defensive moves over the offseason, but will the risks pay off?

Carolina Hurricanes v Chicago Blackhawks Photo by Chase Agnello-Dean/NHLI via Getty Images

The Carolina Hurricanes underwent several big defensive changes over the offseason, parting ways with Dougie Hamilton and Jake Bean and bringing in Ian Cole, Ethan Bear, Tony DeAngelo and Brendan Smith.

Despite the overhaul, the Canes still have their two cornerstone pieces in place, but the team’s postseason upside will largely depend on the new guys.

Here’s the state of the defense.


Jaccob Slavin

The 2021 season was a rocky one for Slavin, who missed time after contracting COVID in the first week of the season and didn’t experience the sustained level of dominance that he had in past seasons.

Slavin at 75% is better than most NHL defensemen at 100%, though, and despite missing part of the first round due to injury, some of his best moments came in the postseason. Over the last three seasons, he has shown that he can find another level in the playoffs, and he did that again in 2021 with six points in eight games and dominant play driving throughout.

With Dougie Hamilton now out of the equation, there will be a lot of pressure on Slavin this season to bring stability to what will likely be a variety of defensive partners early on in the season.


Brady Skjei

Skjei’s first full season in Carolina was a mixed bag. He excelled in tough penalty-killing minutes but struggled mightily at 5-on-5. No matter how you slice it, he had a deeply negative offensive impact when he was on the ice, and his average defensive impact could only go so far in making up for it.

Brady Skjei isolated impact 2021.
HockeyViz.com

He was far more effective on the PK, even if the Canes allowed more shots from right in front of the net when he was on the ice.

The Hurricanes desperately need some sort of development from Skjei within the team’s system. He needs to carry his own weight at 5-on-5 and bring some defining characteristics in his game, because the 2021 version of Skjei wasn’t good enough to instill much confidence in him being the number three defenseman on a team with Stanley Cup aspirations.


Jake Gardiner

Gardiner missed most of the 2021 season due to nagging injuries, and he will be on LTIR to start the 2021-22 season.


Brett Pesce

It was a banner year for Pesce last season. After undergoing serious shoulder surgery just before the COVID pause in 2020, he returned and was arguably Carolina’s best defenseman in 2021.

He was an offensive machine at 5-on-5 and maintained a reliable defensive presence both at 5-on-5 and on the penalty kill.

Brett Pesce percentiles 2021.
JFreshHockey

Pesce has really transformed his game over the last few seasons, but last season was the best example to date of what he can be. He has gone from a steady stay-at-home defender with limited offense to a dynamic offensive creator. He hasn’t performed well in his limited power-play ice time over the years, but that doesn’t take away from his even-strength production.

He might be the best all-around defenseman on the team.


Ian Cole

The Hurricanes presumably brought in Cole to serve as a rugged, reliable third-pairing defenseman.

He has plenty of experience doing that on winning teams. He’s a veteran blueliner who took a step back last season in Minnesota, but his track record in Colorado and Pittsburgh is impressive, and if he can replicate that, he will be worth the contract he got in Carolina.


Ethan Bear

Acquired via trade from the Edmonton Oilers, Bear is an exciting young defenseman with loads of upside.

He creates a ton of transition offense at 5-on-5 with his great vision and passing ability in the defensive zone, and he has the mobility to move up with the play and be a threat in the neutral zone. Bear had a number of ups and downs in Edmonton, but he is just 23 years old, and the Hurricanes expect him to be a key piece in their blue line moving forward. He took a massive leap forward last season, especially with his defensive numbers.

Ethan Bear WAR timeline.
JFreshHockey

He could slot into many places in the depth chart and will likely move around a bit. Only time will tell where he sticks, but he should be an impact player when he hits his stride.


Anthony DeAngelo

DeAngelo’s game is all about offense, and that’s what the Hurricanes need from him.

He is a dynamic offensive player with all of the skills you’d look for in a potential 40-point defenseman and power-play quarterback. He is a great playmaker with great on-ice vision and an effective shot.

His skating ability makes him a very good rover in the offensive zone. He can attack you from many areas.

Then there’s his defense, which has been bad from the moment he entered the league. He should be shielded from tough matchups as much as possible if you want to get the best version of him.

You can find a more in-depth look at DeAngelo’s game here.


Brendan Smith

Smith had a bounceback year in 2021 after a series of declining seasons in New York. His better season was aided, in large part, by his high on-ice shooting percentage, but his defensive metrics did improve marginally.

He will be the team’s seventh defenseman and, if things go to plan, he won’t have much of an on-ice impact.


Depth

The Hurricanes solidified their blueline depth with the signing of Eric Gelinas and the re-signing of Maxime Lajoie.

Gelinas hasn’t played in the NHL since 2017, but he went overseas and established himself and his game in the SHL. He tallied 34 points in 46 games last season with Rögle.

Lajoie played well in AHL Chicago last season and held his own for the most part in his two games of postseason action with the Hurricanes. He’s a quality two-way defender who can eat up some bottom-pairing minutes.

Young defenseman Joey Keane is also in the pipeline and has NHL upside. If key injuries hit, he could see NHL games as soon as this season.