The general consensus among those who follow the NHL is that while the Hurricanes appear to be a better team than they were last year, they still have some holes on defense. I've discussed this a few times over the prolonged off-season and came to the conclusion that it's probably going to take more than a season for the Canes to have a "great team." We're talking about a team who gave up more shots than any other club in the league last year and currently has only one player who most would consider a solid shutdown defenseman. It's going to take time for things to improve and that's especially true with the Hurricanes having so many defensive prospects in their system. They also lost two of their better defensive players over the summer in Brandon Sutter and Bryan Allen, so this could be another tough transition year for the Canes defense unless a few players outperform their expectations or their forwards make up for their problems on the blue-line.
Calling this a "transition year" for the Hurricanes defense might sound a little odd because the only moves they made over the off-season was signing Joe Corvo to a one-year deal while losing Bryan Allen to free agency and Jaroslav Spacek to retirement. Corvo should be able to take over Spacek's role as a soft-minute/third pairing defenseman but the loss of Allen changes the look of this defense quite a bit. Along with Tim Gleason, Allen did the bulk of the heavy lifting on the Carolina blue-line, being given the toughest assignments at even strength and on the penalty kill. No one was signed to replace Allen, which poses a problem for the Hurricanes defense.
A lack of bodies isn't the Hurricanes problem, as they have enough NHL-caliber players. The bigger issue is whether or not they have the right players for their system and if they fill their team's needs. If you're running a team, you would want your defense corps to consist of at least 3-4 players who are capable of playing at least 20 minutes a game and being matched up against other team's top lines. In addition to that, you want a minimum of four players who can be used on the powerplay and penalty kill to fill out both special teams units. Do the Hurricanes have these pieces?
The answer to that question depends on how you feel about the players on the roster right now. Obviously we know that Tim Gleason is capable of playing in the top four and handling tough minutes but everyone after that is an uncertainty. Both Justin Faulk and Jay Harrison played tough minutes last year but that was the first season either of them had playing such minutes, and Faulk is still only 20 years old. Joe Corvo played the toughs for Carolina in 2010-11 but was used as a third-pairing defenseman in Boston last season, Joni Pitkanen can play big minutes but his territorial play against opposing team's first lines has never been the best and Jamie McBain has spent most of his NHL career in more of a sheltered role. Then there is Bobby Sanguinetti and Ryan Murphy who probably aren't going to be playing top-four minutes unless they really impress the coaching staff in training camp.
After reviewing this a little, it can be determined that the Canes have plenty of guys with experience playing in the top-four but they haven't exactly performed at a level that would put them in that class on a contending team. That being said, a healthy season from Pitkanen and progressions from the likes of Faulk and McBain could definitely change things for the better. Faulk's terrific performance with the Charlotte Checkers during the lockout could be an indication of great things to come for him, but we will have to see how his NHL development goes once the season resumes. McBain, on the other hand, is a borderline top-four guy right now who hasn't shown the ability to play against tough competition aside from a couple of occasions. McBain's performance in the NHL has been good for a third-pairing defenseman and he is capable of playing 20+ minutes a game thanks to his time with Pitkanen but those two were one of the worst Carolina defense pairings last year in terms of creating and preventing scoring chances. A new defense partner could be in order for McBain to determine if he is suitable for a top-four role full-time. Until then, Harrison showed last year that he is good enough to hold the fort down but I am personally not sold on him being a long-term solution just yet.
With the team having only one assured shutdown defenseman, it's very likely that we could see the defense pairings used much differently than what fans were used to seeing last year. Since there is no Gleason/Allen pairing who will automatically get the tough assignments every night, things are going to be much more spread out than they were last year. This means that the defense pairings could end up being shifted around a few times before the coaching staff settles on a few that they like. It could be even more with training camp being even shorter than usual. Predictions don't really mean much right now, but if I were running the Hurricanes defense, this is how I would roll the defense corps to start the year.
Tim Gleason – Joni Pitkanen
Assignments: Opposing team's top lines, 20+ minutes a game, <50% offensive zone starts
The success of this pairing is all going to depend on whether or not Pitkanen can stay healthy and if his play doesn't drop off too dramatically from where it was last year. This is a bit of an interesting pairing because Gleason isn't going to be with a pure defensive defenseman like he was for most of last year and I think that might actually work out well. Pitkanen provides a good compliment to Gleason and can really help him when it comes to leading breakouts and getting the puck moving in the right direction. The one flaw with the Gleason/Allen pairing last year was Allen's struggles with advancing the puck out of the defensive zone, leading to these two getting pinned in their own end more times than not. Having a more offensive-minded partner will help out Gleason, who is more mobile than some give him credit for. The one question mark that comes with this pairing is whether or not Pitkanen can handle playing against tough competition. He plays enough minutes every night to be on the first pairing but everyone knows Pitkanen has trouble when it comes to coverage in the defensive zone. Gleason may be able to help him out here moreso than McBain, so I think this pairing is worth a shot.
Justin Faulk – Jay Harrison
Assignments: Second and third lines, at least 20 minutes per game, 50% offensive zone starts
Faulk will probably be elevated to the first pairing sometime this year, but starting him with Harrison again isn't a bad idea. These two were the Hurricanes best defense pairing last year at creating and preventing scoring chances and showed some great chemistry when playing together. They also compliment each other well with Harrison's more responsible game covering up some of Faulk's aggressive plays. Faulk's defensive game is also very impressive considering his age, so it wouldn't surprise me if he is bumped up with Gleason in due time but starting him with Harrison should be fine for now. The two of them know how to work together and the Hurricanes might be better off not messing with a good thing.
Jamie McBain – Joe Corvo/Bobby Sanguinetti
Assignments: Depth lines, 12-15 minutes a game, >50% offensive zone starts
I'm a little higher on McBain than most people and I think he can play in the top-four if needed, but starting him off on the third pairing is probably the right move for now because he has been able to succeed there in the past. He will likely get a shot in the top-four sometime later in the year, though. Pairing him with a skilled offensive-defenseman like Corvo in a sheltered role could turn out to be a very good plan after how well McBain played with Jaroslav Spacek last year. The other two pairings are going to eat up most of the tough minutes, so this allows the Canes to have a sheltered third unit and it also helps that the Canes have two players who can thrive in this playing situation. I know GM Jim Rutherford signed Corvo to play with Gleason as he did in the past, but I have my doubts about him being able to play in a tough-minute role. A third-pairing defenseman (and a solid one at that) is what he was in Boston and it's probably what he is at this point in his career. Bobby Sanguinetti will probably make the team as a seventh defenseman and play in a similar role.