Grading the 2015-16 Canes: Defense First
Here we are again. The seventh summer where, for many, interests may veer off from hockey, or where others root and adopt other teams with a safe, short term commitment. Unlike many of the previous playoff-less Canes summers this one is different: our Hurricanes were actually fun to watch this year. They were above .500 with numerous memorable wins and had a revolving door of young, exciting talent that wasn’t the questionable, perhaps AHL-level talent that call-ups may have had in the past. Oh yeah, this team also had Noah Freakin’™ Hanifin. AND Jaccob Slavin AND Brett Pesce.
This year was the foundation year. Things are starting to be built here, and built well. The core of that foundation comes from a trio of first year pro defensemen, an Olympian, and their weird Uncle Ron. It’s hard to believe that in just a year’s time we’ve moved on from the well-liked Tim Gleason, Jay Harrison, and Brett Bellemore, who were a touch too slow for this speed-driven era of the NHL. Remarkably, looking to the future the solid defensemen options keep on coming and possibilities abound. Stud juniors defensemen Haydn Fleury and Roland McKeown are close, and there’s an AHL all-star down in Charlotte with Trevor Carrick, and, although he may not have the same level of pedigree, we can’t forget about Danny Biega, injured for most of the year in Charlotte, but who was solid in post-Sekera trade relief last season. It’s certainly an unusual and new feeling to have so many defensive chips on the table as a Hurricanes fan, but at least we can be assured we won’t be pulling Joe Corvo out of retirement anytime soon.
So let’s look at this past team’s defensive group and see how the young core did in their formative NHL year, but first let’s look at the guy who logged more minutes than anyone.
Note: All data comes from Corsica.hockey. I used a minimum of 500 minutes played at 5v5 and 100 minutes on special teams when comparing the entire NHL field. Score-adjusted.
The Canes sure put some miles on Ron Hainsey this season. He logged the 14th most minutes in the NHL at 5v5 with 1451.26 minutes. The next highest Cane after Hainsey–not counting the traded Liles–is Noah Hanifin at 100th. On the penalty kill, Hainsey again played the most (218 minutes) and had nearly 83 minutes more than the next highest Canes defensemen, Jaccob Slavin. From those numbers alone the Hurricanes got significant value from Ron especially when you factor in that Hainsey played against the opponent’s top six forwards for greater than 60% of his shifts.
So how did the Ronster do? At 5v5, when he was on the ice the Canes had a solid 51.5% of shot attempts (good for 4th among Canes defensemen) and 51.7% of the shots on goal (3rd). However, Hainsey endured the 3rd highest Goals Against per 60 minutes (2.54). On the PK, Hainsey had the highest Goal Against per 60 among team defense and the second highest Shots Against per 60 after Justin Faulk.
That being said, Hainsey played beyond expectations. He soaked up minutes against the opponent’s top lines, which is definitely not his most useful deployment, but it gave Bill Peters the ability to shelter our young defense and develop them slowly rather than throw them into the fire immediately. For that alone, Hainsey proved his worth.
Arbitrarily Assigned Letter Grade: B
Of all our rookies this year Slavin got treated a little differently. He was the last rookie defensemen to stick and the first thrown into the fire following Faulk’s injury. Demonstrating impeccable poise and decision making for a rookie, Slavin was a huge surprise to many and was the gift that kept on giving. He logged over 25 minutes a game nine times this season, averaged 21 minutes a game, and picked up 16 points in the final 41 games of the season. I would look for Slavin’s point total to increase substantially next season especially if he’s given top pairing duties with Faulk.
At 5v5 he had a respectable 51.6% Corsi For and had the second highest Shots For per 60 (30.3) and Corsi For per 60 (56.5) among Canes defensemen.
Along with improved goaltending, Jaccob Slavin is a big reason why our penalty kill improved to the sixth best in the league and one that gave up the fewest goals in the NHL. Among all NHL defensemen on the penalty kill, Slavin was sixth best in both Shots Against per 60 (33.8) and Corsi Against per 60 (69.7).
