After doing a quick survey of Hurricanes fans, it's pretty clear that the number one concern for the team this off-season is improving the defense, and rightfully so because the Hurricanes blue-line had a ton of issues. They were one of the worst teams in the NHL at preventing shots on goal during 5v5 play, had an atrocious penalty kill and constantly gave up odd-man rushes and scoring chances on almost a nightly basis. To make things worse, their defense corps was constantly banged up throughout the year and they ended up going through 12 defensemen over 48 games. The Hurricanes came into this season with a defense that could be fine if they all stayed healthy and played to their full potential. Unfortunately, Murphy's Law was in full effect last season and just about everything awry.
So, how do the Hurricanes go about fixing their defense? Personally, I think it relates both to the team's system and their personnel since Kirk Muller runs an umtempo system where slower, stay-at-home defensemen would be less effective than they would be in a more conservative system, but I think most would agree that the Canes blue-line corps could use some shoring up. The only true "shutdown" defenseman they have is Tim Gleason and he is surrounded by guys who are either more known for their offensive skillset or are guys who would be third-pairing defensemen on contending teams. That definitely needs to change in the next few years if the Canes are going to get back to the playoffs.
Before we go about discussing how to "fix" the Canes defense, we're going to take a look at the odds and ends of their defense corps from the past year. Observing how Muller used each player and how they performed in their minutes will give us a better idea of where everyone stands and what areas needs to be worked on specifically. It should also give us a clue of which players stand out in the defense corps and which ones need to go.
I'll be breaking down this in a few different areas. First, I'll show how Muller divvied up the ice time among his blue-liners throughout the year to see who he favored and if there were any changes over time. After that, I'll show which defensemen constantly got the tough assignments and how that changed throughout the season and then finally, we will look at how each player performed in those situations. It will a way to provide context to the numbers that I have been reviewing for most of the season and give us a better idea of the state of this defense corps.
So who is the star of the Hurricanes defense and who are the ones dragging things down? We'll find out after the jump.
Here is how the ice-time has been distributed among Carolina's regular defensemen throughout the season.
This is a little hard to read because of all the jumbled lines, so I'll help break things down. Justin Faulk was basically the only defenseman to play a ton of minutes all season. He's the only player here whose average ice-time stayed above 17 minutes for the entire season and he didn't miss a beat even after coming back from an injury. Faulk was regularly the team's leader in even strength ice-time on most nights so this doesn't surprise me.
Most of the other defensemen had their even strength minutes shifted around throughout season. Joni Pitkanen played a lot at the beginning of the year, but saw his minutes get reduced after his first injury, was eased back into action and then got hurt again. Tim Gleason's slowly increased after the first ten games but they were reduced down the stretch, possibly because he was playing with an injury. Jay Harrison's ice time went in a similar pattern, only he played a lot more minutes than the rest of the pack during certain parts of the year. Harrison's ice time is a little surprising to me because I didn't know he was playing this much. There were a lot of nights where he led the team in time on ice at even strength and was playing first-pairing minutes. Injuries played a role in this since he was initially on the third-pairing opening night but as time went on, he played more minutes and was essentially a top-four defenseman for the Canes.
Joe Corvo started off playing third-pairing minutes and was then trusted with more ice time as the year went on. He stayed in the 15-17 minutes range for most of the season, which is what Jamie McBain was also regularly trusted with until the last 10-15 games or so. The only player who was really limited throughout the season was Bobby Sanguinetti, as Muller didn't really use him that much and rarely played him over 15 minutes per game at even strength. He is a UFA this off-season, so I'm interested to see what the Hurricanes do with him.
Late-season addition Marc-Andre Bergeron was thrusted into action for the Hurricanes, as he played a lot of minutes at even strength in his first few games. Muller then strictly reduced his ice-time and basically only used him in powerplay situations. There was one game where he seriously played only two minutes at even strength while playing six on the powerplay. Seems like Muller found out the hard way what Bergeron's limitations are since the powerplay is basically the only area where he can help. However, Bergeron played more minutes in the last couple of games when Carolina without a couple defensemen.
You may remember a graph I posted two months ago showing which defensemen spent most of their games matched up against opposing team's first lines. Basically, it indicated that Justin Faulk played tougher minutes than anyone else in the defense corps by a mile. Two months later, this statement is still true.
