Questions Unanswered: Joni Pitkanen’s health

After signing Joe Corvo and missing out on the Ryan Suter sweepstakes, Hurricanes GM Jim Rutherford stated that he likes where the team’s defense is right now and doesn’t plan to make any other signings this off-season. Some might say that this is preposterous because of how poor the team’s defense was last season and that entering the year with roughly the same defense corps would be a bad idea. There are a few factors that make this coming year’s defense different from last season, though.

Firstly, you have to account for some of the defensemen that the Hurricanes have in their system. Bobby Sanguinetti and Ryan Murphy are not locks to make the team by any stretch, but both players have a very good chance at cracking the opening night roster. Another thing to consider is that some of the younger talents like Justin Faulk and Jamie McBain could continue to improve and step into larger roles than they had last season. What I think will play the biggest factor, though, is the health of Joni Pitkanen.

There is no doubt that Pitkanen is coming off a disappointing season but the big Finn also missed 42 games with knee and concussion problems so he wasn’t at 100% either. When healthy, Pitkanen can play over 20 minutes a night, be used in almost every situation and play on both special teams units. The Hurricanes are a better team when Pitkanen is in the lineup and if they can get him for a full season, then their defense corps is already much better than it was last year. Pitkanen’s health is always going to be a problem and it seems that Jim Rutherford might be banking on that along with the younger players in the system to rebuild Carolina’s defense.

After the jump, we will look at the level of impact that Pitkanen can have and how much better the team’s defense is when he is in the lineup.

When looking at the types of minutes and situations that Pitkanen is normally used in, it is safe to say that having Pitkanen for an entire season would be a boost on that alone.

Year TOI/G Def Rank EV TOI/G Def Rank PP TOI/G Def Rank SH TOI/G Def Rank
2008-09      24:48 1 18:54 1 4:02 2 1:51 6
2009-10      27:22 1 20:51 1 4:30 1 2:00 2
2010-11      25:01 1 19:44 1 4:07 1 1:09 5
2011-12  22:18 2 16:42 4 3:53 1 1:41 4

Last year aside, Pitkanen regularly played over 18 minutes at even strength and was one of Carolina’s top contributors on both the powerplay and penalty kill. If he can continue to play the kind of minutes that he did before last season, then it would take a lot of pressure off the rest of the defense. When he was out of the lineup, players like Jay Harrison and Jamie McBain were forced to step into bigger roles and it was a little more than they could handle. Harrison has improved a lot in the last two years but the Hurricanes aren’t going to be a contending team if he is constantly relied to play 20-25 minutes per night. This is why having Pitkanen back to his old form is so important. 

When I say that, I mean Pitkanen needs to be like he was two years ago because last year was a down season for him. He played fewer minutes, did very poor in the scoring chance department and was constantly sidelined with injuries. Those injuries likely played a big factor in how effective he was, but the Hurricanes are going to need Pitkanen to be counted on to play 18-20 minutes a game at even strength if they plan to have a good defense next season. The powerplay was easily the biggest area where he was missed but the team’s play at even strength also suffers when Pitkanen isn’t playing.

Year GP Corsi ON Corsi OFF Rel. Corsi CorsiRelQOC OZ Start%
2008-09 71 11.19 -0.64 11.8 0.141 56.8
2009-10 71 -2.2 -4.26 2.1 0.371 49.7
2010-11 72 0.76 -3.6 4.4 0.257 53.1
2011-12 30 -6.5 -5.66 -0.8 0.67 49%

In three of the last four years, the Hurricanes have been a better team at pushing the play forward while Pitkanen was on the ice, last season being the only exception. He was also playing in much tougher situations than he ever had before, which could have played a factor into his poor underlying numbers in addition to the injuries. Pitkanen is likely more suited for an offensive role but he has been able to handle himself in the past without the benefit of protection, so placing him in a tough-minute role isn’t out of the question. It’s very possible that he might have to do that with Tim Gleason currently doing all of the heavy-lifting by himself. Either way, the Canes should be counting on Pitkanen to rebound after a tough year because the state of their defense is going to depend on it.

What are the chances that Pitkanen does indeed rebound, though? I would think that they are somewhat high. He is only 29 years old so it’s not like his age is what’s holding him back. The -15 he posted last year might be a little concerning but he also had a horrendous on-ice save percentage, which suggests everything that went wrong for Pitkanen was somewhat out of his control. He’s never been that bad of a possession player, so it’s not like he’s a liability in the defensive zone. He is capable of driving the play forward and creating a considerable amount of offense while managing to not be helpless at the other end. If he can continue to be this kind of player, then Carolina’s defense has the potential to be a lot better than it was last season.

The Canes are taking a bit of a gamble here because Pitkanen’s health is always an uncertainty and so is the future of some of their younger prospects. They also have Joe Corvo currently slated to play the tough minutes alongside Gleason, and I don’t think that is going to last very young, so there are still a lot of questions in the air regarding the Canes defense. Pitkanen being able to stay healthy and perform up to his standards for an entire season would be a nice start at the very least.

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