The State of Carolina’s Prospects: Defense

Defense has been the Hurricanes biggest need for what feels like years now .They are consistently one of the worst teams in the league at preventing shots and have had to rely on their goaltenders to win more games than they would like. It's frustrating to watch and generally not a successful strategy going forward. The defense corps itself isn't the only problem because Carolina's forwards have had a lot of issues with being committed in all three zones, but the blue-line corps has a lot of room for improvement. Carolina has only one bonafide shutdown defenseman in Tim Gleason and have lacked a true #1 for years, so it's been hard for them to build a great defense around what they've had before. 

Carolina's management has been trying to fix this, though. They've been drafting heavy on defense for years and have been saying that "help is on the way" during that time. Over the last few years, we are finally starting to see some of the results. 2010 draft pick Justin Faulk has emerged as a top-pairing defenseman in only his second year and is looking like someone who they can build around. Although, there hasn't been much promise outside of him. Jamie McBain has been a full-time NHLer and a de facto "top four" defenseman, but he has struggled mightily over the last two years and hasn't proven to be much of a solution. Carolina has also acquired other players like Jay Harrison & Bobby Sanguinetti to help bolster their defensive depth and both have been just that and nothing more.

The ongoing problem with Carolina's defense is that they keep placing hope in uncertainties (Pitkanen's health, younger players developing) and end up relying on defensemen playing outside of a role they are more suited for. This has happened last year and many years before that. Faulk's development will make it easier for the Canes to (re)build their defense, but they still need another player from within to emerge as a top-four guy and thrive in that role instead of being an over-slotted third-pairing defenseman. Do they have anyone in their system who can do that?

That is tough to say because defensemen generally take a long time to develop, but the Canes aren't short on prospects in this area. It's now all a matter of finding out how far away these players are and if they fit Carolina's short and/or long-term needs.

Ryan Murphy: 2012 1st Round, 5'11", 176 lbs.
Age: 20
Birthplace: Markham, Ontario

Ryan Murphy
Season Age Team Lge GP G A Pts P/G NHLE
2008-09 15 Villanova Knights OJHL 4 4 2 6 1.5  
2009-10 16 Kitchener Rangers OHL 62 6 33 39 0.6 15
2010-11 17 Kitchener Rangers OHL 63 26 53 79 1.3 30
2011-12 18 Kitchener Rangers OHL 49 11 43 54 1.1 26
2012-13 19 Kitchener Rangers OHL 54 10 38 48 0.9 21
2012-13 19 Carolina Hurricanes NHL 4 0 0 0 0 0
2012-13 19 Charlotte Checkers AHL 3 0 2 2 0.7 24

It's rare for Jim Rutherford to take a defenseman in the first round, but Ryan Murphy was an exception to the rule. The numbers he posted during his draft year should tell you why. Murphy is a quick, highly-skilled offensive defenseman who can be a very good power play quarterback at the NHL level. Murphy's numbers have gone down since he was drafted though and there have been a lot of questions arising about his development. The scoring rate he posted in his draft year was absurdly high for a defenseman and he still scored at a high level in the years after that, so there shouldn't be much worry about him being effective offensively. His play in his own end, however, is another story.

Murphy is a high-risk, high-reward player and will jump into the play whenever he gets a chance. This results in him being very effective at creating offense and possibly controlling puck-possession, but also leads to coverage breakdowns in his own zone. Murphy is also pretty small, not very physical and can get overpowered by bigger forwards. This should lead to a lot of suspicion about his ability to play top-four minutes against other team's best forwards. I've heard from some people up North that Murphy's two-way game has improved since his ugly showing at the World Juniors, but that could be just hearsay for all we know.

Carolina fans got a brief taste of what to expect from Murphy in his five-game emergency call-up stint with the Hurricanes and two things stood out to me. The biggest of which is that Murphy plays the game just like a forward at times, meaning he jumps into rush a lot, can carry the puck into the zone on a regular basis and create a ton of offense if given the chance. The other thing that stood out to me is that he looked a little out of his element when playing away from the puck. When it came to making breakout passes and playing in the offensive zone, he was dynamic but Murphy had trouble winning puck battles & fighting off other team's forwards. His size and age had a lot to do with this so I think he will improve as he gets older, but Murphy's defensive play is still a concern.

