For the past two years, Justin Faulk has been a huge bright spot on what is mostly a bad defense corps. He made a huge impression on the Hurricanes fanbase last season after making the team out of training camp and won even more people over around late-November when he was permanent called up to the team. It's rare for a defenseman to become a full-time NHL-er before his 20th birthday, so Faulk being able to stick with the Hurricanes for 66 games last year was impressive enough, but this is just scratching the surface.
Not only was Faulk on the big club full-time, he also led all Carolina defensemen in time on ice per game, played on both special teams units and was often matched up against some of the opposition's better forwards. The national eye may have not given him a lot of attention, but Carolina fans knew they had something special in Faulk. After such a fantastic rookie season, the thought on everyone's minds was what will Faulk do next and will he improve or fall victim to the dreaded "sophomore slump?"
To some people, Faulk can do no wrong, but there were some areas he struggled in last season. As with any young defenseman, he was prone to mistakes and was giving up more chances than he was producing. He also had some issues with his two-way game, particularly with defending in transition and it resulted in him being on the ice for a lot of scoring chances against. Faulk impressed in a lot of ways, but there were plenty of things for him to improve on and playing for Team USA in the World Championships after the season and for the Charlotte Checkers during the lockout could help him fine tune his game before the NHL got back into action.
Even with those flaws, Faulk showed a lot of poise in his rookie season and did not look overwhelmed despite being a teenager playing a role that veterans are often assigned to. This along with Faulk's terrific special teams play showed that the Hurricanes had themselves a very good defensemen who was only in the beginning stages of his NHL career. The question was how good could Faulk be in his career and how long would it take for him to get to that level? His performance this year helped answered both of those questions.
If there is such a thing as a "sophomore slump," the Hurricanes didn't see it from Faulk this year because he improved on his rookie season in just about every way imaginable and emerged as a top-pairing defenseman. All before his 21st birthday too.
Faulk was the true workhorse of the defense corps as he was regularly among the team leaders in even strength ice-time and used on both the first power play & penalty kill units. In addition to that, Faulk was given the toughest assignments among the defense corps. He spent all but eight of his games matched up against opposing team's top lines and had to deal with some steep territorial assignments, as well. Tim Gleason was the only other player to start more of his shifts in the defensive zone, so that should tell you what kind of situations Faulk was being used in.
Seeing how Faulk was pegged as an offensive defenseman when he was drafted, his career has gone in an interesting direction. Faulk still has a good offensive skillset and is a regular on the power play but at even strength, he is used as a shutdown defenseman, which something everyone thinks the Hurricanes desperately need. While Faulk doesn't have the body type or the mean streak of your typical crease-clearing defenseman, Kirk Muller and Dave Lewis felt confident enough to use him as one. Faulk was used in difficult situations during his rookie season, but this was brand new territory for him and very few second-year defensemen are trusted with this kind of a workload.
How did he handle these minutes, though? Better than you think.
|5v5 Fenwick Diff/20||-0.913||7th|
|5v5 Chance Diff/20||-0.04||6th|
Faulk's overall numbers in terms of being able to control puck-possession were mediocre by the end of the year, but he saw a pretty big decline in performance over his final 10 games. It wouldn't surprise me if he wasn't at 100% then because he missed nine games in March/April with a sprained knee and came back a little sooner than expected. He returned on Game 39 and wouldn't you know it, his numbers took a pretty steep decline around that point. At first, it looks like Faulk hit may have hit a "wall" and struggled to improve from where he was, but after analyzing the situation more closely, he was likely just struggling after returning from an injury. All young defensemen are going to have their inconsistencies and Faulk had some toward the end of the season.