Justin Faulk is the back-bone of the entire defense corps. He was matched up against the opponent's first line in all but six of his games and had to take on some tough territorial assignments on top of that. The fact that he is taking on this kind of workload in his early-20's is amazing and gives the Hurricanes defense some hope for the future. However, this also shows why the team's defense crumbled after he got hurt.
When Faulk was out of teh lineup, someone had to take over the tough minutes that he played, and no one on the team was doing that on a regular basis except for Tim Gleason. Sure, others like Corvo, Pitkanen and Harrison had experience against the toughs, but their workload was nothing compared to what Faulk had to deal with.
The graph here also shows which defensemen Muller trusted in different situations. Faulk & Gleason were his go-to players for tough-minutes. Pitkanen & Corvo mainly played against other team's second lines while Sanguinetti, Bergeron & McBain were used against other team's depth forwards. Although, McBain saw some time against other team's second lines, presumably when he played with Pitkanen. Harrison is a little more unique because his matchups were spread out amongst all four lines. It probably relates to injuries and whoever his partner was because he started the year off on the third-pairing, but played a lot of minutes with Faulk and likely got the tough assignments on those nights.
So we know that Faulk and Gleason played the majority of the tough minutes, but who took over for these players while they were injured? To find that out, we're going to look at how the team's matchups changed over the course of the year. I wasn't sure how to illustrate this, but what I ended up doing was going through each game, noted which line every defenseman was primarily assigned to play against and created a timeline out of it. The lower the defenseman's line is on the graph, the tougher competition he faced.
We know that Faulk & Gleason consistently played tough minutes for the entire season, but Corvo & Harrison were also used in those situations for sizable parts of the year. You can see here that they started off getting protected minutes but slowly began to play against tougher competition as the season went on and were both given shutdown duty on certain nights, likely in games where Faulk and Gleason were injured.
Pitkanen was also used against opposing team's first lines for a few games but he was used against second & third lines for the majority of the year. McBain was also protected for a good chunk of the season and only played against top lines when the Canes were on the road or when he was paired with Joni Pitkanen. Sanguinetti was the only defenseman to be used in sheltered minutes for the entire season as he was matched up against third and fourth lines in basically every game he played in. That's what you expect from him since he's a third-pairing defenseman, but I do find it a little surprising that he wasn't promoted at some point since basically every other blue-liner got a chance to play big minutes.
As for the fringe guys (Bellemore, Bergeron, Jordan), they were mainly used against depth lines and nothing more. Bellemore is the only exception since he got to play a couple of games in higher leverage situations but that was it. Bergeron also played one game against tough competition but was then kept away from the opposing team's best players at all costs.
Now it's time to see how each player performed in these minutes. To do this, I'll be looking at their cumulative Fenwick percentage after every game to show how good or bad they were at keeping the puck out of their own end. It's important to remember context when looking at these numbers, because it's easier for a player like Sanguinetti to control possession while playing protected minutes than it is for someone like Faulk or Gleason, who were constantly fighting an uphill battle and being used against opposing team's top lines.
So how did each defenseman fare in their playing situations?
Some good news here is that no Carolina defensemen was shelled at even strength this year, some struggled to keep over 50% of the shot attempts out of their own end, but no one was abysmal in terms of puck-possession. However, there are some players that could have been a lot better when you take their playing situation into account. Jamie McBain is probably the biggest standout here. He played in sheltered minutes for most of the year and was barely braking even and whenever he was trusted with more defensive responsibility, his underlying numbers plummeted. The only times he played well were when he was on the third-pairing and kept away from opposing team's first lines. Hence why his numbers came back up near the end of the season when Faulk returned to the lineup.
Harrison had similar problems throughout the year. He started off the year getting protected minutes and seemed to thrive in that setting, but he began to struggle once he was given a bigger workload. He had a bit of a rough stretch that lasted around 10 games and snapped out of it once he was returned to secondary duty. I tend to think that Harrison was a bit over his head when he was playing first-pairing minutes and fits more as a third-pairing defenseman and these numbers confirm that, somewhat, Harrison's versatility is something I value a lot but he has his limitations and probably shouldn't be used against the toughs on a regular basis.
