Fixing the third defense pair

Poor depth has been the root of a lot of the Hurricanes problems this year and a major one has been finding a consistent third defense pairing. The blue line was a major concern for this team coming into the season but the third pairing wasn't supposed to be a problem. If anything, a problem last year was that the Hurricanes had "too many" third pairing guys and not enough who could play 20+ minutes a night against other team's top lines. With the additions of Andrej Sekera, Ron Hainsey and Brett Bellemore playing his way into the lineup, one would think that the Hurricanes had enough players to fill out a serviceable third defense pairing and they certainly did on paper.

When you think of a fifth, sixth and seventh defenseman, not much is expected of them. At most, they need to play 13-15 minutes a night and aren't going to get heavy assignments unless an injury happens. You'll see a variety of defensemen playing this role (power play/penalty kill specialist, AHL call-ups, etc.) but the expectations for them are the same. They just need to not get destroyed against other team's depth lines in the 13-15 minutes they are out there. Jaroslav Spacek did this well during his brief time with the Canes and so did Jay Harrison for a couple of years before he was elevated to a bigger role. Between the players listed along with Tim Gleason, Jay Harrison, Ryan Murphy and Mike Komisarek, the Hurricanes had enough players who could fill this role and be at least okay at it, but that hasn't been the case at all.

Just about every combination the Hurricanes have tried on the third pairing this year has been destroyed at even strength and it's very frustrating to see. The team's bad forward depth probably contributes to this problem, seeing how the third and fourth lines are usually out there along with the third defense pairing, but the play of the defensemen has also been a problem. Both Gleason & Harrison have seen their performances decline this year and the former was just traded while Ryan Murphy has struggled and Mike Komisarek has played an extremely limited role.

The Canes need their depth to be better and fixing the third defense pairing will go a long way towards helping that. We'll talk about some possible solutions after the jump.

One solution to help the Canes depth problem is to trade for a top four defenseman, ideally a #4 guy to play with Ron Hainsey, but the first two defense pairings really have not been that big of a problem this year. Sure, it would be great to have someone like Brett Bellemore on the third pairing but he really hasn't been bad at all, at least going by the numbers. Both him and Ron Hainsey have been getting tough assignments and are easily the Hurricanes best defense pairing in terms of shot suppression.

Player  TOI GF/60 GA/60 CF/60 CA/60 Shot Diff/60
Ron Hainsey 739.2 1.46 2.03 57.31 51.87 5.44
Andrej Sekera 700.7 2.48 2.74 60.71 58.66 2.06
Justin Faulk 757.2 2.54 2.93 59.75 58.08 1.66
Brett Bellemore 493.6 1.09 1.70 55.67 55.31 0.36
Ryan Murphy 544.5 1.65 1.98 58.40 61.38 -2.98
Mike Komisarek 133.3 1.80 2.25 52.21 54.91 -2.70
Jay Harrison 453 2.38 1.99 55.10 63.05 -7.95

When you take their usage into account, they look even more impressive.

Bellemore starts more of his 5v5 shifts (after a whistle) in the defensive zone than any other defenseman, faces top-six forwards and the Hurricanes somehow manage to outshoot their opposition when he (and Hainsey) are on the ice. He has also been on the ice for a low number of goals despite the heavy assignments, so I am in favor of keeping him in the top four for the time being. He may not be perfect (mostly because he produces virtually no offense) but Bellemore is the closest thing to a #4 defenseman the Canes have on their roster right now outside of Sekera, Faulk & Hainsey.

So, that leaves the Canes with four defensemen to fill in two spots and neither of the options are attractive. Jay Harrison is currently working his way back from an injury but his body of work this year has been brutal to say the very least. The Canes have been outshot at an alarmingly high rate when he is on the ice and m most of that is coming against depth lines. Harrison hasn't been burned for it because the Canes have also seen some great goaltending when he is on the ice (that and he is rarely out against the opposition's best), but the Canes can't have their third pairing getting creamed territorially for 11-12 minutes a game.

After him you have Ryan Murphy, who is easily the best skater on the defense corps but his defensive play has been only slightly better than Harrison's, which isn't a good thing. To add to that, Murphy hasn't been adding much to the team's territorial game and the Hurricanes are getting pinned into their own zone a lot when he is on the ice.

Sadly, the best defensive option here is Komisarek, who has been on the ice for fewer shot attempts than both Harrison & Murphy. Still, Komi has a limited skillset and he has only been trusted with extremely sheltered assignments. He has played over 15 minutes in only three games this year and has been held under 10 minutes in five games. Komisarek will still draw into the lineup every now and then, but he probably isn't going to be a regular part of the blue-line.

Then that leaves John-Michael Liles, who could end up being a regular but he could also end up being more a specialist used to help the power play and nothing more. He hasn't been an NHL regular while and has played only three games with the Canes this year, so there isn't much known about him but what we do know from past seasons is that he put up points and was a decent possession player on some bad teams. If he continues to play at that level, then he could help Carolina solve their third-pairing dilemma.

