There are a lot of smart people in the hockey blogging community and one of the brightest out there is Oilers blogger Jonathan Willis. As most of the hockey world knows, the Oilers have been playing the rebuild card for the last three years or so and appear to finally be turning the corner as a franchise after years of acquiring high draft picks. The one glaring concern on the Oilers is that their defense is very weak and could end up holding the team back despite having a lot of high-end talent up front. Willis stated in a tweet last week that “if everything goes right, the Oilers are golden on D…” and that’s true when you look at their roster.
They have a talented, but injury prone player in Ryan Whitney, who is a great puck-mover and is a solid contributor to the Oilers top pairing when he is healthy. In addition to that, the Oilers have two fine shutdown defensemen in Nick Schultz and Ladislav Smid. They also have Jeff Petry, a young defenseman who played well in a top-four role last season and a potential star in Justin Schultz, who was signed as a college free agent. The rest of the Oilers defense consists of third-pairing players such as Andy Sutton, Theo Peckham and Corey Potter and they also have some promising names in the system such as Colten Teubert and Oscar Klefbom who may also be called upon as soon as next season.
On paper, this defense corps doesn’t look too bad and could be quite good if, like Willis says, everything goes right. That’s where a few problems arise. Whitney has not been fully healthy in two years and was pretty awful for most of last season. Nick Schultz also had a brutal season despite not getting top shutdown duties on neither the Oilers nor the Minnesota Wild, Petry has only one year or NHL experience and Justin Schultz is only a rookie. Things could end up going awry if an injury happens to any of their top-four players or if one of their younger players struggle, especially Schultz.
That’s when the next part Willis’ quote comes in hand “…but planning for the best scenario is a bad way to run a team.” The Oilers D has a lot of good pieces to it (Smid and Petry being very underrated) but things could turn VERY bad if Whitney and Schultz suffer injuries or have poor seasons, especially because the Oilers don’t have much to fall back on as far as top-four options go. Theo Peckham and Andy Sutton can not be trusted in those minutes and neither can their players in the AHL since they are largely untested.
What does this have to do with the Hurricanes, though? Well, when I saw Willis make this statement about the Oilers, I couldn’t help but feel the same about the Hurricanes and their defense. Up front, the Hurricanes are in good shape. They have a solid top-six, loads of depth in the bottom-six, a few players who they can use throughout the lineup and forwards within the organization who they can call up if needed. The defense, however, has a lot more question marks and could run into some problems if a disaster strikes.
The stability of their defense is going to depend largely on the health and performance of Joni Pitkanen, who has had more than his fair share of injury problems the last few years. If he stays healthy, then the Canes defense should be in decent enough shape. That is obviously a big if, though. Another major factor is going to be the performance of Justin Faulk, who had a terrific rookie season as a 19 year old. Most will expect him to improve but he is still very young and it’s normal to have some concerns if he is going to be trusted with tough minutes again. Speaking of tough minutes, finding a partner for Tim Gleason to handle the heavy-lifting could be a difficult task because the team doesn’t have another bonafide shutdown defenseman on the team. They have guys who COULD play tough minutes but are either unproven or have struggled in those situations before.
Jamie McBain had some moderate success playing tough minutes last season but still doesn’t have much experience there. Jay Harrison performed best as a third pairing defenseman and Joe Corvo was a sheltered, bottom-pairing defenseman and occasional healthy scratch for the Bruins last season. Corvo played the toughs during his last go-around with Carolina but that was two years ago, so there is no guaruntee that he will be able to do it again this year. There is also the possibility of Ryan Murphy and Bobby Sanguinetti making the team out of camp, but they are probably third-pairing defensemen at the NHL level right now. They have a lot of potential and could outperform expectations but again, it’s not a certainty which is the main point here.
If everything goes right, then the Hurricanes are fine on defense. I.E. Pitkanen stays healthy and plays at least 70 games, Justin Faulk turns into a top-pairing defenseman and one of their other blue-liners emerges as a good compliment to Gleason. This isn’t a bad plan but there is definitely a lot that could go wrong given Pitkanen’s injury history and the amount of younger players who are in the mix. Are the Hurricanes prepared in case of a hazard? Their depth on the blue line isn’t bad and they have a lot of players who can be used in different roles but most of them come with their share of concerns. Aside from Pitkanen, Faulk and Murphy (who may not be on the team), the ceiling of most of these players isn’t very high but they should be serviceable for the Hurricanes and the issue is going to be whether or not they can perform well outside of their current roles.
With the organizational depth Carolina has on defense, there wasn’t much need for Rutherford to sign a defenseman to a long-term deal but the defense for next season will have its growing pains. Rutherford did acquire some insurance, though and the Canes have some players who can be called upon if an injury occurs. It may have been better if that insurance came in form of a shutdown defenseman instead of Joe Corvo but it is what it is and the Hurricanes will have to make do with what they have. With Corvo, Gragnani and Sanguinetti, the Canes have players who they can fall back on but they are more known for their offensive contributions than anything else. There might be problems if they are asked to do more than that.
If the Hurricanes are serious about making a run this season, it is possible that they could make a mid-season trade should a problem occur. They have some movable pieces and could turn one of them into a tough-minute defenseman if no one on the roster is up to the task. It seems that Rutherford wants to evaluate the talent currently on the team before making a move like that, which isn’t a bad idea right now since there are a lot of things that are up in the air concerning the defense.
In short, yes, the Hurricanes are placing a lot of hope in uncertainties right now and it could turn out very ugly if an injury or two happens. The good news is that they have some options who they can fall back on but we will wait and see how that turns out.