Carolina fans should know this well but it takes a lot of trial and error to get the right line combos and defense pairings. Some trios click instantly (see the first line Tlusty-E.Staal-Semin) while others take more time to gel (see almost every bottom-six unit). This was especially the case last season with the team cycling through so many different players and they were basically playing musical chairs with the wing spots on lines 2-4. Still, the Canes should have two solid units going for them at even strength if the roster stays as it is come opening night.
The defense pairings, however, are another story. Those seemed to be in a constant state of experimentation throughout he year and the coaching staff could not seem to settle on three solid units. This isn't completely their fault because the Canes had a couple of new players entering the fold and had no training camp to work them in. On top of that, they had a ton of injuries, so that's going to lead to the defense pairings getting jumbled around more than a little bit. This process won't get much easier for them next season because they enter the year in a similar situation in terms of personnel.
The team's core defensemen are returning (Faulk, Pitkanen, Gleason & Harrison), but there will be two new players added in Andrej Sekera and Mike Komisarek. There could be even more new blood on the roster depending on how Brett Bellemore and Ryan Murphy look during camp. Either way, it will likely take a few games for the Hurricanes to settle on some defense pairings next season because injuries prevented a lot of guys from developing chemistry last year and they ended up using 16 different pairings, which is a high amount for a condensed season.
This is where having a full training camp and some pre-season games can come in handy because it will give some time for the new players to settle into the roster instead of just throwing them into the fire like last year. It was pretty easy to tell that some players looked out of place earlier in the year based on the mistakes they were making and it took them a few weeks to find their legs, Joe Corvo & Bobby Sanguinetti being two key examples. There should be less of that this year, but there will likely be some experimenting with the defense pairings until the coaching staff finds three units that they want to settle on.
When drawing up defense pairings, you also have to consideration what roles they will play. You want your first pairing to be able to play at least 20 minutes a game and play against other team's first or second lines while your second pairing will play a little less than that. One of these is going to be designated the "shutdown" or "tough minutes" pair and get the majority of the heavy assignments against the opposition's best forwards. Some teams rely on their top pairing a lot more than others (see the New York Rangers), but it's better to have defensive depth and not put a ton of strain on two players.
After that, you have the third pairing, which should play about 13-15 minutes a game and be able to not get destroyed against other team's depth lines. Coaches are usually flexible with what they want their third pairing to do but in the end, they need to be able to hold their own against lesser competition.
Do the Hurricanes have the personnel on defense to role all three units like this? If Joni Pitkanen stays healthy and Sekera can play as well as he did in Buffalo then yes. How should they be organized, though? Right now, that's tough to say because so much can change over the next couple of months, but looking at how each of the defense pairings performed last year will give us an idea of what the Hurricanes can do with their defense.
Thanks to the fine folks at Hockey Analysis, we can look at how each defense pairing performed in terms of how good they were at keeping the puck out of their own zone. The one downside is that their playing situations are not included, but it's fairly easy how each defense pairing was utilized based on which players were used. For instance, any pairing with Justin Faulk or Tim Gleason was getting top-four minutes and being used against tough competition, while every defense pairing with Bobby Sanguinetti was getting third-pairing minutes. Knowing that, we should have a good idea of how each of these defense pairings performed in their roles.
The first thing that sticks out to me is that the Hurricanes were not short on good third-pairing defensemen last year. McBain, Corvo, Sanguinetti, Harrison, Bergeron, Bellemore and Jordan could all crush bottom-pair minutes without much of an issue. Things got dicey when they were asked to do more than that. McBain was underwater in possession whenever he was paired with Pitkanen or Gleason and Harrison didn't fare much better in a big-minute role. Corvo also saw his numbers take a tailspin when he had to play more minutes, although he and Gleason formed a serviceable second defense pairing.
The coaching staff seemed to love the Faulk/Harrison pairing but the underlying numbers suggest that they weren't terribly effective. However, they were much better defensively than Faulk & Gleason, who were getting torn up whenever they played together. They were getting the toughest minutes on the team, but the amount of shot attempts that they were on the ice for is concerning. This was a common trend for every pairing that Gleason was on, though. He consistently performed the worst defensively and it didn't matter who he was paired with.
Gleason has been the most relied on defensemen for the Hurricanes these past few years but his performance last year suggests that he was in over his head in a tough minute role. He was playing with a broken foot for most of the year and looked slower, so hopefully it was just the injury that was keeping him down. I'm not sure if he is up to top-pairing minutes, but he could be fine on the second pairing with Sekera if he returns to form. Sekera's had experience playing with different types of defensemen, so he shouldn't have that much trouble with being the main puck-mover here.
If the Hurricanes are looking for a top defense pairing, going with Pitkanen & Faulk may not be a horrible idea. These two didn't get to play together that much but they were extremely effective in limited action. My guess is that the team didn't want to put all of their eggs in one basket and have their two best defensemen on the same pairing. I understand that line of thinking, but I really think Pitkanen & Faulk can work well together.
As surprising as it is, Faulk is the team's best defensive defenseman and has had a lot of trouble with producing chances on a consistent basis. Pairing him with someone who can create offense and jump into the play on a regular basis could work out well. I would really like to see Faulk do more of this because he plays a very conservative game, but Pitkanen could also benefit from a more stable defense partner than McBain.
For some reason, the Carolina coaching staff has been obsessed with pairing Pitkanen & McBain and it has never worked out. As high-risk players, their styles did not combine well at all and it usually resulted in them being on the ice for a lot of chances against. Whether it was Pitkanen having to cover up McBain's mistakes or the other way around, they always seemed to be responsible for a lot of defensive breakdowns, especially when they were forced to play big minutes. This has been the case since 2010, if you can believe it.
Seperately, McBain & Pitkanen played very well but when they were paired together, they had a lot of issues. With McBain traded, Pitkanen could be in for an excellent season.
Giving Pitkanen a more defensively responsible partner could give him more freedom to jump into the play a little more frequently and not have to worry about miscues in his own zone as much. It might sound strange that this partner is the 21-year-old Faulk, but every pairing he was on gave up fewer shot attempts, so that speaks for itself. Pitkanen's health is obviously going to play a huge role in this, though.
As far as the third pairing goes, the Hurrianes should have one half of that covered with Jay Harrison but the other half is a bit of a mystery. McBain & Sanguinetti were both serviceable third-pairing guys and both are gone now, so they'll have to make do with Komisarek, Bellemore & Murphy. Not much is going to be asked of them, so there shouldn't be a ton to worry about but all three of these guys are unproven.
Komisarek hasn't been good in a few years, Bellemore has only seven total games played and Murphy is also very inexperienced. That being said, the Hurricanes were able to get decent results out of their third-pairing last year with unproven guys last year, so I think they should be fine. Third-pairing players are relatively easy and cheap to replace, so they could get the same out of Komisarek, Bellemore, Murphy or someone else.
The word on the Internet is that the Hurricanes are still not done looking for a defensemen, which might sound silly with them having possibly eight players compete for six spots, but it sort of makes sense. All good GMs prepare for the worst and when going over the Hurricanes defense, the feeling I get is that they'll be fine if everything goes according to plan. In an 82 game season, you have to be very lucky for that to happen, which is why contingency plans need to be put in place before heading forward. Luckily, the Canes have a little more time to add some more depth and improve their roster.