It certainly feels like we could have a future all-star here with Jaccob. He’s a workhorse defensemen with a strong offensive upside who just happens to be an excellent penalty killer that continually demonstrates sound decision making with the puck.
Arbitrarily Assigned Letter Grade: A+
It was the tale of two half-seasons for our all-star, perhaps future captain, and his fantastic mustache. Faulk put up 30 points (14 goals) in first 36 games and 7 points (2 goals) in the final 29 he was able to play in. There is no question he was our MVP in the early going and was doing his best to provide the October and November iterations of this club with any sign of an offensive game.
In the first half of the season Faulk filled many-a-PNC residents’ hearts with joy and stomachs with queso by ripping 12 power-play goals in 36 games. His power play goals per 60 was 10th in the NHL. On the Canes, he led with 67 power play shots on goal and 135 individual shot attempts. The next highest Cane had 37 shots (Skinner) and 75 attempts (Hanifin). I suspect good things are coming with Noah Hanifin’s passing and Faulk’s shot on the PP for years to come.
At 5v5 Faulk’s offensive game is impressive as well. He’s 30th among all NHL defensemen in Corsi For per 60 (59.3). Faulk also had the highest CF% among Canes defensemen at 52.5% (not counting the traded Liles – notice a trend there? Just sayin’!). Impressive because, like Hainsey, more than 60% of Faulk’s shifts are against the top 6 forwards of the opponent. The fact likely shows in that Faulk suffers the worst Goals For%, Shots Against per 60, and Goals Against per 60 among Carolina blueliners. Continued development of Faulk’s defensive game and perhaps a more apt top pair partner is vital for the Canes ability to succeed as a defensive group.
Arbitrarily Assigned Letter Grade: B/B+
Brett Pesce was a natural fit for Bill Peters’ style of neutral zone suppression and put worried Caniacs’ minds at ease about early season defensive depth (and Michal Jordan) following James Wisniewski‘s injury.
Pesce benefited a great deal from playing with NHL veteran John-Michael Liles, who reinvented himself into a superb suppression defensemen under Bill Peters’ system. Among all NHL defense pairings at 5v5 they were second in the NHL in Shots Against per 60 (23), fifth in Corsi Against per 60 (47), and seventh in Goals Against per 60 (1.62). Incredible numbers considering one was a first-year pro.
Looking at Pesce’s individual 5v5 numbers aren’t bad either: among all NHL defensemen Pesce is 31st in Shots Against per 60 (26.9) and 37th in Corsi Against per 60 (50.6). He’s also the top player on the Canes in Goals Against per 60 (1.9).
While Pesce isn’t a jack-of-all-trades like Slavin appears to be, he has the ability to be a solid top four, shut-down guy. While utilized less on the penalty kill than Slavin, his numbers are outstanding and better, and I’d expect to see him developed further in that role.
Arbitrarily Assigned Letter Grade: B+
So, while Pesce’s shot attempt suppression was good enough for a top 40-in-the-NHL spot, the Canes had someone in the top 20. Who? You guessed it.
I often used the Big Czech as a punchline in my stupid (and often bad) twitter jokes. It was completely unfounded as Jordan performed admirably in his difficult utility role as the Canes’ seventh defensemen.
Barely making my 500 minutes played at 5v5 cut off at 512 minutes played, Michal Jordan had the 19th best Corsi Against per 60 among NHL blueliners at 48.9. He also had the second highest Corsi For% among Canes’ defense after Faulk, but the second worst Shots For% (after Hanifin) and second worst Goals For% (after Faulk). During his major stint in the line-up following Faulk’s injury, Jordan often performed well in game-by-game shot attempt differentials, but was prone to ill-timed defensive gaffs.
I’m happy the longtime Checker was rewarded with a NHL contract this past season, but it’s clear with the slew of talent in the pipeline that Jordan’s days here are likely over.
