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Jaccob Slavin is as Focused as They Come

It’s hard to get a rise out of Jaccob Slavin. But don’t mistake his Lady Byng calm for a lack of competitive fire. He wants it as bad as anyone. Just don’t expect him to go all Will Smith on anyone.
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Sometimes you just have to ask a stupid question. 

For years now, Jaccob Slavin has been one of the most effective defensemen in the NHL, just not in the rugged, punishing way that blueliners of yesteryear were. In fact, last season he became the first defenseman in nearly a decade to win the Lady Byng Trophy for gentlemanly conduct and sportsmanship. But I had to ask: Doesn’t he ever want to just smack an opponent in the face?

With a laugh, Slavin demurred. “Thankfully, God blessed me with a pretty mild temper,” he said. “If it was up to my wife, I’d be more feisty on the ice, but I’ve always been a pretty mild-tempered guy. Angry isn’t really in my vocabulary. It takes a lot to want to punch somebody.”

Growing up in a Colorado household with four other siblings – all of whom played sports – Slavin, who turns 28 on May 1, probably had plenty of moments that would have inspired violence in others. But with the patience of Job, he resisted.

“Yeah, I was always the one that kept everybody in line,” Slavin said. “Never a dull moment. It was always competitive, whether it was mini-hockey or who got the biggest cookie. Definitely a lot of sports, definitely a lot of household damage from everyone running around.”

Now that everyone’s grown up, ranging in age from 32 to 17, the Slavins have even more fun with each other. A Stanley Cup party back in Erie, Colo., would be pretty great if the Hurricanes go all the way this year. And that is certainly on the table.

Heading into the season, you would’ve been forgiven for doubting the Hurricanes a bit. True, Carolina won its division last season, but after losing defenseman Dougie Hamilton to New Jersey via free agency, the Canes were without one of their top scorers and minute-munchers.

Despite the loss of Hamilton, Carolina has been the best defensive team in the NHL, surrendering fewer goals per game than anyone else (hat tip to starting goalie Frederik Andersen, too, of course). Contributions from newcomers have helped. Ian Cole, already a two-time Cup winner from his Pittsburgh days, brought loads of experience and penalty-killing acumen. Ethan Bear has defended well after falling out of favor in Edmonton, and Tony DeAngelo – paired with Slavin for most of the season – has been a catalyst from the blueline, putting up nearly a point per game for Carolina.

At the center of it all is Slavin, who leads the team in average ice time by nearly two minutes per game and is having the best offensive campaign of his seven-year NHL career. Not bad for a guy who is actually known more for keeping enemy forwards off the scoresheet.

“He brings a lot to our team, and I’m talking about all aspects of the game, especially defensively,” said assistant coach Tim Gleason. “He has a quick 1-2-3 step that he can recover on or beat guys to pucks on. He has one of the better sticks I’ve seen in a long time, his skating is a huge part of his game, and he’s a quiet leader. But at times he’s vocal, which helps. You can throw him out at any time of the game and he’ll be relied upon in that situation.”

Gleason, who grew up in Michigan, sees a lot of Detroit Red Wings legend Nicklas Lidstrom in Slavin – a defenseman who isn’t physical but is always there, using his stick and body positioning to make the right play.

“Obviously Lidstrom’s a Hall of Famer, but there’s a comparison there for sure,” Gleason said. “I throw him in that category because he’s that good all-around. He knocks down so many pucks, especially on the penalty kill. And the good part about it is that he brings it every single day, and that’s what being a pro is all about.”

While he’s now an imposing 6-foot-3 and 207 pounds, Slavin was never the biggest kid on the ice growing up in Colorado, so he would use stickwork to defend instead of physicality. As for his defensive bent, Slavin always preferred that side of the game, even though he put up big numbers as a teen before heading off to the USHL’s Chicago Steel and led Colorado College in scoring as a freshman after that. But even that was circumstantial. 

While it seems wild now, Slavin wasn’t the most highly regarded player among his 1994 birth year cohort in what was seen as a strong Colorado class back in the day, so he didn’t make the Colorado Thunderbirds U-18 team like his buddies did. Instead, he became a go-to player for the program’s U-16 squad, naturally allowing him to open things up on the scoreboard on a regular basis. As for Colorado College, the Tigers gave him plenty of offensive opportunities because they needed him, winning just seven games that year. Either way, defense always came first in his mind. “I don’t think offense will ever come at the expense of sacrificing my defensive mindset,” Slavin said. “There are times in a game when I could be more aggressive offensively, but I know it would put me in a bad position defensively.”

Playing with a former wild card in the offensively excellent DeAngelo has allowed Slavin to get more points while still maintaining his personal stance on defense.

“It’s our first year together, and we weren’t even together at the start so it’s still fresh, but he plays hard and he works hard defensively,” Slavin said. “The better defense you play, the more offensive opportunities you’re going to get. Hopefully the points keep rolling in, but it’s easy to get those points when your forwards are scoring, that’s why you see the inflation this year.”

Gleason sees the perfect combo in the pairing. “They have done some solid partner work,” he said. “ ‘Slavo’ can cover for Tony when he’s up in the play, so those two complement each other very well.”

So if defense is the key to Slavin’s success and he’s not running people through the boards, then how does he do it? The traditional answer among NHLers is always “take away time and space” from the puckhandler and, shockingly, that’s exactly what Slavin tries to do. But at least he was kind enough to elaborate.

“The easy answer is to say ‘take away time and space,’ ” he said. “Going up against the best guys in the world, they need hardly any time to make plays, so that’s huge. But beyond that, positioning is really important, making sure you’re not out of position and making sure you have a good gap. I’ve never been a physical guy, so I’ve really relied a lot in my career on stickwork, taking away passing lanes, getting stick-on-puck, that’s been my bread and butter, and it helps take away that time and space.”

Gleason would love to see Slavin crush the odd opponent, and on the rare occasion when it does happen, the Hurricanes’ bench erupts. Yet even in those situations, Slavin is only making the hit because the opponent has put himself in a bad position, not because he wants to rain vengeance upon his head. “It’s interesting,” Gleason said. “I don’t know if he gets mad, he’s a human being, so he gets frustrated here and there, but that’s one of his strong points. You don’t necessarily notice when he’s frustrated. He never goes overboard, he’s always the same.”

If Carolina can continue to get that consistency through the playoffs, the Hurricanes will have a good chance of nabbing the franchise’s second Stanley Cup. With defense, goaltending and a forward corps that has bought into their defensive responsibilities, while being led by the likes of Sebastian Aho, Andrei Svechnikov and Teuvo Teravainen, the team possesses all the winning elements needed, plus a motivational master in coach Rod Brind’Amour.

This current generation of Canes may have come to prominence with the Justin Williams-led Storm Surges and the ‘Bunch of Jerks’ rallying cry, but the real fun would come with a championship, and that’s where the internal spotlight is.

“‘Roddy’ does a great job creating a culture that is pretty contagious,” Slavin said. “Do whatever it takes and make sure guys bring their best every day. It’s a grind, but the group in the room is tight and there are no outliers. We all have the mindset this year that we have a group that can get it done and be the last one standing at the end. Everyone’s mindset is focused on that.”

If Carolina is going to go all the way, passing chalk favorites such as Colorado, Tampa Bay and Florida, Slavin will be integral to the effort. He may not show it and he may not shout it, but he’s going to bring the same elite effort every night – even if his style of game doesn’t smack you in the face. 

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