Murphy has a lot of things that the Canes need right now since they will need a play-driving defenseman after Joni Pitkanen leaves and he seems to utilize his offensive insticts much better than Faulk & McBain do, so he will be nice to have around. However, Murphy's drawbacks all relate to the Hurricanes current team problems. He can possess the puck well, but is prone to give up transition chances the other way. He is also small & not a very physical player, which are two areas the Hurricanes need to improve on.

Basically, I see Murphy's career going in two directions. He can either be a Tobias Enstrom type player as an effective, big minute offensive defenseman or he can be Marc-Andre Bergeron Part II. Hopefully for Carolina's sake he ends up being the former because that would be a great help in the long-term.

Progress: Lower scoring rate in juniors, made NHL debut & played with Checkers in post-season. Should be with Canes next year.

Danny Biega: 2010 3rd Round Pick, 6'0" 205 lbs.
Age: 21
Birthplace: Montreal, Quebec

Danny Biega
Season Age Team Lge GP G A Pts P/G NHLE
2009-10 18 Harvard University ECAC 32 5 4 9 0.3 9
2010-11 19 Harvard University ECAC 34 11 19 30 0.9 30
2011-12 20 Harvard University ECAC 34 10 25 35 1 35
2012-13 21 Harvard University ECAC 32 2 9 11 0.3 12
2012-13 21 Charlotte Checkers AHL 1 0 0 0 0 0

Funny how much things can change in a year. Biega looked like a promising player when the Hurricanes drafted him. A year later, he looked like a potential steal in the third round and at this time last year, he was one of the team's best prospects after two terrific seasons at Harvard. Unfortunately, his senior year did not go so well and now his stock is somewhat of a mystery. I don't blame Biega's poor numbers solely on him because the Crimson had a miserable season and he is still very talented and one of the Canes better defensive prospects.

I've gotten to watch Biega more than a few times and he, like Murphy, is a skilled puck-mover and power play quarterback but what sets him apart is that he is much more comfortable with playing in his own zone. He can make good plays out of his own zone and hold his own ground when battling for position against forwards. This gives me some confidence in him making the NHL at some point. All defensemen need to be able to move the puck in this league, so Biega being skilled in that area will help even if he doesn't become a high-level player.

When will Biega be in the NHL, though? Most scouts have him projected to be more of a third pairing guy, so he could be similar to McBain when all is said and done but he does have a lot of talent and could turn into a useful NHL player. I think he spends next year in Charlotte, though. The Hurricanes third-pairing doesn't have many vacancies at the moment and if that's all he is right now, then Murphy is probably higher in the pecking order.

Progress: Bad senior year at Harvard, made AHL debut & got hurt.

Jaccob Slavin: 2012 4th Round, 6'00", 190 lbs.
Age: 19
Birthplace: Erie, Colorado

Jaccob Slavin
Season Age Team Lge GP G A Pts P/G NHLE
2010-11 16 Chicago Steel USHL 17 1 0 1 0.1  
2011-12 17 Chicago Steel USHL 60 3 27 30 0.5  
2012-13 18 Chicago Steel USHL 62 5 28 33 0.5  

Slavin is a player who I don't know a ton about because there is only so much USHL tape available, but he looks like an effective offensive player and an interesting prospect. He led the Chicago Steel in points this past year and will play for Colorado College next season, which should give Carolina fans a chance to learn more about him. I generally trust NCAA defensemen more than those who come straight out of junior, so I'm interested to see how he develops.

Progress: Great season in USHL, will play in NCAA next year

Trevor Carrick: 2012 4th Round Pick, 6'02", 175 lbs.
Age: 18
Birthplace: Stouffville, Ontario

Trevor Carrick
Season Age Team Lge GP G A Pts P/G NHLE
2009-10 15 Upper Canada Patriots OJHL 2 0 1 1 0.5  
2010-11 16 Stouffville Spirit OJHL 40 6 13 19 0.5  
2011-12 17 Mississauga St. Michael's Majors OHL 68 6 13 19 0.3 6
2012-13 18 Mississauga Steelheads OHL 56 10 21 31 0.6 13

Carrick is a solid, stay-at-home defenseman who is probably a good few years away from being in the NHL. He does have a good shot from the point and really improved the offensive side of his game last year, but he is still more known for his solid positional game and making good plays in his own zone. It will be awhile before the Hurricanes fully know what they have in him because he is so young, but he made a lot of progress last year, at the very least. His 31 points ranked third among Mississauga's defensemen and he could have a bigger role next season depending on where Dylan DeMelo & Stuart Percy play. Carrick is on the right track but again, it will be awhile before he's ready to contribute in the NHL.

