The Carolina Hurricanes have made strong work this offseason to solidify their defensive core. In fact, you could say they over-solidified their defensive group. Changes can still happen this offseason but the message from the front office has been to lean on their defence as a strength and not make a move just for the sake of it. As of right now, the Hurricanes have nine able defencemen to fit into six spots. Even though this may not be the group come the beginning of the season, right now it gives the Hurricanes the greatest opportunity for different defensive pairings.
The Carolina Hurricanes Defensive Group
The only departures on the backend this offseason were of Calvin de Haan and Shayne Gostisbehere, who the Hurricanes only had since the trade deadline. There are rumours swirling that one or both of Brett Pesce and Brady Skjei could be moved given their impending contract expirations as well. But so far that hasn’t happened.
Actually, instead of unloading defencemen, the Hurricanes picked up top free-agent Dmitry Orlov, offensive defenceman Anthony DeAngelo and depth defenceman Caleb Jones while re-signing RFA Dylan Coghlan. These four defencemen join Jaccob Slavin, Brent Burns, Jalen Chatfield, Pesce and Skjei. With this large group comes many possibilities and flexibility. So, with the Hurricanes logjam of defencemen, how do the defensive pairings shake out?
If It’s Not Broke Don’t Fix It
The first, and most likely option at least to start, is for the Hurricanes to go with mostly what they know worked fairly well. The top pair will remain Slavin-Burns. As a pair last season, they played the fourth most minutes of any pairing in the league and were top five in Corsi and Fenwick. They also led the Hurricanes in goal differential while leading all defensive pairs who played at least 400 minutes together in expected goals and expected goal percentage. Notably, they led all defensive pairs in shots. Slavin’s elite defensive play, turnover generation and transitional game compliments Burns strong offensive game. When Burns jumps into the play, Slavin is there to cover him. But Slavin is not completely a stay-at-home defenceman. And when he jumps into the play Burns worked well to cover him too. That also assumes that Slavin doesn’t make it back himself.
The second pairing then remains as Pesce-Skjei. This pairing has been together for a few years and has worked very well. Last season, they played the most minutes together of any defensive pair for the Hurricanes and were third in the league in that category. In 81 games played, they were second in expected goals and shot attempts for all defensive pairs in the NHL playing at least 150 minutes. They were only behind the Hurricanes top pairing of Slavin and Burns. Much like Burns and Slavin, Pesce’s strong shutdown style compliments Skjei’s ability to jump in the play and contribute offensively. Skjei had a career goal-scoring season last year and much of that was due to the chemistry with Pesce.
The third pairing is where this gets interesting. Orlov is undoubtedly the best defenceman of the remaining group. In fact, he is arguably one of the best in the entire defensive group. It seems crazy to put Orlov on the third pair but with this lineup, the ice time will likely be more evenly split. Chatfield earned his spot on the team last season and would be the likely partner for Orlov.
Both defencemen like to use their strong skating to make plays, jump in the offensive zone, and provide some creativity. This wouldn’t likely look like the offsetting complimentary pieces in the other pairs, but it would be a fun one to watch. They will need to watch getting caught deep and cover each other. But their strong skating can make up for it. And offensively, you could see a speedy and aggressive pair making plays. Orlov on the third pair shows the strength of this defence.
Put the Best Man Forward
Another option for the Hurricanes defence is to simply put the best players in the highest spots. No matter how it shakes, the defensive group will only be so top heavy given the parity from top to bottom. Under this plan, the top pair would likely remain Slavin-Burns. Slavin is the team’s best all-around defenceman and Burns is likely their best offensive defenceman.
Next comes Orlov and either Pesce or Skjei. From a skill perspective, Orlov is likely the third from the top. His 36 points last season would have had him at third on the Hurricanes (not including Gostisbehere). Skjei and Pesce are fairly equal (and really close to Orlov) but as mentioned above play somewhat different styles. Pesce would probably complement Orlov better while Skjei would fit more like Chatfield as mentioned above. But if you are quantifying them by points, Skjei would take the number four spot.
