As I continue to preview the upcoming season, I’m going to take a look at how the Hurricanes size up against their Southeast Division adversaries starting with each team’s respective defense corps. Why am I starting with the defense, you ask? Because it seems that every team in the division has a lot of great, young talent on the blue-line….except for the Hurricanes. Aside from Jamie McBain, most of the Hurricanes defensemen are in their mid-late 20′s and in their primes or in their 30′s and declining. Yes, we have Ryan Murphy and Justin Faulk in the system who are very promising but it will be another year or two before they are members of the Hurricanes. Florida and to a lesser extent, Winnipeg also have this problem. Carolina also lacks an elite blue-liner but I would be hard-pressed to call any defenseman on the Caps, Jets, Hurricanes, Lightning and Panthers “elite.” Mike Green is an elite powerplay quarterback but would you consider him an elite all-around defenseman? Guys like Victor Hedman, Zach Bogosian, Karl Alzner and John Carlson are all fantastic players but how many people would consider them elite now? I’m not sure if I would. This is why I’m curious to see where exactly Carolina stands among this group.
What we’re gonna do here is break down the defense into a couple categories; Big Minute Defensemen (Top-four minute guys) and Depth Defensemen (Bottom-pair players or those who end up being healthy scratches).
Click here to view the spreadsheet of all defensemen
We’ve got defensemen of all kinds here…powerplay quarterbacks, shutdown defensemen and a few guys who can do it all. For Carolina, the guy who sees the most minutes on the blue-line is Joni Pitkanen and it’s been that way for the last few years. He is mostly known for his puck-moving skills than being a shut-down guy, though. Even then, his abilities on the powerplay are a little overrated. 44.6 SF/60 on the powerplay was the league average last year and he was well below that. Kaberle, who is basically replacing Joe Corvo, appears to be a slight improvement with the man advantage. In terms of shutdown guys, that’s probablly Carolina’s main weakness concerning their blue-line. Tim Gleason can handle the tough minutes but he simply gives up too many chances in his own end despite his solid possession numbers. Bryan Allen is 31, two years removed from knee surgery and while he can still play against tough competition, his effectiveness has seen a decline in recent seasons for obvious reasons. Carolina’s top-four has a mix of offense and defense but all players have a bit of a “you could do worse, but you could do a little better” reputation about them, especially the two “shutdown” players. Pitkanen may still be in his prime, but Allen, Kaberle and possibly Gleason’s play could see a decline this season and that’s what concerns me the most here.
Florida’s biggest minute-eaters consist of the overpaid Brian Campbell, the over-aging Ed Jovanovski and the vastly underrated shutdown pair of Mike Weaver and Jason Garrison. Brian Campbell is by no means a bad player, he just has an awful contract which Dale Tallon foolishly traded for in his attempt to get to the cap floor. If you refer to the spreadsheet I posted above, you’ll see that Campbell was one of the most sheltered players in this group in terms of where they started their shifts (over 60% in the offensive zone), and he had decent success there. Although, if he has to be Florida’s #1 defenseman, then there could be trouble because he was not relied on that role in Chicago with Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook on the roster. Jovanovski saw his role in Phoenix get a lot tougher the last couple seasons and I don’t know if that will continue in Florida or not, but I’m guessing it won’t with Garrison and Weaver handling most of the tough minutes there. Jovanovski’s play is on the decline and injuries are becoming a concern as well so I don’t know if he’ll even see top-four minutes in Florida by the end of his contract. If Florida has one thing under control, it’s having a great shutdown pair in Garrison and Weaver. Sort the spreadsheet by Corsi Rel QoC and you’ll see that those two had the toughest competition out of every defenseman sampled, low OZ%’s and a net positive zone finish rate. They’re also very cheap, but that’s mostly due to their game being one-dimensional. Florida sort of has balance in their top-four but I’m thinking that Campbell and Jovocop’s play will regress a lot so that makes things kind of suspect.
Tampa’s top-four has three guys who can handle tough competition and Pavel Kubina, who was brought in to provide offense from the back-end. The fact that Steve Yzerman had to go out and sign Marc-Andre Bergeron last year and Matt Gilroy this off-season should tell you how good of a job of Kubina’s been doing. Ohlund and Brewer are workhorses but neither are getting any younger and have taken on some serious mileage this last season if you look at their QoC and OZ% data. It’s possible that Victor Hedman could jump into one of their roles as the season goes on because he has played well in semi-tough situations and I think Ohlund could really use some weight taken off his shoulders next season. How much Hedman’s play improves will determine how successful Tampa’s defense is because him taking on a bigger role at both ends of the ice will take a lot of pressure off guys like Ohlund and Brewer, who were buried with tough assignments last season.
