Is Carolina’s defense improved or just different?

For the Hurricanes, defense has been a major problem for years now and many have criticized GM Jim Rutherford for not doing anything to fix it. One could definitely make this argument for last season, as the Canes lost defensemen Bryan Allen & Jaroslav Spacek and the only player brought in from outside the organization was Joe Corvo. Carolina's front office elected to rebuild from within on defense and hope that some of the team's younger blue-liners could step into bigger roles. To say that this plan didn't work out is an understatement.

With the exception of Justin Faulk, most of the Canes young defensemen have struggled to find full-time roles in the NHL and those have made the jump have only managed to be nothing more than third pairing guys. The team has drafted heavy on defense in a lot of recent drafts but with their development not coming along as well as they hoped, Rutherford decided to be a little more active this off-season to help the team's defensive woes. It all started at the draft when they traded struggling blue-liner Jamie McBain to Buffalo for Andrej Sekera, who is probably the second best defenseman on the team right now. They also added Mike Komisarek and Ron Hainsey through free agency, which gives them more depth than they had last year.

Unfortunately, the Canes also endured a major setback when it was announced that Joni Pitkanen would miss the entire season and he alone will be tough to replace. When healthy, Pitkanen logs a lot of minutes and is a critical part of Carolina's neutral zone play, so even when you factor in the additions of Hainsey & Sekera, the team's defense corps still has room for improvement. That said, the team does have more options now and their defense underwent a major facelift this offseason. 

Justin Faulk, Jay Harrison & Tim Gleason are the only regular defenders from last year who will be returning and puck-movers such as Jamie McBain, Joe Corvo & Bobby Sanguinetti have been replaced by Ron Hainsey, & Mike Komisarek, who play more of a stay-at-home style. Given how bad the team's defense was last season, change is probably a good thing but it does beg the question. Is the Canes defense improved from where it was last year, or is it just a different look?

We'll find out after the jump.

Here's the defense corps that Carolina entered last season with:

Left Defense Right Defense
Joni Pitkanen Justin Faulk
Tim Gleason Joe Corvo
Jay Harrison Jamie McBain
  Bobby Sanguinetti

If all went according to plan, this defense could have been passable. If Joni Pitkanen stayed healthy, IF Joe Corvo didn't have to play the toughs, IF Jamie McBain continued to develop well, IF Jay Harrison stayed on the third pairing, IF Bobby Sanguinetti could carry over his success from the AHL etc. then the Canes defense might have been not terrible. As we all know by now, none of those things happen and the Hurricanes defense ended up being a dumpster fire by the end of the season. Just about everyone got hurt at some portion of the year, they had to make-due with playing guys like Harrison, McBain & Corvo on a lot of nights. Planning for the best case scenario is a poor way to run a team and the Hurricanes did just that by placing hope in uncertainties with their blue-line.

Sure, it would have been nice for McBain to finally become a top-four defenseman or for Joe Corvo to regain his form from a few years ago, but neither happened and it was predictable that this plan wouldn't work. There were some things that went wrong which were out of the front office's control, Faulk's injury being the kicker, but this was a team that didn't have a lot of depth on their blue-line and were in trouble if anyone got hurt for a significant period of time. Are things any different this year?

Left Defense Right Defense
Andrej Sekera Justin Faulk
Tim Gleason Ron Hainsey
Jay Harrison Mike Komisarek
  Ryan Murphy
  Brett Bellemore

The defense is still weak overall but the Canes do have more proven talent here now, at the very least. Sekera probably isn't a top-pairing guy on a contending team, but he has played big minutes for the Sabres the last few years and has drawn the toughs in the last two seasons. This should help a little, as Faulk & Gleason were teh Canes only tough-minute options last season. Hainsey is also capable of playing the toughs and logged around 20 minutes a night for the Jets last year. I'm not sure if the Canes will ask that out of him, but him playing second pairing minutes shouldn't be out of the question. He is more suited for this role than Corvo, who is a third pairing guy at best now. 

The depth concerns are still present, though. An injury to Sekera, Faulk or Hainsey will cause a major rift here and neither Murphy nor Bellemore are proven NHL defensemen, although both have impressed in training camp. Then there's Mike Komisarek, who was just bought by the Toronto Maple Leafs & was playing in the AHL for most of last season. Unless he can really turn his game around, the Canes are probably in trouble if he is forced into top-four minutes. Good seasons out of either Bellemore or Murphy will go a long way here, but depth remains a problem for the Hurricanes defense corps. 

That being said, I think the Canes top-four is stronger than what it was last year, which should help a lot. Do the numbers agree, though? 

