Life without Joni Pitkanen

The Carolina Hurricanes were hit hard with injuries the past week as it was announced last night that both Joni Pitkanen and Jeff Skinner will be out indefinitely after sustaining concussions. I don’t even need to tell you how critical of a loss Jeff Skinner is, so I’ll save the statistical mumbo jumbo for him. However, I do want to touch on how the injury to Joni Pitkanen will effect the defense. He’s missed about 10 games already and has been such a key piece to the defense that things tend to get shaken up a lot during that time. That’s certainly been the case this season as the Canes have gone through about 30 different defense combinations this year and the only two consistent pairings were Pitkanen/McBain and Allen/Gleason. Tomas Kaberle and Jay Harrison was the only other defense pairing that had a long tenure and that’s obviously defunct now. The constant mix-and-matching on the blue-line has been going on all season but it always seems to increase a ton whenever Pitkanen is out of the lineup. He always logs a ton of minutes and is playing TOUGH situations this year, so that’s understandable. After the jump, we’ll take a look at how Carolina’s defense pairings have played this year and some possible solutions as to what the team can do while #25 is on the IR.

Pitkanen is one of the team’s best players possession-wise but he’s struggled to prevent chances this season. He has given up more scoring chances relative to his ice time than any other defenseman on the team and not creating enough in the other end to off-set it. Thsi might be due to the tougher zone starts but he hasn’t been as solid as he usually is. Personally, I think he’s been solid this year despite what the stats say and to get a better idea of how he’s performed, I was going to construct a WOWY (with or without you) for him to see who is playing better with or without him on the ice. Unfortunately, this didn’t yield any real valid results because we’re only 31 games into the year and Pitkanen has spent over 60% of his ice-time with Jamie McBain.

To see how McBain performs without Pitkanen in the lineup, I looked at his numbers while these two played as a pairing and compared it to how McBain performed away from Pitkanen. McBain had 48.6% of the scoring chances go in Carolina’s favor while he was with Pitkanen and 47.1% while they were separate. That’s a difference of about 1.5% so there’s not much of a conclusion we can draw from this.

What we can do to see how the defense performs without Pitkanen in the linup, is see how every defense pairing has played this year as a unit. Why will this be helpful? Because Pitkanen logs over 20+ minutes a game and when he’s out, someone else has to pick up the slack. He’s also been McBain’s most consistent partner and McBain regularly plays a lot of minutes too which means he needs top-four minutes. That means they have to break up another pairing to suit McBain or promote someone else to top-four minutes. It all creates one, big confusing domino effect and the table below should illustrate that. This will also give us an idea of what the Canes can do with the defense while Pitkanen is out.

Pairing CF CA Pct.
Allen/Gleason 73 62 0.541
McBain/Pitkanen 54 57 0.486
Kaberle/Harrison 53 52 0.505
Faulk/Harrison 21 19 0.525
Kaberle/Faulk 17 10 0.630
McBain/Kaberle 17 19 0.472
Joslin/Allen 13 9 0.591
McBain/Allen 11 12 0.478
Gleason/Faulk 11 23 0.324
Pitkanen/Gleason 9 13 0.409
Pitkanen/Faulk 9 9 0.500
Joslin/Kaberle 9 16 0.360
Spacek/Faulk 8 4 0.667
Allen/Harrison 7 6 0.538
Gleason/Harrison 7 15 0.318
Kaberle/Pitkanen 5 6 0.455
Pitkanen/Joslin 5 4 0.556
Harrison/Joslin 5 2 0.714
Faulk/Allen 5 4 0.556
Harrison/Pitkanen 4 9 0.308
Gleason/Kaberle 3 3 0.500
McBain/Harrison 3 2 0.600
McBain/Gleason 3 15 0.167
McBain/Joslin 3 3 0.500

Some thoughts:

  • A WOWY graph might be in order for Gleason/Allen because Tim Gleason’s play away from his usual partner has been awful for the most part. I’m not sure what the motivation is for breaking up that pair because those two had the most success out of any defense pairing. Allen’s had success with Derek Joslin with a small sample size but it’s nowhere near how well he played when he was with Gleason.
  • On the flipside, Gleason has been terrible with just about everyone except Bryan Allen. Maybe this shows that Allen is the better half here?
  • Tomas Kaberle and Jay Harrison actually worked really well as a sheltered pair but they struggled when they were inserted into tougher situations. Kaberle had some success with Justin Faulk but was awful when paired with Joslin. Meanwhile, Harrison got a chance on the shutdown pair with Gleason and couldn’t keep his head above water no matter how hard he tried. This should give some hope for Montreal fans. Shelter Kaberle and he’ll be fine.
  • McBain can’t seem to break the 50% mark no matter who he’s paired with but he had some relative success with Pitkanen. This is where the domino effect starts. He is playing just good enough in tough situations to get by…with Pitkanen. You put him with Kaberle in easier situations and he struggles and he is getting killed with Gleason right now. Maybe it’s time to pull the plug on that pairing now? Yes, they are getting tough zone starts but jesus christ, those are some ugly numbers.
  • Justin Faulk and Jaroslav Spacek have played well with a two-game sample but it might be smart to play Faulk with Harrison when the latter is ready to comeback. This would mean that Harrison has to play tougher minutes though and he still hasn’t proven himself capable of doing that. He was logging a lot of minutes before he got hurt but remember, he was playing a good chunk of them with Gleason and well…just look at their performance.
  • Derek Joslin could be heading for the press box soon because the only player he’s had success with is Bryan Allen and there might be a chance he gets moved back to the first pairing with Gleason. That’s only if Muller comes to his senses and realizes that McBain is getting destroyed in a shutdown role. What might happen is a Joslin/McBain defense pair but they may need to get the benefit of protection to be successful.

Going forward, there’s a lot of things the Canes can do with their defense without Pitkanen but as you can see, that can lead to bad things if the coaches feel like getting over-creative. There was no reason to split up Allen and Gleason and yet they’ve done it anyway and it’s effected the team’s performance. I can understand some of the reasoning behind it with the injuries and the desire to have a puck-mover on the top-pair, but those two have had the most success out of any pairing the team has put together. The problem is that we have too many defensemen that need sheltering to be effective and without Pitkanen, two defensemen have to step up and play in a tougher role. This is where having Spacek helps because he is capable of playing that role despite not doing it in years and he’s developing a bit of chemistry with Justin Faulk, too. That allows us to have a sheltered third pair where Joslin, Harrison and McBain could possibly thrive in. Although, sheltered minutes could help Faulk, too. Like I said, there’s a ton of possibilities.

One thing I’m going to be tracking the next few weeks is zone entries/exists to see how much the defensemen rely on each other when it comes to getting the puck through the neutral zone and creating offense. It will be interesting to see which players need a puck-mover or a partner that’s more defensively responsible to rely on. Knowing how much this roster changes, I should be able to get a look at every defenseman.