The third pair would then be Pesce or Skjei paired with one of DeAngelo or Chatfield. DeAngelo is very strong offensively. His 51 points with the Hurricanes two seasons ago was a Hurricanes record until Burns broke it last season. Even his 42 points last season on a weaker Philadelphia Flyers team would have put him second on the Hurricanes. But as strong as he is offensively, he is equally as bad defensively. Meanwhile, Chatfield is not nearly as strong offensively but much better defensively. Either could fit here but again, just going on skill and point production, DeAngelo probably gets the nod. Especially if paired with someone like Pesce.
Balancing the Hurricanes Defensive Pairings
Taking all of the defencemen and pairing them based on top-to-bottom ability with a focus on balance can lead to some different results. On the top pair, you could see a return of the DeAngelo-Slavin pairing. This would put together a defenceman who is great offensively but weak defensively. Slavin’s elite defensive play and transitional skills would allow DeAngelo to focus on doing what he does best, put up points. This also provides a place for DeAngelo in the lineup so the Hurricanes can utilize his offence on the powerplay.
The second pairing would then look at Burns with Pesce. Much like the Slavin-Burns pairing, Pesce’s defence would balance Burns’ offence. This creates two top pairings that are pretty much the same in capability. Slavin is better defensively than Pesce but Burns is better offensively and defensively than DeAngelo. But with the exception of Burns’ defence compared to DeAngelo’s, the margins are not too large. This leaves a third pairing of Skjei and Orlov. As mentioned above, they would still be a more free skating pairing that could work if operating on the same page. However, if you are really going on the premise of balancing styles you would consider Caleb Jones with Orlov as Jones plays a more defensive first style than Skjei. But that makes no sense to replace Skjei or Orlov, who play similarly, with Jones even based on balancing styles.
Depending on what the team needs based on scouting the opposition, they may desire for all guns to be pointing forward or to put up the iron gate. With an all-out offensive defence, you again look at probably a Slavin-DeAngelo pairing up top. You cannot ignore Slavin’s defensive ability to cover DeAngelo. But you need DeAngelo getting top minutes when your focus is offence. Meanwhile, Slavin can provide offence with strong transitional play and sometimes crafty puckhandling.
The second pairing would look at Burns and Orlov. Again, this is another high-flying pair that could (and would) jump in aggressively offensively, generate chances from the point, and use their vision to create plays in the offensive zone. Skjei would absolutely be on the third pair (or could be switched with Orlov on the second pair). His partner could be any of Chatfield, Pesce or Coghlan if having an offensive focus. They each bring something different. Pesce is a defensive defenceman but he can still jump up in the play and generate points. Chatfield’s skating again could help Skjei (or Orlov) in creative playmaking and strong offensive pressure. Coghlan, while closer to the bottom of the nine defencemen, has shown flashes of offensive ability and has a decent shot from the point. You’d probably still use Pesce here, but each brings something different.
If you need a shutdown group, this changes up a lot. The top pair reunites Pesce and Slavin from years ago. This pairing of elite defensive defencemen would be difficult for any opposing team to break through. The second pairing would then look at Skjei and Burns who could provide a little offence but still use their skating and size to provide defence on the second pair. The third pair would be Orlov, who not only is a good skater but is successful in takeaways and physical play, and Chatfield or Jones. Jones is a little more of a defensive defenceman but also more of a depth player. Chatfield leans a little more offensively but can still utilize his skating for defence and physicality. I’d give Chatfield the nod, but either would make sense here.
Fixture versus Flexibility
When you have nine capable NHL defencemen, there are two notable things you have: depth and flexibility. No matter what approach Rod Brind’Amour utilizes, one constant question is balancing fixed pairings where they lean on existing and building chemistry versus the flexibility, as provided above, to address needs. The NHL season is long so even if everyone is healthy, there’s just no way you will see the same six defencemen play with the same partners all season. There will be cold spells and hot spells.
But as shown above, the Hurricanes have options. They want to roll the lines as evenly as possible; they balance each pair. They want to operate top-heavy (relatively), they can. And so on and so on. But figuring out that balance between letting chemistry build versus making adjustments can be difficult. That’s the task that Brind’Amour has in front of him. Fortunately, if injuries strike, there are options there too. And this is true even if the Hurricanes trade one of the defencemen.
Main Photo Credit: James Guillory-USA TODAY Sports