Also, it's worth noting that Faulk was playing at an amazing level prior to that injury. Any tough-minute player who is able to help his team control over 50% of the even strength shot attempts when he is on the ice is impressive, and Faulk's performance last season was even more impressive when taking his age into consideration. Remember, Faulk was being matched up against first lines for most of the season and over the first 20 games, he wasn't just keeping these players in check, he was dominating them. Even after his play came back down to Earth in the next 10 games, the Hurricanes were still owning over 50% of the even strength shot attempts when he was on the ice. I'm not sure how much stock to put in the numbers from a 38-games sample, but I think Faulk's performance over the first 78% of the year is more indicate of his play than his rough patch in the final 10 games.
Even though Faulk ended up finishing the season a negative player in terms of possession, he was only barely losing the battle at even strength and that really isn't that bad when you look at his assignments. It's rare to find defensemen in their early 20's who can control even strength play as well as Faulk did this season.
Something here that might come as a shocker to fans is that Faulk was Carolina's best defensive defenseman. Faulk might be praised more for his big slap shot and ability to lead breakouts, but his offensive production was relatively low in terms of creating chances. Despite that, Faulk managed to make up for this at the other end, because there wasn't a single defenseman on the Hurricanes better at preventing scoring chances at even strength than him. He was still on the ice on a lot of shot attempts, but his strong scoring chance numbers indicates great things about his defensive play and his ability to keep opposing forwards out of the areas in front of the net.
The funny thing about Faulk's low scoring chance numbers, he was still one of the most productive defensemen on the team, finishing the top two in even strength goals and points per 60 minutes. This was partially assisted by a high 5v5 on-ice shooting percentage so I wouldn't expect for it to continue next season, but it won't matter as much if Faulk continues to provide the team with strong defensive play. This might come as a surprise, but at 21 years old, Faulk is already a solid shutdown defenseman.
5v5 Zone Entries
Even though Faulk was the team's most productive defenseman at even strength, the offensive side of his game felt a little restrained this year. It's evidenced both by his low shot totals and his conservative play in the neutral zone. In Joni Pitkanen's season review, I talked about how he gives this team another dimension by being able to jump into the play, carry the puck up the ice and create odd-man situations by joining the rush. It makes Carolina a stronger territorial club overall and it's one of the benefits of having a lot of puck-movers on the team. Unfortunately, Pitkanen was basically the only defenseman who could do this often, as most of the team's other puck-movers didn't contribute much in the neutral zone, Faulk being one of them. That being said, Faulk was trusted with some very tough minutes this year, so it's possible that he had to simplify his game a little to adjust to his playing situation. Being more conservative in the neutral zone is likely one of the adjustments he made because getitng the puck deep is usually the safe option when you're a defenseman out against other team's top lines. He did this often and while I don't have a huge problem with it, I think he is talented enough to be a little more aggressive & creative with the puck.
Season Grade: A-
The main thing I wanted to see out of Faulk this year was him take a step forward from his rookie season and he did that in just about every way, so he gets a high mark from me. The coaching staff put a lot of weight on Faulk's shoulders this year and for 3/4 of the season, he handled it better than any young defenseman could have. Faulk's defensive game is years ahead of where anyone thought it would be at this point and his offense is slowly but surely coming around. The only real negative point of his season were his final ten games and even with that rought patch he managed to put together a great season.
The Final Word
A shutdown defenseman is going to be the top item on every Carolina fan's wish list this summer, but they already have one on the team in Justin Faulk. All the elements are there. He plays the toughest minutes on the team and does a marvelous job of limiting scoring chances for the opposition. There is also no rule saying that a shutdown defenseman has to be useless offensively, so that just makes Faulk even more valuable than he already is and Carolina fans should be very excited about his future. Despite being in the league for only two years, Faulk is doing things that even some of the most talented young defensemen struggle with and I think he is good enough to be the key piece for Carolina to build their defense corps around. The fact that he was Carolina's best defenseman this year should encourage a lot of fans because his career is still only in the beginning stages. It will be interesting to see what Faulk does to improve next season and what the Canes will do to build around him. Faulk did almost all of the heavy-lifting this year and will likely need some help from the rest of the defense in future years.