At the end of every season, we revisit the tired Joni Pitkanen debate and every year we come to the same conclusion. The general consensus about Pitkanen is that he is a terrific defenseman and a huge asset to this team when he is in the lineup, but injuries have been a major concern for years now. Pitkanen has never played a full-82 game season in his career and has been out for over half of the last two seasons on top of that. The severity of some of Pitkanen's recent injuries is especially concerning because over the last two years he has had a concussion, knee surgery and most recently a broken heel bone. One has to wonder about his long-term health at this point and how much the Canes can get out of him before his contract expires after next year.
It's a real shame that a meaningless race for the puck ended Pitkanen's season because when he was at 100%, Pitkanen was playing at a very high level and looked better than he had in years. No one is ever going to confuse Pitkanen as an elite defenseman because he is prone to gaffes and miscues in his own zone. However, when he is on his game, Pitkanen is a very effective puck-moving defenseman who can keep the puck in the offensive zone and help Carolina control the territorial play.
We saw more of this version of Pitkanen this year, which is why his injury created a pretty big void to fill in the lineup. He also one the team's regular leads in time on ice, plays on the first power play unit and kills penalties regularly. Even in a down year, Pitkanen's absence is huge because of how much responsibility he is given, so you can only imagine how devastating an injury to him can be to the defense corps when he is playing well. The Hurricanes found this out the hard way in both of the last two years.
The Hurricanes might have a lot of exciting young players in their defense corps but even with them, their defense is still being carried by two or three players every year. Pitkanen is one of the guys expected to do the bulk of the heavy lifting and when he was healthy, he did a fine job at it. Unfortunately, he was healthy for less than half of the season and his long-term health could be in jeopardy depending on how he recovers from his heel injury. This is why I am hoping Carolina will invest in some sort of back-up plan for Pitkanen next year because there is normally a lot expected from him and it's debatable that he will be able to handle this big of a workload coming off a severe injury.
Pitkanen was one of the heavy-lifters on the team. Only Justin Faulk played more even strength minutes per game than him and only Eric Staal & Alexander Semin were used more on the power play. You can see on the graph above that Pitkanen was regularly among the team leaders in even strength time on ice and usually played first-pairing minutes every game. The only area where Muller kept him back was in terms of who he was matched up against, as Pitkanen was often kept away from other team's first lines. Those assignments went to either Justin Faulk or Tim Gleason and Pitkanen was predominately used in a secondary competition role so that he could focus more on offense rather than shutting down the other team's best players. This is what suits him best because Pitkanen's best asset is his ability to move the puck and lead breakouts. He played a lot of minutes and plays an important role, but his defensive limitations keep him from being a top "do-it-all" defenseman.
|5v5 Fenwick Diff/20||1.148||4th|
|5v5 Chance Diff/20||0||4th|
Pitkanen's all-around game improved remarkably compared to what it was last year, when he seemed to be a mess defensively. While he wasn't thrown into the wolves, Pitkanen was one of the least sheltered blue-liners on the team and his territorial performance at even strength was quite good when taking his situation into context. He was still giving up quite a bit in his own zone and I can't say that he is "good" defensively, but the key thing here is that Pitkanen was creating more zone time and offense than he was giving up.
An asset of puck-moving defensemen that's often under-appreciated is that if they are skilled enough, they can help control puck-possession by getting the puck out of the zone cleanly, jumping into the play and even carrying the puck into the zone at times. Their defensive short-comings are less of an issue because they are only defending 30% of the time and have the puck in the opposing zone the other 70%.
These are all qualities that Pitkanen is well-versed in and this year, he was a lot better at controlling his skill-set. He was jumping into the play at the right times, being much stronger on the puck and it resulted in him being a solid play-driving defenseman that the team needs. The Hurricanes have a lot of "puck-movers" at their disposal but Pitkanen is easily the best one of the bunch and possibly the only good one.
Oddly enough, the one statistical category that Pitkanen struggled in this year was creating scoring chances during even strength play. When Pitkanen was on the ice, the Hurricanes had the puck in the opposing zone more often, but they were barely breaking even in chances and as a result, Pitkanen's offensive output wasn't that great in terms of his point total. His even strength scoring rate was very low among the team's defense and his 9 points in 22 games would be pro-rated to only 33-34 in a full-year. Defensemen point totals are pretty random from year-to-year, but I think the Hurricanes are expecting Pitkanen to produce a little more.
Although, you could say that he made up for this by being on the ice for much fewer even strength goals and playing a tighter defensive game. He was actually one of the team's better defenseman at limiting shots and scoring chances against and did it while carrying a pretty big workload. Again, Pitkanen's defensive game isn't his best asset, but he was remarkably better in his own zone than in year's past. That is, when he wasn't playing with Jamie McBain but we'll get into that another day.
5v5 Zone Entries
When I say that Pitkanen was the only "good puck-moving defenseman" on the team, this is what I meant. By far, Pitkanen was the Hurricaners best defenseman at being able to enter the offensive zone with possession, lead rushes and jump into the play. His control rate of 41.3% was the highest among defensemen who were on the team for the entire year by a pretty wide margin and it really helped him stand out among the other "puck-movers" on the team. Sanguientti's control rate of 28.7% was the next closest on the team, so that should tell you how superior Pitkanen was at being a possession-driver compared to the Hurricanes other defensemen.
Players like Corvo, Faulk, McBain and Sanguinetti might have good offensive skillsets and contribute on the power play, but Pitkanen was a better puck-handler and play-driver to all of them. This is why his injury created such a huge void to fill for the Hurricanes and why I see him as such a valuable piece to the Hurricanes. The late-season acquisition of Marc-Andre Bergeron help soften the blow of losing Pitkanen a little, as he is very skilled at leading breakouts, but his skill level obviously doesn't come close to what Pitkanen brought to the table this year.
Season Grade: B
Pitkanen looked like he lost a step last season, so I didn't have huge expectations for him coming into this year and he ended up blowing away the standards I had set for him. He was one of the team's best defensemen and was having his best season since 2008-09 in terms of his performance as an all-around defenseman. He was excellent at controlling puck-possession, was better defensively than he had been in previous years and a big reason why the Hurricanes were a stronger territorial team at even strength. There's a reason why their underlying numbers began to go down the toilet after he got injured. All that was missing was the point-production, which is a little hard to knock him for because he was performing so well in other areas, but it would have been nice for him to have more than just two total points on the power play this year. His injury concerns are another issue, but it's hard to knock him for that since the one that knocked him out on the year came as the result of a freak accident on a play that should have never happened. Other than that, Pitkanen delivered this year.
The Final Word
Even thought Pitkanen was having his best season in years, Hurricanes fans are left with the same questions and concerns about him. We all know how good he is and how big of a role he plays but his health is a pretty big issue, even moreso this year with this heel injury and if he'll be able to fully recover from it. The word is that he should be back in time for next season, but how effective will he be? If the Hurricanes get the Pitkanen of this year, then there won't be many concerns. On the other hand, one has to wonder if he will be able to skate as quick as he usually can and be the great mobile defenseman that the Hurricanes rely on so much. We won't know until training camp, unfortunately and it would be wise for the Hurricanes to invest in some sort of back-up plan to take some pressure off Pitkanen and possibly fill-in for him if he doesn't return in full-form. Since he is entering a contract year, the Canes are going to have to make a few decisions about him very soon regardless of what happens.