The Caps have arguably the best top-four of the bunch here. A superb powerplay threat in Mike Green, a young shutdown tandem in John Carlson and Karl Alzner and another in Roman Hamrlik. Green had a down season last year which was mostly due to injuries but he’s made improvements to his game to become more of an all-around player instead of just a powerplay threat and his defensive responsibilities have been increasing by the season. He has still yet to show me that he belongs in a class with the likes of other elite defensemen, though. If you still have the spreadsheet sorted by QoC, you’ll see Carlson and Alzner near the top in competition faced, which is pretty amazing for two kids in their early 20′s. Right after them is Hamrlik who can still take on a lot of tough assignments but he’s 38 and whether or not he can keep playing top minutes is questionable. The Caps do have other options here if Hamrlik does not pan out, though. Both pairs in the top-four have a great balance.
Winnipeg’s top-four is the team’s strongest asset with two offensive threats in Dustin Byfuglien and Tobias Enstrom, an emerging star in Zach Bogosian and …..then there’s Johnny Oduya. Bogosian is the top blue-liner here. He plays in tougher situations and manages not to get killed despite playing on a team that surrenders a ton of shots nightly. There’s still a lot of holes in his game, though and the only reason I say he’s the team’s best defenseman is because Byfuglien and Enstrom receive some incredibly soft ice-time and that’s the main reason their point total is as high as it is. They face tough competition but the fact that neither kill penalties and start over 53% of their draws in the offensive zone does not reflect well of their defensive abilities. So we have one shutdown pair with a lot of kinks and one pair that gets protected but at least makes the most of it.
2. Tampa Bay
The depth of all five teams is kind of a mishmash, as well. There’s actually a few who could easily jump into their respective team’s top-four’s. The one for Carolina is Jamie McBain, who saw a lot of top-four minutes last season. He could find himself there again due to injuries or someone like Allen underperforming. What we know about McBain from his rookie season is that he’s a solid puck-mover and managed not to get killed against middling competition. That’s something positive but suggests that he may be better suited for a lesser role but he’s only 23 and will hopefully keep improving. Joslin played well last season but is mostly unproven. I’ve already said a lot about Harrison and basically concluded that he’s really nothing more than a third-pairing defenseman unless he starts taking on more difficult assignments. Carolina has solid options for their bottom-pairing but they lack depth with most of their younger talent not ready to be called-up yet.
On the Panthers, Dmitry Kulikov has yet to prove himself as a top-four defender even if he can put up points, so he’s probably stuck on the bottom-pair for now. Callahan has yet to be re-signed but is a pretty similar player to Ellerby. Both play against middling competition and play well territorially. I wouldn’t be surprised to see Callahan retained solely for depth purposes. Florida doesn’t have any “bad” players here but unless Erik Gudbranson makes the team, I don’t see any future stars in their defensive corps. Kulikov has a lot of potential but I haven’t seen enough of him that shows me he can be a top defender.
Tampa Bay’s top-four may be full of guys who can handle tough assignments but aside from Brett Clark, the rest of their defense corps needs to be protected big time. These four are where most of their offense from the back-end comes, as well. Matt Gilroy and Marc-Andre Bergeron need a ton of offensive zone starts to be effective and the former will probably be a scratch on most nights seeing how I think he’s a worse version of MAB. Bruno Gervias was the Islanders version of Jay Harrison and he will assume that role on the Lightning.
The Caps depth is a bit un-fair because Dennis Wideman and Jeff Schultz could be top-four defenders on other teams and they might be the 5th and 6th defenders in Washington. Hell, Wideman was Florida’s #1 defenseman a year ago. It’s possible that he might take Hamrlik’s place in the top-four, though but I’m not sure how stable of a partner he is for someone like Mike Green. Neither Wideman or Schultz played protected minutes the last few seasons so there is some potential here, especially for Wideman. There’s a bit of a logjam here but the fact that they have Schultz as a 6th d-man and John Erskine not playing every game speaks volumes about the depth of this team. I still don’t understand George McPhee’s obsession with Tom Poti, though.
Winnipeg’s depth is probably the ugliest out of the bunch here. Ron Hainsey is vastly overpaid and is a below-average defenseman for the most part. Randy Jones will probably see more ice time than Mark Stuart seeing how they play similar roles as defensemen who take on weak competition but the former is better at it. Brett Festerling will see more time in the AHL, most likely. The Jets have depth but not in a good way.
2. Tampa Bay
So, Carolina’s defense corps ranks in the middle of the pack in the Southeast Division. The lack of a “real” shutdown defenseman is what their biggest set-back is but if Gleason can have a bounce-back season, then that could change. They have plenty of guys who can provide offense from the blue-line with the addition of Kaberle but they lack guys who can kill penalties and well…I don’t even need to tell you that’s an issue. What I think about our defense corps is essentially the same thing I said about the top-four. “It could be worse, but it could be a lot better.” It’s a good thing we have some organizational depth so in another year or two, Carolina may find themselves higher in the rankings, especially with Tampa’s D getting older.