Progress: Improved the offensive side of his game in juniors this year. Still very young.

Michal Jordan: 2008 4th Round Pick, 6'1", 186 lbs.
Age: 22
Birthplace: Zlin, Czech Republic

Michal Jordan
Season Age Team Lge GP G A Pts P/G NHLE
2007-08 17 Windsor Spitfires OHL 22 1 5 6 0.3 6
2007-08 17 Plymouth Whalers OHL 39 5 17 22 0.6 13
2008-09 18 Plymouth Whalers OHL 58 12 30 42 0.7 17
2009-10 19 Plymouth Whalers OHL 41 13 19 32 0.8 19
2010-11 20 Charlotte Checkers AHL 67 4 14 18 0.3 10
2011-12 21 Charlotte Checkers AHL 76 4 18 22 0.3 10
2012-13 22 Charlotte Checkers AHL 54 6 10 16 0.3 11
2012-13 22 Carolina Hurricanes NHL 5 0 0 0 0  

Jordan is one of the many young defensemen who have logged big minutes in Charlotte for years but didn't get their shot in the NHL until this most recent season. The Canes used Jordan in a very limited role in all five games, so there is still very little we know about his NHL potential, but he at least able to hold his own in soft minutes and that counts for something, I suppose. His ceiling is lower than some of the Hurricanes other defensive prospects and I don't expect a ton from him, but he plays a very safe game and is capable of moving the puck. Those qualities will help him in the NHL somewhere down the line. When and where he gets a shot at being a full-time NHL-er is the question, though. Jordan got hurt shortly after his first call-up stint, so those five games were all we saw from Jordan in Carolina. He is a solid prospect to have around, but needs to a do a little more to make himself standout. 

Progress: Made NHL debut, had a good season in Charlotte before getting hurt.

Austin Levi: 2010 3rd Round Pick, 6'4", 205 lbs.
Age: 21
Birthplace: Aurora, Colorado

Austin Levi
Season Age Team Lge GP G A Pts P/G NHLE
2008-09 16 Plymouth Whalers OHL 12 0 2 2 0.2 4
2009-10 17 Plymouth Whalers OHL 68 3 9 12 0.2 4
2010-11 18 Plymouth Whalers OHL 66 6 19 25 0.4 9
2011-12 19 Plymouth Whalers OHL 64 5 25 30 0.5 11
2012-13 20 Plymouth Whalers OHL 58 2 15 17 0.3 7

Levi was considered a "project" when he was drafted because he had size and a lot of raw talent but never produced that much in juniors, at least going by boxcar stats. He is more of a defensive defenseman, so goals and poitns aren't the best way to judge Levi, but he is still considered a work in progress by many and spent an extra year in juniors after not making the Charlotte Checkers in training camp. Going by the Plymouth games I watched last year, Levi is a very effective physical player and a good defensive defenseman. Him being a year older and much bigger than some of his competition probably helped his progress a considerable amount, but I liked what I saw from him regardless.

That being said, I think he is another couple years or so away from being in the NHL unless he really surprises someone in training camp. He should be on the Checkers next year and that will give us an idea of what he can do against some older competition. One of the reasons why he didn't make the Checkers last year was that training camp was too crowded with the NHL work stoppage and there simply wasn't enough room for him. That should not be the case for him this year and I expect Levi to get every opportunity to make the team.