As far as the team's tough-minute defensemen go, both Gleason & Faulk were both playing at an amazing level to start the year but got worse as the season went on. Part of the reason for this is because the level they were playing at earlier in the year was unsustainable (a shutdown pairing with those numbers is absurd), but both were battling injuries, too. Gleason was playing with a broken foot for part of the season, so his performance suffering probably isn't a surprise. Faulk's play also worsened after he returned from a knee injury late in the season but he seemed to do a better job at keeping his head above water than Gleason. He finished the year with a Fenwick percentage above 50%, which is very impressive considering the minutes and workload he was taking on. I think the Hurricanes have themselves a very solid shutdown defense pairing with Faulk & Gleason since both were terrific for the first half of the season, but Gleason's decline in the second half is concerning even if injuries were the reason for it.
Another player who experienced a second half decline is Joe Corvo and he got progressively worse with every game. I mentioned earlier that he was shifted from third-pairing duty to a secondary tough-minute role and it's pretty obvious that it negatively impacted his performance. His body of work for the entire season was good and I think Corvo takes more criticism than he deserves, but the problem with him is that he is a third-pairing defenseman and the Hurricanes had too many of those on the roster as it is. I would prefer if they didn't bring him back next season since the Hurricanes have other needs.
When healthy, Joni Pitkanen was solid this year. He wasn't being asked to play tough-minutes, but his ability to control puck-possession proved to be extremely valuable even on the second pairing. Unfortunately, injuries derailed his season. His level of play declined after returning from his first injury and then we all know what happened to him after that. A healthy Pitkanen is critical to this team's success and it sounds like he should be back in time for training camp, which is good news but the Hurricanes are going to need a back-up plan for him. Pitkanen's durability is just too much of a question mark and who knows what kind of playing shape he will be in after recovering from a broken heel-bone. It would serve the Hurricanes well to find another player like Pitkanen because his contract expires after next year they have found out numerous times just how difficult it is to replace him.
A player whose contract expires this season is Bobby Sanguinetti and I'm torn on what the Hurricanes should do with him. He started the year off very poorly but got better over time and eventually became very strong at controlling puck-possession. He was playing protected minutes, but still put up some very impressive numbers. I like Sanguinetti and would prefer him over the team over McBain, but he has yet to show that he can be anything more than a third-pairing defenseman and I don't know if the Hurricanes need another one of them, especially with Ryan Murphy possibly coming up to the team next year.
After going over everyone's performance from the past year, it's pretty clear to see that Faulk was the star of the defense and took an enormous step forward from his rookie season. At only 21 years old, he is already a top-four defenseman capable of shutting down the opposing team's best forwards. Who do they have around him, though?
Gleason provides the Hurricanes with another shutdown defenseman to compliment Faulk and I think he should be able to stay in the top-four for at least next season. He struggled in the second half of the season, but was playing through a bad injury and was playing at a very high quality earlier in the year. Pitkanen is also a top-four defenseman when he is healthy, but I've already talked about why his health is a major concern. Outside of these three, however, Carolina's defense didn't have much that stood out and therein lies the problem.
Everyone likes to single out one player as the problem, but the main problem with Carolina's defense is that they went into the year with three defensemen capable of playing tough-minutes and four depth pieces. It's possible that they could have done more, but Harrison, Corvo, McBain & Sanguinetti were not sure things as top-four options and each of them were put into those roles once Pitkanen, Gleason & Faulk got hurt separately. The overall numbers from McBain, Corvo & Harrison weren't bad, but notice how they each trended downward once they were trusted with more defensive responsibility. It's a decline that a lot of fans could have predicted but hoped wouldn't happen.
This is exactly why you do not plan for the best case scenario when running a team. The Canes have pieces to build around on defense in Faulk, Gleason & Murphy along with a couple of players they can trust on the third-pairing, but need to add another tough-minute defenseman to the fold this off-season to help round out the top-four. They have to be careful with this approach, though because adding another shudown defenseman isn't going to magically fix the Hurricanes problems if he is a liability at even strength & can't do anything with the puck. Rebuilding a defense isn't easy and the Hurricanes are currently stuck in a painful transitional period where they are finding out what does and doesn't work and a lot of what the Canes have tried hasn't worked out so far.
There isn't a lot they can do to strengthen the defense through free agency this off-season, so the front office is going to have to think outside of the box a little. Canes fans just have to hope that the team doesn't place a lot of hope in unsure options like they did this off-season because we know how bad things can turn out when plans go awry.