Solving the Hurricanes defense logjam

As everyone slowly returns to health, the Hurricanes will have some roster decisions to make over the next few days. The team has been the center of a lot of trade rumors lately and with there being 23 skaters and three goaltenders at practice now, there are bound to be some bodies moved soon. The most obvious decision they'll have to make is whether or not they want to trade one of their goaltenders, but the defense corps might also see a couple of changes within the next few days, as well.

The Canes entered the season with eight defensemen under contract and it's been a rare occurrence for all of them to be healthy. Tim Gleason started the year on IR and has been in and out of the lineup since then while Mike Komisarek and Brett Bellemore are both now coming off the injured reserve, as well. Jim Rutherford said that he doesn't mind carrying eight defenseman at the beginning of the year, but with other needs and cap space being an issue, it's plausible to see the Hurricanes move one of their defensemen within the next couple of weeks.

Who makes the most sense to move, though and if there are no trades, what kind of lineup should the Hurricanes use? Injuries are never a good thing, but the constant roster changes have allowed Kirk Muller to get a look at everyone and right now, we have a good idea of what each defenseman has to offer. After the jump, we'll look at their performance and discuss what defense pairings the Hurricanes should roll moving forward. 

By now, the issue of the Hurricanes being a bad possession team has been beaten to death by me, so I'll save you the details there. It doesn't mean that we can ignore it, though. Puck-possession at even strength is very important when it comes to winning in the NHL, so the Hurricanes might be in trouble unless they improve in this regard. This could be why Rutherford has been so adamant about making a trade over the last month or so. The results might be improving, but this team is still a long ways off from where he wants them to be, which is why shaking up the roster isn't a terrible idea. How much of it stems from the defense, though?

This was easily the Hurricanes biggest concern entering the season and it might be easy to point to the blue-line as the main problem, but it actually hasn't been that terrible when everyone is healthy. At least when it comes to the top-four and their ability to control territorial play.

Currently, the only Carolina defensemen who are controlling over 50% of the 5v5 shot attempts are Ron Hainsey, Andrej Sekera & Justin Faulk with the latter two trending upward in recent games. Both Sekera & Faulk have been madly inconsistent this year, but when they are at their best, they look like a legit top pairing. I'm not sure if they would be a #1 pair on a contending team with how inconsistent they've been, but they have been getting the job done lately and have improved as the season has gone on. 

One player who has stayed consistent is Ron Hainsey, who is the only defenseman on the team to post a positive shot differential at even strength for the entire season. As a second pairing defenseman, Hainsey doesn't draw the type of matchups Faulk & Sekera do, but he still plays tough assignments and usually logs around 20 minutes a game. He has been the team's best defensive blue-liner this season by a country mile.

His partner, Brett Bellemore, seems to have hit a wall around Game 16-21 or so. He started off the year strong and looked like a great compliment to Hainsey on the Canes second pairing, but his level of play dropped off after sustaining an injury and has struggled to get back to where he was earlier in the season. That said, he has been one of the Canes better defensemen for most of the year and should be in the lineup once he is activated off the injured reserve. 

So the top-four has been decent to adequate for the Hurricanes but the rest of the defense has been a big problem. The Canes have been getting woefully outshot when Jay Harrison, Ryan Murphy, Tim Gleason & Mike Komisarek are on the ice and none of them have been getting heavy assignments. It's frustrating to see these players struggle so much because on paper, each of them should be able to handle third-pairing assignments.

Harrison was fine as a third pairing defenseman for years in Carolina, but was eventually forced up the depth chart due to injuries. That was when things began to get dicey, as he isn't a good enough skater to keep up with other team's best forwards. This year, he hasn't been able to handle other team's third and fourth lines and looks considerably worse than he did in seasons past.

I would also say that Gleason looks like he has lost a step this year, but that would be being nice. Gleason, once a capable shutdown defenseman, has been drowning in third-pairing assignments this year and has turned into a possession black hole. Injuries could be the cause of this. Gleason plays a rough game and has taken on a lot of mileage over his career and most shutdown defensemen tend to see their play regress as they enter their 30's. I don't think anyone saw Gleason's play falling off this much, though. Most were expecting him to rebound now that he is healthy, but he has become a more expensive Douglas Murray.

Mike Komisarek is Mike Komisarek. He hasn't been a good NHL defenseman in years and not much has changed this season. He's had trouble finding his way into the lineup and the Hurricanes are usually stuck in their own zone whenever he is out there. They've also resorted to using him as a fourth liner on some nights, so that should tell you everything you need to know. Still, the No Movement Clause likely means he is here to stay for the rest of the season.

Evaluating Ryan Murphy's performance is frustrating because he looks so much more impressive by the eye-test. He hasn't been prone to that many bad turnovers and is very good when it comes to moving the puck up the ice. He has also looked good away from the puck and has been able to cover up for his mistakes when they happen. It appears that it hasn't been enough, though because the Canes are underwater in terms of possession whenever he is out there. A 20-year-old defenseman is going to have his growing pains but I thought Murphy would be a little better than this, considering that he is getting sheltered minutes.

Whenever I watch Murphy, I usually notice his partners making more mistakes than him and that his bad possession numbers could be attributed to that. With how atrocious Carolina's third-pairing defensemen have been, it wouldn't surprise me if that was the case. However, a look at how Murphy has played with some of Carolina's other blue-liners tells us a different story.

Murphy has done well with Hainsey, but he has struggled with some of the other members of the Canes top-four. You can probably write-off his numbers with Faulk because they're both right-handed shots but the fact that he hasn't been able to work well with Sekera is a little concerning. Murphy's other partners haven't been ideal, but he can definitely make some improvements of his own. Although, I guess this applies to everyone who Carolina has used on their third-pairing this season.

What is encouraging about this year is that the Canes have found two solid defense pairings in Sekera/Faulk and Hainsey/Bellemore. Both duos have proven that they are capable of winning the battle at even strength against tough assignments and can play big minutes if needed. They just need to find a half-way decent third-pairing to complete their defense and doing that is easier said that done. Between Gleason, Harrison, Bellemore, Murphy & Komisarek, they should have enough players to ice two guys who won't get killed against other team's depth lines, but that hasn't been the case.

The most frustrating thing is that they can do this with the personnel they have now, but there's always something that gets in the way. For instance, Hainsey has shown that he is good enough to play with almost anyone on the Hurricanes defense and that gives the Canes more options with their second pair. However, this also moves Bellemore to the third pair (when he's healthy) and he has struggled to stay afloat when he is away from Hainsey. The fact that Harrison & Gleason are the only other lefties on the team (aside from Sekera who is attached at the hip to Faulk) probably doesn't help matters, either. 

So, if there are going to be any trades within the next few days/weeks/months, the ones likely to be on the move are either Harrison or Gleason. Neither are going to fetch much of a return, but if the Canes want to create space to improve their depth, moving one of them probably makes the most sense. They have a top pairing that is good enough and Hainsey is showing that he can be a great second-pairing guy and is versatile enough to work with almost anyone. That just leaves the third pair, which shouldn't be too hard or expensive to improve. These are guys who don't play many minutes a night and are typically used in sheltered situations, so finding someone who can play better than what Murphy/Gleason/Komisarek/Harrison have provided thus far really shouldn't be that hard.

With that in mind, Murphy and Komisarek are probably staying, but the Canes probably have enough room to bring someone else in if they move another defenseman. There's been talks of them looking for a "puck-mover" and as tired as everyone is of hearing that word, it wouldn't be a bad idea for them to add someone who can make their third pairing better and improve their power play on top of that.

Stats taken from Extra Skater