For his first few games in a Carolina sweater, Liles has been paired with Murphy and many have been against this idea. I understand the concern because putting two offensive defensemen together can always been an adventure. It's a high-risk/high reward strategy because Liles/Murphy have the potential to put up a lot of points and dominate in the offensive zone but they are also prone to mistakes. This comes with the territory when you have two guys who like to handle the puck a lot and neither are the best when it comes to playing in their own zone either. A defense pairing featuring these two may need extreme sheltering to stay afloat at even strength.

On the other hand, I see the advantages of a Murphy/Liles duo. Yes, they are going to make mistakes and turn the puck over but the offensive upside they can bring is hard to ignore. The Hurricanes defense corps has had major issues with cleanly getting the puck out of their zone and leading breakouts. Murphy has not been part of this problem and it's part of the reason why I want him to stay in the lineup. Despite his bad possession stats, Murphy has actually been the Hurricanes best defenseman when it comes to leading breakouts and LIles' early performance with the team has been promising.  Use the two together and the Canes have themselves a defense pairing that can at least not get trapped in their own end for 60% of the time they are on the ice.

Player Touches Success% Turnover% Icing% Possession%
Ryan Murphy 567 33.3% 8.1% 1.2% 30.7%
John-Michael Liles 33 27.3% 6.1% 3.0% 27.3%
Andrej Sekera 771 27.4% 6.7% 2.7% 23.1%
Justin Faulk 843 26.00% 5.20% 2.70% 22.50%
Ron Hainsey 751 27.3% 6.3% 3.5% 22.0%
Tim Gleason 215 18.6% 6.5% 3.3% 14.4%
Brett Bellemore 469 17.3% 8.3% 4.3% 13.9%
Jay Harrison 466 17.60% 9.90% 2.80% 13.30%
Mike Komisarek 116 13.8% 12.9% 0.9% 11.2%

Breakouts and zone exits are an under-appreciated part of the game and this is especially true for offensive defensemen. Do they turn the puck over every now and then? Yes. Do they make mistakes that sometimes make fans want to pull their hair out? Absolutely, but the positive things they do often go unnoticed when they aren't putting up points. For Murphy, my hope for him this year was that his defensive shortcomings could be mitigated by the fact that the Canes always had the puck whenever he is out there. So far, that hasn't happened but Murphy's bad shot metrics may not necessarily be his fault.

I won't deny that Murphy's had a some bad games (most notably the one against Pittsburgh), but in my opinion, his individual play hasn't been that awful. He has been excellent at breakouts and hasn't turned the puck over that much relative to how often he handles it. Murphy has also been decent away from the puck and hasn't let his size prevent him from playing a physical game against bigger forwards. He still has problems with coverage in his own zone, but I wouldn't say that he has been completely abhorrent defensively. If this is the case, then why are his shot differential numbers always so terrible?

Personally, I think some of it relates to his partner. For most of the year, Murphy has skated alongside Jay Harrison at even strength and the two have been eaten up by opposing team's depth lines. However, if you look at how Murphy's done away from Harrison, you might be surprised. With Harrision, the Hurricanes have controlled only 46.1% of the 5v5 shot attempts. When Murphy has been on the ice with another defense partner, the Canes have controlled 50.8% of the 5v5 shot attempts. That could be a lot better with Murphy getting the soft assignments, but it's still a major improvement over the Canes other third pairing combos.

I don't want to pin all of Murphy's struggles on playing with Harrison, but the two have not mixed this year and I have a hard time believing that Murphy going by both the eye-test and the data. Harrison has not been much better away from Murphy and he is one of the Canes worst defensemen at leading zone exits. To add to that, Murphy is an offensive defenseman and as such, he has a tendency to roam all over the ice. Mistakes are giong to happen and when he has a slip up, Harrison hasn't been able to cover for him. He has never been the best skater and looks even slower this year, so that's only added to the problems. It's a mutual struggle, as Murphy's had to cover up for plenty of Harrison's mistakes too, but his skating has allowed him to get back and break up plays when this happens.

There are a lot of people who think that you "have" to pair an offensive-minded defensmen with more of a "shutdown guy" to off-set things, but both defensemen have to handle the puck and if this "shutdown defenseman" can't skate or advance the play, then there are going to be problems. The Hurricanes have tried to do this with Murphy and the numbers show that it hasn't worked out at all. This is why I think giving him and Liles a few more games may not be a bad idea. They're probably going to make mistakes and drive fans crazy but if they can control puck possession and/or produce points, their upside might outweigh their negatives. It's a risky proposition, but nothing else the Canes have tried on the third pair has worked out well so giving Liles/Murphy a few more games can't hurt.

Stats courtesy of Extra Skater