The Hurricanes made an effort to improve their defense corps this off-season but unfortunately, they find themselves in a similar position to last year with much of their defense's state depending on the health of Joni Pitkanen. They were able to add another top-four defenseman by replacing Jamie McBain with Andrej Sekera and added some depth by signing Mike Komisarek and a couple of other defensemen with NHL experience. They also have solid young players in Brett Bellemore & Ryan Murphy who might be able to step in if needed. However, one can not overlook the impact that Pitkanen has on this team's defense corps and how important it will be for him to stay healthy.
I think most people who follow the Canes know that Pitkanen is an important player and that the concerns with him are more related to health than anything else. He has missed over half of the last two seasons and shattered his left heel bone a little over three months ago. According to GM Jim Rutherford, Pitkanen should be ready by the time pre-season starts, but this is still a pretty serious injury and there's no telling how effective he will be. Even if Carolina gets Pitkanen back at 100%, he is still injury prone and the Canes need to prepare for the worst in case he ends up on the shelf for half of next season.
The bad news is that the Hurricanes don't exactly have a lot of cap space to work with right now and investing in a contingency plan for Pitkanen could mean they'll have to move someone on the roster. Knowing that, some might say that an easier solution would be to trade Pitkanen, clearing his $4.5 mil. cap hit off the books and allowing the Hurricanes to search for another top-four defenseman. There are just a few problems with this theory.
First of all, Pitkanen is coming off a major injury and the list of suitors for him is going to be pretty low because of that. Not many teams are going to give the Hurricanes a decent return unless they are willing to eat some of his cap hit, which kind of takes away the point of trading him. Secondly, it's my belief that the team would have bought out Pitkanen if they wanted to invest in another top-four defenseman instead of making a trade similar to the Jussi Jokinen one. Finally, and most importantly, what Pitkanen does for the Hurricanes is not easy to replace. We've seen this during the times that he is out of the lineup and the Canes might be better off seeing what they can get out of Pitkanen this year because when he is healthy, he is one of the most important players on the Hurricanes.
Why is Pitkanen so important to the Hurricanes?
The impact of an offensive defenseman is something that gets understated by a lot of fans. Most know blue-liners who can put up points, work the power play and jump into the rush are important but the ones fans love the most are big, rugged defensemen who deliver big hits and block shots. Pitkanen is bigger than most puck-moving defenseman, but he is more known for his offensive skillset than anything else. This does not make him a one-dimensional player, though becasue he does kill penalties and has experience playing tough minutes. Someone who eats up nearly 20 minutes of night at even strength alone is not a one-dimensional player.
Still, Pitkanen's best strength is his offense and it's the reason why he is so valuable to the Hurricanes. It goes beyond goals and points too because a puck-moving defenseman is counted on for more than just that. They are also relied on to lead breakouts out of their own zone, jump into the rush, carry the puck through the neutral zone and do whatever they can to get the puck moving in the right direction. Puck-moving defensemen can drive fans & coaches crazy with bad turnovers & various miscues, but good ones are very valuable because of how much they can play a role in driving possession. The fact that they aren't the best defensively doesn't matter as much because they spend very little time in their own zone.
Going by the qualities listed above, Pitkanen is definitely one of the better puck-moving defensemen. He is generally a positive player in terms of puck-possession, scores at a solid rate both at even strength and on the power play and makes good reads in all three zones. His play in the neutral zone being arguably the most critical of the three. Winning the battle in the neutral zone is something I've gone over a lot in recent posts and one thing I've stressed is how important it is to regularly carry the puck into the zone rather than playing dump-and-chase.
Zone entries that are done with possession of the puck are usually what leads to more offense and in turn, more scoring chances & goals. This is where defensemen jumping into the play and making come breakout passes can help. Out of all of Carolina's regular defensemen last season, Pitkanen was by far the best at doing this at even strength.
Legend: The x-axis shows what percentage of entries a player had out of how many he was on the ice for, the y-axis shows how many entries he made with possession of the puck (carry or pass). This is all 5v5 data.
For a blue-line filled with "puck-moving defensemen," not many of Carolina's jumped into the play or made successful breakout passes that often. Pitkanen & Ryan Murphy were the only ones who were able to do this well and Murphy's was with a small five-game sample. How much Pitkanen stands out here is pretty interesting because he is not only led his teammates in neutral zone play, he blew them away. Pitkanen had a big role in the neutral zone by leading a good chunk of the entries that he was on the ice for and he had control of the puck on a little under half of them. Defensemen typically play dump-and-chase more often than forwards, so any blue-liner who has control on about 50% of his entries is doing a good job of driving the play.
Pitkanen's impact is felt on the rest of the team because when he was on the ice, the Hurricanes were carrying the puck into the offensive zone more often.
The rest of the Canes defense corps looks slightly better when you factor in the rest of the team's performance, but Pitkanen is still leading the pack here. The only area you'd like to see improved is for him to allow fewer controlled entries against, a statement that can be applied to basically the entire defense corps, but the Canes are a better possession team when he is on the ice. Although, the defensive neutral zone play of all the Hurricanes blue-liners can be improved a lot since they're allowing other teams to carry the puck in way too much.
I can understand the reasoning behind trading Pitkanen since he is in the last year of his contract and will probably walk after next season, but just remember what the team has to replace if he leaves. None of the other defensemen on the roster can control play in the neutral zone as well as he does. Justin Faulk can put up points, but he plays a very conservative style and doesn't join the rush that often and Ryan Murphy is only a rookie and won't be able to take on the minutes that Pitkanen commands. No matter who you replace Pitkanen with there is going to be a dropoff, which is why having him out of the lineup is a huge loss and why trading him may not be the smartest idea if you're the Hurricanes.
Staying healthy is going to be the challenge for him and why the Hurricanes are sort of in a catch 22 here.
Special thanks to Eric Tulsky of Broad Street Hockey for providing me with the script to track zone entries.