I think most would agree that the Hurricanes have not been a great defensive team this year. They rank towards the bottom of the league in shots against, penalty killing and seem to get involved in run-and-gun style games almost every other night. This makes for some very exciting hockey but it can drive fans insane at times because blown coverages and defensive mistakes are going to happen when you play a very open style. Yet, the Hurricanes have managed to win games despite this and have been controlling the play at even strength when the game is close.
There is always the concern of whether or not this type of hockey can succeed in the playoffs, as many of the recent Stanley Cup champions such as the Los Angeles Kings and Chicago Blackhawks featured terrific defenses. I'm sure that many would love for the Hurricanes defense to play like that but it isn't feasible right now. They don't have top-end talents like Duncan Keith, Brent Seabrook or Drew Doughty to anchor their defense corps, at least not yet, so the most they can do is make the best of what they currently have.
That doesn't mean the Hurricanes are doomed in the long run, though because there have been some less-than-stellar defensive teams who have gone the distance even with less than stellar defenses. The Boston Bruins and Pittsburgh Penguins being good recent examples of that. Adding to that, the Hurricanes are a team that's been producing a lot of shots every night, as well so they are capable of driving the play and being a net positive team in terms of puck possession. A reason for this is because they have quite a few top-end forwards up front and no shortage of capable puck-moving defensemen on their blue-line.
The old phrase in sports is that "defense wins championships" but having a good offense is just as important in today's NHL. Having a good defense and goaltending is obviously critical to winning, but the impact of a good offense is something that's often understated. You don't need to be a major in statistics to understand that teams who have the puck more often than their opponents are likely to score more while yielding fewer shots and thus, winning more games. This isn't the case all the time since even good possession teams can flounder if they have terrible goaltending, but clubs towards the top of the standings are normally ones who are stronger at controlling the shot battle at even strength.
This is where having forwards who can drive the play forward come in handy. Players like Eric Staal, Alexander Semin, Jordan Staal and Jeff Skinner. The Staal brothers might be the only ones of this group who receive credit for their two-way play, but Skinner and Semin have just as big of an impact in regards to the Hurricanes territorial play. The Hurricanes produce more scoring chances per 60 minutes when Skinner is on the ice than anyone else and our earlier look at zone entries showed that he gets the puck into the offensive zone more often than any other player. He is also doing this while playing on a line with Jordan Staal, which not only means that the Canes have possession of the puck when they are on the ice, it means that the opposing team's top lines are stuck in their own end, too.
That limits the impact of the other team's top forwards and puts them at a disadvantage. Skinner is prone to slip ups in coverage when his own zone, but he doesn't need to defend for over 50% of the time he is on the ice, which mitigates his flaws and means he is doing more good than harm. The first line has a similar effect, but they've also received a zone start push from the coaching staff and aren't relied on to drive the play as much as Jordan Staal & Jeff Skinner. This is why not having Skinner for five games hurt the team a lot.
Another player whose absence is felt for similar reasons is Joni Pitkanen. Offensive defensemen are often somewhat underrated for this reason. They might never take a shift on the PK and are prone to some terrible mistakes, but if they are effective at driving the play forward it means that their defensive shortcomings do not matter as much and they are doing a lot of help for their team as a whole. We've seen Erik Karlsson have this effect on the Senators for the last couple of years and players like Lubomir Visnovsky have also made a similar impact on their teams. Pitkanen isn't in the same class as Karlsson, but his strengths as an offensive player have had a great impact on the Hurricanes over the years and that has been especially true this season.
Having a defenseman capable of driving the play adds another demension to a team's offensive attack and it's especially helpful if said defenseman is a good puck-handler because that gives the opposing defense much more to worry about. If you look at the zone entry article linked earlier, you'll see that Pitkanen is, by far, Carolina's best defenseman in regards to neutral zone play and that's one of the reasons the Hurricanes are a better team when he is healthy.
Another area where defensemen like Pitkanen help out is exciting the zone. I've lost count of the number of times that a team has failed to generate much offense because their defensemen can't move the puck forward at all, which is why having players capable of doing this is important.
These are the Hurricanes 5v5 zone exit numbers which I have been tracking all season. What I've done is counted every time a Carolina player touched the puck in an attempt to exit the zone, noted if they were able to successfully advance the puck (whether it was via carry, pass or by other means), turned it over or iced it. I haven't been able to link this to a team's ability to drive the play forward, but I think most hockey fans will tell you that the ability to get the puck out of the zone is very important, especially with defensemen, so this is worth looking at.
You can see that Pitkanen is the best defensemen on the Hurricanes at advancing the puck during 5v5 play but another player who has also been very good at doing this is Joe Corvo and he is probably one of the most under-appreciated players on the team. I'm pretty sure that there was an audible groan from the Hurricanes fanbase when Jim Rutherford decided to bring Corvo back to Carolina for a third tour of duty and while he is far from an ideal replacement for Bryan Allen, one thing that he is able to do is get the puck moving in the right direction. It's something that he has been great at doing over most of his career and it's really helped this season since Bobby Sanguinetti's play has come along slower than most were hoping.
In the 150+ games I have tracked, the average zone exit advance rate for defensemen is about 22%, so both Corvo and Pitkanen are performing at an above average level when it comes to getting the puck out. Corvo is doing this while playing fewer minutes and easier opponents than Pitkanen, but he is still playing his role fine and he has actually been a lot better than expected.
There are going to be many claims that the Hurricanes need to "tighten up" defensively in order to go anywhere in the playoffs and while that's a valid complaint, Carolina isn't going to become a great defensive team with the roster they have now. Adding a defenseman at the trade deadline isn't going to completely fix everything either and you can even make the argument that adding a shutdown defenseman here would be trying to fit a square peg into a round hole. Fortunately, Kirk Muller has been able to adapt to this team's strengths and has put together a squad that's pretty good at controlling puck possession, which is what usually leads to more wins. The only problem is that this strategy isn't as effective when Pitkanen is out of the lineup and his return can not come soon enough.