Hurricanes 2012-13 Defense Corps

Player EV TOI/60 Corsi% CF/20 CA/20 DZ% P/60
Pitkanen 17.13 52.3% 19.99 18.25 27.1% 0.8
Faulk 17.75 49.4% 19 19.5 33.9% 0.98
Gleason 16.26 48.4% 19.44 20.72 34.1% 0.7
Harrison 16.79 50.4% 20.35 19.99 30.9% 0.61
Corvo 15.31 51.3% 21.14 20.04 28.1% 0.88
Bergeron 10.57 56.5% 21.96 16.89 17.8% 0.68
McBain 15.91 52.9% 21.46 19.13 26.7% 0.75
Sanguinetti 12.69 57.3% 23.27 17.35 25.4% 0.51
Average 15.30125 0.5231 20.83 18.98 0.28 0.739

The only real positive thing about last year's corps is that they created more offense than what they were giving up, and that's saying something because they gave up a lot of shots. The ability to control territorial play is a valuable, yet underrated quality in today's NHL and the Hurricanes were actually an okay team at doing that last season. They could bottle up teams in their own zone and wear them out by forcing them to play defense. This formula usually leads to success in a full season, but the problem with the Hurricanes last year is that they were a mess when they were forced to play anywhere but the offensive zone.

This team struggled mightily in the transition game and had a lot of defense lapses from mistakes at the blue line or bad plays away from the puck. Basically, they were a mess whenever they were forced to defend and it's evidenced by the fact that none of their defensemen started more than 1/3 of their 5v5 shifts in the defensive zone last season. Justin Faulk & Tim Gleason had to do most of the defensive workload and the rest of the defense corps played sheltered minutes in terms of where they started their shifts.

Part of this is Kirk Muller & Dave Lewis catering to the strengths of their players (i.e. those who were considered puck-movers) but when you have only two blue-liners who can handle a tough, defensive workload, that is a major problem and a big reason why the Canes gave up so many shots per game last season. The question now is whether or not things will be different with the new personnel. Judging from recent history, it appears that way.

Player EV TOI/60 Corsi% CF/20 CA/20 DZ% P/60
Faulk 17.43 48.6 18.63 19.66 32.6 0.51
Gleason 16.68 47.5 18.74 20.74 34.2 0.602
Harrison 15.42 49.3 19.19 19.77 32.9 0.671
Sekera 16.61 49.7 17.68 17.89 30.5 0.73
Komisarek 13.17 45.8 16.86 19.92 35.5 0.527
Murphy 18.27 N/A N/A N/A N/A N/A
Bellemore 11.74 53 20.69 18.34 34.7 1.28
Hainsey 17.05 47.9 18 19.16 33.9 0.588
3 Yr Average 15.79542 48.829 18.54 19.35 33.47 0.701

Going by shot  metrics, Carolina's defense looks wose than it did last season but something to take note of here is that almost everyone on their blue-line has started around 1/3 of their 5v5 shifts in the defensive zone. The only one who hasn't is Sekera and he played some very tough minutes for Buffalo last season. These players have given up more shots but they've also been starting a lot more of their shifts in their own zone, which means that they are more likely to be on the ice for more shots against regardless.

That's the biggest difference between this year's defense corps and last season's. The Hurricanes had a lot of guys they needed to shelter last year, but that shouldn't be the case this time around unless Hainsey or Sekera's play completely falls off. These two have played heavy defensive minutes in the past and are more suited for a shutdown role than most of the player's on last season's roster. I also think adding Sekera is huge, as he has played big minutes for Buffalo in recent seasons and is very good at preventing offense according to his numbers here. If he can mesh well with Faulk on the top pairing, then the Canes defense might be better than some think.

All in all, this defense corps should be better in their own end than what the Hurricanes had last year but there's an underlying concern with all of these players, and that's their ability (or inability) to drive the play forward. The ability to make breakout passes and get the puck out of your own zone is such an underrated part of a defenseman's game and I don't know if the Hurricanes have enough players capable of doing this. Faulk, Sekera & Murphy should have no problem in this area but the rest are a concern. Hainsey has more mobility than he gets credit for, but he has been underwater in terms of possession the last few years, Harrison is prone to mistakes with the puck on his stick, Gleason looked a lot slower last season and Komisarek has never been the most offensively capable player.

I'm not saying that I want the Hurricanes defense to be filled with offensive defensemen, but I am a little worried about this group's ability to drive the play forward. The last thing I want is for the Hurricanes to be a team that's constantly stuck in their own zone and forced to defend all the time, as that was the case from 2009-12 and the team had little success with it. My hope is that Sekera, Faulk, Murphy & possibliy Bellemore can handle most of the puck-handling duties and do a decent job at it.

Many fans were clamoring for change on defense and it looks like the front office finally brought it this season. On paper, it looks like they improved but we'll have to wait and see if that stays true once they hit the ice.