There has been a lot of talk of how much Carolina's defensive play has improved this year and it has showed over the last week or so. During this four-game point streak, the Hurricanes have allowed three goals and while Justin Peters deserves a lot of credit for that, the team's defensive play has also been praised. Kirk Muller has mentioned a few times that there has been a lot of focus on improving the team's play away from the puck and we have seen quite a bit of that in this young season. The penalty kill has improved drastically and the forwards have shown more commitment to playing in all three zones. How much has the defense improved compared to last year, though?
When I went through the numbers, I found some interesting results. One of them being that the Hurricanes defensive play at even strength is about at the same level it was last season from a shots allowed standpoint. The Canes are allowing almost one fewer 5v5 goal per 60 minutes than they were last season but they are still allowing over 30 shots per 60 minutes, showing that their improved defensive play is more related to goaltending. This isn't a terrible thing when you consider that Carolina has been using their third goalie for the last two weeks, but it's a little disappointing to see that the team's even strength defense hasn't improved much from last season.
That said, there are some positives to take from the Hurricanes play in their own end this year. I mentioned earlier that their penalty kill has improved and they have seen the emergence of a new shutdown defense pairing. Some might think I'm referring to Justin Faulk & Andrej Sekera, who have done the bulk of the heavy lifting, but the pairing in question is actually Ron Hainsey & Brett Bellemore. These two may not stand out that much to the casual fan, but they have quietly been Carolina's best defense pairing this season.
That last statement might confuse some people because both Hainsey & Bellemore's boxcar numbers are kind of underwhelming. They have a combined five points and are both on the wrong side of the plus/minus ledger. My feelings on plus/minus being a terrible stat to judge defensive play have been well-documented, so we won't go there. Instead, we'll look at factors which these two have control over like creating & preventing shots on goal and going by even strength shot attempts, both Hainsey & Bellemore have been the two best defensemen on the team.
When they are on the ice, the Hurricanes have controlled at least 51.5% of the 5v5 shot attempts, which leads the defense by a wide margin and they are doing this while playing top-four minutes and drawing tough assignments. Going from just a shot prevention standpoint, these two look even better.
Both Hainsey & Bellemore have done a fantastic job of keeping the puck out of their own zone and they have outperformed the entire defense corps by a wide margin. The fact that they are doing this without being sheltered makes their performance twice as impressive. The Hurricanes have iced some very good defense pairings in their history, but Hainsey & Bellemore might be one of the best they've had in awhile. Again, they aren't going to dazzle fans or anything but they have done an excellent job of controlling territorial play and that is all that matters right now.
The strange part is how good these two have been is that they both came out of nowhere. Hainsey has a lot of experience but has never been considered a top-tier defender in his career and wasn't signed until late August. Bellemore, on the other hand, is a 25-year-old rookie and spent his entire career in the AHL until injuries forced the Hurricanes to give him a shot last year. What exactly do these two do that makes them so effective? The answer is rooted in fundamentals.
Neither Bellemore nor Hainsey are an offensive threat or the best puck-movers in the world, but both can skate well and are very good at taking away space from opposing forwards, which helps them in all three zones. They also routinely make good, safe plays out of their own end to help the Hurricanes control territorial play. It's also a rarity to see either of them out of position, as both are very good at tying up opposing players in front of the net and clearing away rebounds. Basically, they do everything you can ask out of a shutdown pairing and are mobile enough to not get pinned into their own zone when they have the puck.
Tuesday night's win over the Colorado Avalanche provided us with a lot of examples of how these two make life difficult for their opponents.
Neutral Zone Play
Here we see the Avalanche creating a two-on-two rush into the Hurricanes zone with Gabriel Landeskog & Jamie McGinn. The Hurricanes have good numbers here with Hainsey (top of the picture) and Andrej Sekera (bottom of the picture) preparing to defend this. They also have Alex Semin chasing the play, so the Canes are in decent shape here. However, transitional play is one of Colorado's strength's & one of Carolina's weaknesses so things can easily break down if the Avs have another player jump in.
As Colorado is about to enter the zone, Hainsey steps up on Landeskog and forces him to try to dump the puck in. It is here that Avs defenseman Erik Johnson jumps into the play and gives his teammate another option so the Avs can carry the puck in like they originally planned to.
Hainsey notices this and follows Johnson the entire way as he enters the zone. With Tlusty & Sekera back-checking, Hainsey is able to cut off Johnson's passing lane and not give him many options here.
Johnson sends a pass to the center of the ice, which Hainsey is able to intercept and he sends the puck safely to the corner for one of the Hurricanes players to retrieve. It all started with Hainsey getting aggressive in the neutral zone, disrupting the Avs entry and making them work harder to create any offense. There are a lot of defensemen who would give a player like Landeskog some respect and back off in the neutral zone but the gamble by Hainsey paid off here.
He made a similar play on Landeskog later in the period.
Here we see the Landeskog-Stastny-McGinn line gaining speed through the neutral zone, trying to create a rush in transition. Defending on the play are Hainsey & Bellemore.
Once again, Hainsey gets aggressive in the neutral zone and tries to make a play with his stick on Landeskog to force a turnover.
