After going most of the season without a collective scapegoat, Hurricanes fans seemed to have found one in defenseman Jamie McBain. The entire team is struggling right now, but he has been taking a lot of heat from the fans ever since Carolina went on their brutal losing streak. The hate reached a new high after his brutal showing against the Winnipeg Jets two weeks ago where he was on-ice for two goals against, one of which he put in his own net. Most of the criticism he has been taking lately has been deserved since his mistakes are costing the team a lot more right now and he has the tendency to get caught in no-man's land more than others. He has also been on-ice for seven even strength goals in his last nine games after being on-ice for only seven in his first 20.
Like I said earlier, the entire team is struggling right now but McBain seems to be a step behind the entire team right now for whatever reason. Some say that he has never been good, but it wasn't too long ago when people were talking about how he had the highest plus-minus rating among the defense corps and how he has become better defensively than in year's past. His underlying numbers also show that he hasn't been terribly better or worse than he was last season, so why is it now that everyone wants him run out of town? Personally, I think it all relates back to Justin Faulk's injury and how McBain's role has changed since then.
Faulk wasn't exactly dominating territorially, but he was taking on the bulk of the tough minutes among the Hurricanes defense corps all season. When he went down, someone else had to step into those minutes and one player who ended up doing so was Jamie McBain. He isn't a stranger to playing top-four minutes, but playing against other team's top lines was a role very different from how he was used earlier in the season.
There were a few times where McBain was used against the opposition's best players, but most of those games came on the road where Muller did not have the last matchup. When he had that option, McBain was mainly sent out against other team's third and fourth lines. He was used strictly in this role when he was on a defense pairing with Bobby Sanguinetti, a player that's somewhat similar to him. That all changed on Game 30 after Faulk got hurt and McBain began to play against top forwards more often than usual. The main reason why he got those assignments was because Muller insisted on keeping him and Joni Pitkanen together. Pitkanen has been able to handle tough-assignments in the past and is capable of playing over 20 minutes per game. He also has played with McBain a lot in the past, which is why Muller went with these two as his first pairing instead of using a more proven shutdown option like Tim Gleason.
McBain's performance after Game 30 speaks for itself.
Notice the sharp trend downward after Game 30. That's about the time when McBain was shifted to more of a tough-minutes role and it's not hard to see why he is struggling so much. He was barely keeping his head above water in terms of scoring chances for most of the season, but his mistakes were less noticeable then because he was facing depth lines rather than the other team's top scorers. Now that he isn't being sheltered, he has been on-ice for more goals against.
McBain's decline is something that wasn't very hard to foresee. He was on-ice for an abnormally low number of even strength goals against earlier in the season, which wasn't going to continue even if he stayed in a sheltered role, and increasing the difficulty of his assignments definitely sped up this process. The problem with McBain's recent play isn't because he is a terrible defenseman like some want you to believe, it's more due to him playing a role that he isn't suited for. Put Bobby Sanguinetti or Brett Bellemore in the same kind of situation and they would fare no better because they are unproven top-four options.
That's where all of this relates back to Jusitn Faulk and how much is absence hurts the team. He and Gleason's ability to handle the tough minutes takes pressure off guys like McBain & Sanguinetti who can thrive in more offensive situations. With him gone, one of those players needed to step up to a bigger role and McBain wasn't able to do that and it's become pretty clear that he is just a third pairing defenseman at this stage of his career. Many were hoping he would be more than that by now, but this is what he is. I'm sure that plenty of teams would welcome him, but the Hurricanes defense is over-populated with third-pairing guys so it might be tough for him to be a long-term fit in Carolina if this is his ceiling.