Progress: Solid overage season with Plymouth, should be with Checkers next year

Beau Schmitz: Undrafted, 5'10" 195 lbs.
Age: 22
Birthplace: Howell, Michigan

Beau Schmitz
Season Age Team Lge GP G A Pts P/G NHLE
2007-08 16 USNTDP Under-18 Team NAHL 41 5 7 12 0.3  
2008-09 17 Plymouth Whalers OHL 66 6 31 37 0.6 13
2009-10 18 Plymouth Whalers OHL 68 8 22 30 0.4 10
2010-11 19 Plymouth Whalers OHL 48 7 24 31 0.6 15
2011-12 20 Plymouth Whalers OHL 62 14 40 54 0.9 21
2012-13 21 Florida Everblades ECHL 50 0 8 8 0.2  
2012-13 21 Charlotte Checkers AHL 21 4 6 10 0.5 17

Schmitz is another overage player and his pedigree isn't quite the same as Levi's since he wasn't drafted. He is also a very different player than Levi in the sense that he is more of a puck-mover and plays less of a physical, defensive game. Still, Schmitz impressed the Hurricanes enough in his overage year that they decided to give him a contract and so far, he has somewhat lived up to it. He didn't make the Charlotte Checkers out of camp but he eventually got his shot after the NHL lockout ended and he performed very well down the stretch for Charlotte. He only played in one playoff game, though so I'm not sure what that says about him making the team out of camp next year but I think he will get a shot there eventually. As for his NHL potential, there probably isn't a lot and it would take a lot of injuries for him to get a call-up.

Progress: Non-impressive performance in ECHL but was good once called up to the Checkers

Joe Sova: Undrafted, Acquired in trade with Devils, 6'3", 193 lbs.
Age: 25
Birthplace: Berwyn, Illinois

Joe Sova
Season Age Team Lge GP G A Pts P/G NHLE
2005-06 17 Waterloo Black Hawks USHL 40 2 5 7 0.2  
2006-07 18 Sioux City Musketeers USHL 58 4 19 23 0.4  
2007-08 19 Omaha Lancers USHL 59 7 11 18 0.3  
2008-09 20 U. of Alaska-Fairbanks CCHA 39 3 7 10 0.3 9
2009-10 21 U. of Alaska-Fairbanks CCHA 39 6 18 24 0.6 21
2010-11 22 U. of Alaska-Fairbanks CCHA 37 4 20 24 0.6 22
2010-11 22 Albany Devils AHL 11 1 3 4 0.4 13
2011-12 23 Albany Devils AHL 14 2 2 4 0.3 10
2011-12 23 Kalamazoo Wings ECHL 18 2 5 7 0.4  
2011-12 23 Charlotte Checkers AHL 20 0 4 4 0.2 7
2012-13 24 San Francisco Bulls ECHL 25 0 2 2 0.1  
2012-13 24 Reading Royals ECHL 22 0 4 4 0.2  

Sova was included as a throw-in by the Devils as part of the Alexei Ponikarovsky trade and he hasn't done a whole lot since the Hurricanes acquired him. They didn't even have enough room for him on the Florida Everblades, so they loaned him to the San Francisco Bulls and he finished the season with the Reading Royals. I'm not sure if he is still a Carolina prospect with how much he has moved around and how little he has played for Charlotte. Regardless, I'd expect him to be in Checkers camp this fall and what happens after that is anyone's guess.

Progress: Moved around in ECHL

Rasmus Rissanen: 2009 6th Round Pick, 6'3", 205 lbs.
Age: 21
Birthplace: Kuopio, Finland

Rasmus Rissanen
Season Age Team Lge GP G A Pts P/G NHLE
2009-10 18 Everett Silvertips WHL 71 4 11 15 0.2 5
2010-11 19 Everett Silvertips WHL 68 1 11 12 0.2 4
2010-11 19 Charlotte Checkers AHL 1 0 0 0 0 0
2011-12 20 Charlotte Checkers AHL 64 3 3 6 0.1 3
2012-13 21 Charlotte Checkers AHL 61 0 9 9 0.1 5

There are a lot of things to like about Rissanen's game. He is an effective physical player, a good penalty killer and is very big for his age. He is also strong on the puck and is normally trusted with some heavy defensive minutes in Charlotte, which speaks a lot about his ability to play against the opposition's best forwards. He was also able to make the jump from juniors to the pros at the age of 20, which is great news as far as his development is concerned. However, Rissanen's speed and mobility might prevent him from developing into a great NHL defenseman. He isn't a particularly good skater and has trouble with keeping up with more skilled forwards. That hasn't hurt him as much in the AHL, but it most certainly will at the next level. Rissanen's offensive numbers also aren't very impressive for someone who plays his minutes, but I don't hold that against him because that isn't his role.

