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Canes in perfect position to make adjustments to defensive systems

With hefty turnover on the backend, there’s a chance to question whether or not the system in place has been the best and where to go from there.

New York Islanders v Carolina Hurricanes-Game Four Photo by Gregg Forwerck/NHLI via Getty Images

The last three years have seen the Carolina Hurricanes transform from a middling disappointment to a bonafide contender with improvements at every position and in most facets of the game.

But when you’re wanting to be the best, settling should never be an option and the defense is one of the areas that the Canes could still use some tune ups.

To start out, the Carolina Hurricanes have two of the best defensive defensemen in the entire NHL in Jaccob Slavin and Brett Pesce. Those two alone can carry the majority of the load for a team and will do that for many more seasons to come.

But despite their individual talents, the Canes have had a glaring problem on defense for the entire reign of the new regime and that being the amount of quality chances that they give up.

So with a majority of the back end being replaced with new faces and along with a new defensive coach in Tim Gleason, it’s potentially a perfect time to make some changes to the system to better the Hurricanes’ overall game.

Advanced Stats

Year CF% GA/60 xGA/60 SCA/60 HDCA/60 HDGA/60 HDSv%
Year CF% GA/60 xGA/60 SCA/60 HDCA/60 HDGA/60 HDSv%
2016-17 51.31 (6th) 2.51 (26th) 2.17 (18th) 23.47 (9th) 10.01 (12th) 1.37 (22nd) 80.71 (24th)
2017-18 54.48 (1st) 2.63 (25th) 2.2 (8th) 24.28 (5th) 10.32 (13th) 1.31 (15th) 82.79 (18th)
2018-19 54.8% (2nd) 2.24 (7th) 2.31 (16th) 25.18 (7th) 11.26 (22nd) 1.36 (11th) 82.82% (15th)
2019-20 54.3% (3rd) 2.54 (17th) 2.32 (17th) 24.56 (8th) 11.14 (23rd) 1.63 (29th) 81.0% (24th)
2020-21 53.94% (4th) 1.79 (1st) 2.22 (15th) 24.04 (11th) 10.16 (18th) 1.15 (6th) 85.14% (2nd)

The ‘Corsi Canes’ are a team that controls the majority of play and scoring chances and it shows as they are routinely in the top-five of Corsi, Fenwick and most possession-based analytics year in and year out.

A lot of this can be attributed to the shot happy style of the Hurricanes, but they truly do a great job defending and limiting the ability of their opponents with strong play in the defensive and neutral zones.

And while the defense does play a great role in the goals-against average, the fact of the matter is that goaltending can make or break your team and has the strongest influence on goal prevention.

All the talent in the world standing in front of the net means very little if the goalie couldn’t even stop a beach ball, so the Canes have been blessed with both good defensemen and great goaltending over the past three seasons.

But, in the last three seasons, the Hurricanes have seen an uptick in high danger chances against per 60 minutes despite a much improved roster.

The biggest explanation for that is the emphasis on the forecheck in the Hurricanes’ overall system — a north-to-south style of hockey predicated on heavy forechecking from every member of the roster.

Getting pucks in deep and getting to work is the common theme from the coaching staff as they want their players to gain the zone, get the puck past defenders and win the ensuing battle in the attacking zone and in the defensive zone, it’s just about winning back possession and quickly moving it up the ice.

Defensemen enter that equation in the offensive zone by activating to provide a passing lane, hold zones, challenge exits or even join the rush.

It’s a key part of the offense, but the risk factor for it has become pretty high.

Blueliners constantly find themselves out of position by trying to force offense or pinch to keep the play alive and this leads to ample opportunities for odd-man breaks.

Because of the aggressive nature of their game, the Hurricanes are seeing an unwelcome trend of quality over quantity against them and it’s a pattern that they really need to address.

Carolina has been lucky enough to have had incredible goaltending in spite of the high-danger chances against and especially this year with the outstanding play of Alex Nedeljkovic.

The Hurricanes have been playing with fire for too long and with a lot of the back end replaced this offseason, the safest bet would be to address the faults of the current system.

For example, Tony DeAngelo is a talented offensive defensemen, but he struggles defending in his own end, Ethan Bear still has some development questions and there’s legitimate concerns about the effect of age regression for Ian Cole.

And then there’s two completely new netminders in Fredrik Andersen and Antti Raanta who may not have the same wild tendencies and athletic abilities that Petr Mrazek and Nedeljkovic had to harness for some Grade-A saves when called upon.

It would be easy to say simply change the style to a more stay-at-home and defend type of game, but the other side of that coin is the fact that the Hurricanes are very dependent upon their defense to help drive their offense.

The freedom that has been given to Carolina defenders has contributed greatly to the generation of scoring chances and is one of the biggest reasons that the Hurricanes’ offense is so suffocating.

Scoring chances generated by the defense
Corey Sznajder

But while the Hurricanes’ defense has generated a lot of looks, for the most part it hasn’t been generating the highest grade chances, which matches up with the fact that the team is more focused on quantity over quality.

Scoring chance production vs. high danger shot contribution generated by defensemen
Corey Sznajder

Despite that, the system has led to a noticeable uptick in defensive scoring contribution just due to the volume of generation, although this season strangely saw the lowest defensemen goal share in the last five seasons.

Defensive Scoring Contribution

Year Total Goals Goal Share Total Points Point Share
Year Total Goals Goal Share Total Points Point Share
2016-17 34 16.04% 142 24.70%
2017-18 33 14.67% 128 20.85%
2018-19 45 18.52% 149 23.21%
2019-20 39 17.97% 161 26.97%
2020-21 21 12% 116 24%

The reliance on the back end to provide that offensive spark has been a key part of Carolina’s success and the addition of players like DeAngelo and Bear can help fill the 5v5 impact that Hamilton had, so it’s not like the Canes should do away with that entirely.

Tim Gleason was a gritty, stay-at-home defensemen back in his playing days so maybe he has some ideas to better suit the Hurricanes’ needs there, but Rod Brind’Amour probably wants to keep the offensive impact of his blueline.

It will be up to those two to find the best solution and balance between offense and defense, but the Canes would be much better off if they could find a way to trim down the quality of the chances they give up regardless.