While Hainsey is unsuccessful in forcing a turnover, he did make Landeskog dump the puck in instead of carrying it into the zone like he had planned. Dump-and-chase is fundamental for some teams, but this is a line for the Avs that thrives off speed, so getting them to play a puck retrieval game works in Carolina's favor. Hainsey did a great job of forcing the issue here.
Hainsey & Bellemore's play after their opponents get the puck deep has also been impressive.
Defensive Zone Play
The Stastny line is on the ice again, but the Avs are entering the zone via a dump-in again, only this time it's more of a set play rather than the Hurricanes forcing them to do so.
Hainsey is already on his horse and is battling for a loose puck against Colorado forward Jamie McGinn.
The battle ensues as Paul Stastny comes to help his teammate and Eric Staal also comes in to try to pry the puck away from the Avalanche.
Unfortunately, Stastny wins the battle and tries to get the puck back to McGinn, who is in a prime scoring position. Also there is Brett Bellemore, who has his stick in a great position to break up the play. Eric Staal is also in good spot to do this and if both fail, they have another forward down low to help keep the puck away from the net.
Bellemore is able to shadow McGinn and get just enough of his stick to deny McGinn's shot and not force Justin Peters to make a difficult save.
The Avs are able to get to the loose puck, but the Hurricanes react to this by defending the house and collapsing around goaltender Justin Peters. Bellemore sprawls to block a shot by Paul Stastny and Hainsey & Staal are there right next to him to clear any loose pucks.
The loose puck ends up going to the corner and the Hurricanes are able to clear it out of harms way. I'm not a huge fan of relying on shot blocking for defense, but the Hurricanes were able to avoid giving up more than one shot in this sequence so it all worked out.
Fast forward a few seconds later and the Avs are able to get the puck back, but Bellemore has a good angle on McGinn, who has the puck, and Colorado fails to do much with this possession as a result.
McGinn is forced to make a pass through the middle but Bellemore & Hainsey (circled) have the play defended well enough to break it up and the Avs end up surrendering possession of the puck.
Something that was documented in that last sequence was Bellemore's strong one-on-one play, as he covered McGinn well after the Avalanche regained control of the puck. This has always been one of Bellemore's strengths and a reason why he has impressed Carolina's coaching staff despite not having much NHL experience. He has a big frame and can skate well, which makes him very good at shadowing opposing forwards, taking away their options and forcing them off the puck. This was detailed well in the last sequence and the one below.
This is Bellemore in a puck battle against Colorado's Ryan O'Reilly, a very strong player and great skater in his own right.
O'Reilly tries to weave his way around Bellemore, but the young defenseman stays with him most of the way and doesn't give him much space along the boards. Matt Duchene tries to help him out by giving him an outlet option along the boards, which is the wise thing to do since Bellemore has O'Reilly under wraps right now.
Duchene is too late to help out O'Reilly as Bellemore was successfully able to knock him off the puck and the Canes have numbers to exit the zone without much trouble.
We've gone over how well these two play in the neutral & defensive zones but another thing they do well is disrupt zone exits and force their opponents to spend more time in their own end. Hainsey did this a couple times against Colorado the other night.
The Avalanche are attempting to start a breakout and leading the rush is defenseman Andre Benoit. Cory Sarich is also there as a safety valve as the Hurricanes have two forwards forechecking.
Colorado tries to go along the boards for their breakout and right here is where you'll see Hainsey jump in.
Hainsey steps up on the Colorado forward and forces a turnover. This looks like a bad play in this picture because the Avs have another forward there to retrieve the puck. However, something to take into account here is that the Canes have three players back (not pictured) and can easily force the Avs back into their own end if they get to the puck first.
Chris Terry wins the race to the puck and tries to get it to Riley Nash, who has the opportunity to create a scoring chance if he can field it cleanly.
Nash couldn't do anything with the puck, but the Hurricanes forced the Avs to restart their breakout, salting more time off the clock in the third period, and they aren't done frustrating the Avs just yet. Benoit has the puck again and he tries to do the same thing with this breakout by going along the boards.
I'm not sure why the Avs tried the same play to exit the zone because Hainsey responds by doing the exact same thing by playing the body on the Colorado forward and forcing yet another turnover.
The Avs try to break the puck out again and this time it's Cory Sarich leading the rush. The Hurricanes have most of their options covered at this point, so he can either force a pass through the middle, try to use the boards again or ice the puck and hope one of his teammates wins the race.
Sarich tries to work a play through the middle but once again, Hainsey is there to break it up and the Avalanche can't get any speed going in the neutral zone.
The Hurricanes get to the loose puck this time, dump the puck in and get a line change. This wasn't a game-breaking play or anything, but the Canes were able to force the Avalanche to spend a lot of time in their own zone and a lot of it is due to Hainsey stepping up and not allowing the Avs to exit the zone cleanly. This sort of embodies what Hainsey & Bellemore bring to the table. They aren't All-Star defensemen and won't get many accolades outside of Raleigh, but they do a little of everything well and make the Hurricanes tougher to play against. They do everything you could ask out of a shutdown defense pairing and I wouldn't be against them seeing an increase in minutes & competition. I'm not sure if they can handle those assignments, but with how well they played compared to Faulk & Sekera, it is worth a shot.