Rissanen has the tools and the size to be a good NHL defenseman and all he really needs to do is work on his skating so that he can hold his own against NHL caliber forwards. Either way, he is a solid prospect and a nice find in the 6th round. I would expect him to get a call-up somewhere down the line. Whether that is next year or in another couple seasons remains to be seen.

Progress: Low scoring numbers in Charlotte but received big minutes& a lot of responsibility.

Tommi Kivisto: 2009 7th Round Pick, 6'1, 195 lbs.
Age: 22
Birthplace: Vantaa, Finland

Tommi Kivisto
Season Age Team Lge GP G A Pts P/G NHLE
2008-09 17 Red Deer Rebels WHL 65 1 21 22 0.3 8
2009-10 18 Jokerit Helsinki SM-liiga 22 0 2 2 0.1 6
2010-11 19 Jokerit Helsinki SM-liiga 38 0 5 5 0.1 8
2011-12 20 Jokerit Helsinki SM-liiga 26 0 4 4 0.2 10
2012-13 21 Florida Everblades ECHL 48 4 11 15 0.3  
2012-13 21 Charlotte Checkers AHL 17 0 2 2 0.1 3

Kivisto brings a lot of experience to the table with three years playing in Finland's professional league but he doesn't offer a lot outside of that. His numbers there weren't particularly impressive, despite him having good offensive instincts and that followed suit last season with the Everblades & Checkers respectfully. Kivisto is still a fairly solid two-way defenseman but I think we're looking at a career AHL-er here.

Progress: Split season with ECHL & AHL. Finished year with Checkers.

Brett Bellemore: 2007 6th Round Pick: 6'4", 210 lbs.
Age: 25
Birthplace: Windsor, Ontario

Brett Bellemore
Season Age Team Lge GP G A Pts P/G NHLE
2005-06 17 Plymouth Whalers OHL 46 0 0 0 0 0
2006-07 18 Plymouth Whalers OHL 50 0 12 12 0.2 6
2007-08 19 Plymouth Whalers OHL 56 6 18 24 0.4 10
2007-08 19 Albany River Rats AHL 4 0 0 0 0 0
2008-09 20 Albany River Rats AHL 6 0 0 0 0 0
2008-09 20 Plymouth Whalers OHL 29 2 10 12 0.4 10
2009-10 21 Albany River Rats AHL 75 1 6 7 0.1 3
2010-11 22 Charlotte Checkers AHL 71 2 8 10 0.1 5
2011-12 23 Charlotte Checkers AHL 76 1 9 10 0.1 5
2012-13 24 Charlotte Checkers AHL 68 2 11 13 0.2 7
2012-13 24 Carolina Hurricanes NHL 8 0 2 2 0.3  

Bellemore impressed Hurricanes management and a lot of fans during his eight game stint with the team this year and rightfully so, he adds a lot of things that the team needs right now. He is a solid, big-bodied defenseman who can kill penalties, deliver big hits and plays a strong game in his own zone. The team just signed him to a two-way deal, so they likely see Bellemore in the team's plans going forward but is he good enough to play in the NHL full-time next year? Who knows. If anything, Bellemore should provide cheap organizational depth next year and that will be pretty important. Him playing a big role next year would go a long way to helping Carolina, but I personally think he will be on the third-pairing and used as a penalty kill specialist. Still, he is a solid player with some NHL potential and that's good for a 6th rounder.

Readdressing my earlier statement, the Hurricanes have only a couple of defensemen in the system who have the potential to play in the top four and a lot of guys with questionable NHL futures after that. The problem with analyzing defensemen prospects is that they take longer to develop and you usually don't know what you will get out of them until they are at least in early-20's. The Hurricanes have no shortage of defensemen prospects, so adding more in the late rounds doesn't seem like a good idea, but not a ton of them have star or top-four potential.

This is where you can argue for the team to move back in the first round because unless Seth Jones falls to them, the Hurricanes probably aren't getting an elite defenseman that early in the draft. If they were to trade down, then they could possibly acquire someone who can help now plus land in a spot where they might be able to draft a potential top-pairing defenseman. I think forward is just as big of a need long-term because the Hurricanes prospect system is thin, but I can see the argument for trading it to acquire a defenseman. The cabinet is far from empty here, but how many of these prospects develop into good or even useful NHLers is a good question.