The key pieces of Carolina’s roster are all locked in and while this team looks considerably improved compared to last season, there is still a lot of concerns with the defense, and rightfully so. The Canes were one of the worst teams in the NHL last season when it came to team defense (shots allowed, penalty killing, etc.) and not much was done over the off-season to improve it. The only players who were brought in were Joe Corvo and Marc-Andre Gragnani, the latter is probably going to spend a lot of time in Charlotte or the press box. You can try to rationalize this all you want, but the fact remains that this is a weak looking defense corps on paper.
Yes, having Joni Pitkanen in the lineup for at least three-fourths of the season will help and we are all excited to see how Justin Faulk improves in his sophomore campaign but that alone isn’t enough to fix a defense that was in as bad of shape as the Hurricanes were last season. With Bryan Allen now in Anaheim, that leaves Tim Gleason alone to take on most of the tough assignments and someone is going to have to step into that role alongside him AND take on more penalty killing duties along with it. Can one of Corvo, Harrison, Faulk or McBain do that? Corvo is somewhat underrated defensively and played this kind of role in the past, but who knows if he can do it now? He’s 35 and was a healthy scratch for the Bruins during March of last season. Both Harrison and Faulk played in the top-four last season but didn’t carry the defensive workload that Gleason did. Harrison appears to be the more likely candidate to move into that role since Faulk will probably be trusted to supply more offense alongside Pitkanen. McBain had some success playing with Gleason last season but that came with a very small sample size and he is still a third pairing defenseman right now. In other words, there is a major hole on the defense and someone is going to need to over-acheive for it to be filled.
In addition to that, the Hurricanes are without a top-level defenseman right now and that kind of hurts them. Pitkanen and Gleason are great players, but I don’t think anyone would call them elite and Faulk still has some work to do before he’s in the conversation, too. The Blues, Kings, Red Wings, Bruins, Senators, Predators and many other teams know the benefits of having an elite defenseman at their arsenal because they can pair almost anyone with them and have somewhat of an effective pairing. It’s also great to have a reliable, top-end player to eat up around 25 minutes a game and take pressure off the rest of your defense corps. The Hurricanes don’t have that luxury right now, unfortunately.
The lack of an elite defenseman doesn’t mean that the Canes are completely hopeless on the blue-line, though because there have been plenty of solid defensive teams who didn’t have this luxury. The first of which that comes to mind is last season’s New Jersey Devils. The Devils were the third best team in the NHL at preventing shots at even strength last season were the fifth best team in the league at preventing shots on the penalty kill, as well. I think most hockey minds would say that the Devils were a great defensive team even though the names they have on their blue-line don’t blow you away. Their defense corps consisted of underrated players like Mark Fayne and Andy Greene, solid veterans such as Anton Volchenkov, Marek Zidlicky and Henrik Tallinder and an emerging star in Adam Larsson, who is in a similar category to Faulk. No one is going to say that the Devils have an elite defenseman at their disposal but this cast was more than good enough to get the job done when it came to preventing shots and chances against.
As a unit, this defense managed to be effective and it could be due to them complimenting each other well but another reason why the Devils were so good defensively is the play of their forwards. The Devils always have the reputation of being a strong team when it came to playing in their own end, and that was very true last season. Patrik Elias, Dainus Zubrus, Jacob Josefson, Adam Henrique, Zach Parise and even Petr Sykora were all very good at supressing shots from the opposing team and I have to think that the high number of defensively capable forwards the Devils had on their roster played a role in them being such a strong team at preventing shots despite not having an impressive blue-line on paper.
The Hurricanes should be aware of the Devils strategy from last season because having a lot of defensive and two-way forwards can make up for having a weak defense. The Canes may have some trouble employing this strategy, though because their forwards are nowhere near as good defensively as the Devils were last season. Just look at the amount of shots Carolina’s forwards were on ice for compared to New Jersey. That’s a pretty big difference to overcome, but adding Jordan Staal definitely helps matters since he is a terrific two-way player and should make the team a little better defensively.
Even with the addition of Staal, the Hurricanes are still probably going to give up a lot of shots because most of the forward corps isn’t that capable defensively outside of Patrick Dwyer, Andreas Nodl and Eric Staal. That isn’t going to be enough to drastically improve this team’s overall defense so it’s going to take some time before the Canes are a better team in their own end. There is another way to take pressure off the defense corps, though and that is to consistently have possession of the puck and make sure that the play is in the opponent’s end for the majority of the game. This strategy is much more feasible for the Hurricanes next season and it could lead to more success down the road.
Look at it this way, the Hurricanes have a lot of puck-moving defensemen right now and most of them are capable of driving possession, but their best assets are moving the puck through the neutral zone and creating chances, not blocking shots & being physical. Tim Gleason and Jay Harrison are the only exceptions to this. If you have forwards who can consistently hound the puck, be strong on the forecheck and keep the puck in the offensive zone, then that puts less pressure on the defensemen and they will spend less time stuck in their own end. This plays right into the strengths of players like Faulk, Pitkanen, McBain & Corvo and could lead to the Hurricanes having more success on a regular basis.
Do the Hurricanes have the forward to run this type of system, though? It’s possible. Both Staal brothers can create a lot of offense and are pretty strong when it comes to driving possession, so they provide a solid one-two punch down the middle for Carolina. The team’s other newest addition, Alexander Semin, will also play a huge role in running this type of system because he is a proven player when it comes to driving the play forward and can get a high number of shots on net. When he was with the Caps, the puck was usually in the opponent’s end when he was on the ice, so hopefully he can do the same thing for the Hurricanes. LaRose, Ruutu and Skinner are some other players who could help the Canes run this type of system and they might benefit from playing with someone like Jordan Staal since he can has been able to control possession more regularly than Jussi Jokinen. Corvo will also help the team out in this area because despite his defensive issues, one thing he has been good at throughout this career is being able to keep the puck in the offensive zone and create offense. That is going to come in handy, especially if Kirk Muller decides to shelter him.
Being able to win the shot battle and control possession at even strength is the way to go in today’s NHL and I think this is the type of approach the Hurricanes need to take next season if they want to reach the playoffs. They can’t force Cam Ward to win every game for them and they don’t have the right players to take a more conservative approach, so they are better off being the team that can overpower their opponents with a strong forecheck and constantly own the puck. I’m not sure how good they will be at playing this type of style but they don’t have a bad foundation for it. The key thing here is that the Canes defense is going through a transition phase right now and the rest of the team needs to do whatever it takes to take as much pressure off them as possible.