Arbitrarily Assigned Letter Grade: C
Also, never forget:
It seems many Canes fans have made their minds up in regards to whether Ryan Murphy has a future with Carolina. Aside from our goaltending, he might be the most hot-takery player we’ve got! Before I get going here, all I ask is that you read the following with an open mind before you call the Internet asking for my resignation.
During a recent hockey analytics conference in Vancouver our friend Ryan made an interesting appearance (as seen below).
He appears at the top of a list of effective neutral zone drivers, which, in this speed-driven NHL, gives teams the highest likelihood of a successful zone entry and all the wonderful things that may follow. There’s also quite a bit of special company on that list of 10 neutral zone drivers. A list full of talent that cannot be taught.
Now, is Murph occasionally prone to making bad defensive decisions? Yep. Has he had a fair shake of games to acclimatize to the NHL? Probably. Has he had competent teachers and coaching to instruct him for most of that time? Ehhhh, two years of Peters/one year of Morris. Can Murphy continue to learn and develop on the defensive side of the puck? Absolutely, especially with the current coaching staff. Totally teachable skills. Should the Canes walk away from a 23-year-old player that clearly has tremendous potential or continue to develop his all-around game? This is the great divide. I wince when thinking of giving up on someone who can be on a list like that, but I won’t be surprised if it happens to bolster our forwards via trade. If it does happen don’t be surprised if he turns into something special.
So how did he looks this season? Ten assists in 35 games. The best Goals For% and Shots Against per 60 among Canes defense, the second best Shots For%, and a middle-of-the line CF% of 50.8. Nothing extremely remarkable during his power play usage.
It will be interesting to see how the Canes handle restricted free agent Ryan Murphy this off-season. Given how they’ve used him in the past couple seasons it seems Ryan may be another d-man without a future on the team, although his own future can still be very bright.
Arbitrarily Assigned Letter Grade: C
When considering this past season as a foundation year for the Hurricanes no player exemplifies that more than Hanifin. Starting the season at 18-years-old, he played 79 games and, as mentioned earlier, ended up playing the 100th most minutes (1162.88) in the NHL at 5v5, good for second on the Canes. He finished with the second highest point total among our defense with 22 points.
At times he looked like a rookie and made poor decisions with the puck, and memorably got burned by Alex Ovechkin a couple of times, which, in my opinion, is a great introduction to the NHL. Other times, and certainly more frequently as the season progressed, he displayed a beautiful ability to dish the puck out in long stretch passes or through quarterbacking the power play. Noah can also turn on the jets, showing fantastic speed in his rushes up through the neutral zone. His talent in puck moving and passing is likely a big reason that the Canes may decide to move on from Ryan Murphy.
At 5v5 Hanifin had the worst Corsi For% among the Canes defense at 49.5% and in Shots For% at 49.3%. However, it’s easy to see his offensive potential. He led the Canes defense in primary assists with 14 and was the top primary points per 60 defensemen at 5v5.
Arbitrarily Assigned Letter Grade: B-
That Hanfin, Slavin, and Pesce shared the experience of being first year pros in the NHL together is something that can’t be overlooked in terms of their development. From their interviews together it’s clear they have formed a bond which should pay dividends for the city of Raleigh for years to come.
Seeing how the kids play next February and March will be important for this club. It was clear that the oft-spoke of NCAA wall-of-fatigue was hit more than once, and the Canes’ systems play faltered heavily as the season wrapped up, also likely due to trades and injuries.
John-Michael Liles also deserves a mention here. He was exceptional defensively this season and clearly provided strong mentorship to our young guys. If James Wisniewski can fill that role next season, and if he and Hainsey can provide deployment sheltering when it’s necessary, then our defense will be in good shape. Presumed bolstering of the forward group should do wonders as well.
This season was the first season where many of us could see actual tangible results from Ron Francis’ plodding, intelligent rebuild. Our defense, simply put, is stacked for the foreseeable future.