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Red, White & Blueline: The Hurricanes' all-American defense corps

The Carolina Hurricanes have an utter embarrassment of riches on the back end, and their tantalizingly talented top-four is made in America.

It's the little things they’ll miss when it all comes to an end after this season. Brett Pesce and Noah Hanifin broke into the NHL two years ago and have been roommates on the road ever since. But when they’re freed from their entry-level contracts starting in 2018-19, they’ll also be freed of each other, since each will then merit getting his own room. Some guys on the Carolina Hurricanes wouldn’t be surprised if they voluntarily continued bunking together as veterans. Justin Faulk claims they’re like an old married couple, even though their combined age is just 43. They annoy each other with their constant snoring.

But the best days are the ones on the road when the Hurricanes have a late practice or a day off. On those days Hanifin and Pesce are usually in their rooms, clad in the terrycloth robes and slippers you get at these boutique joints, waiting for breakfast to arrive. “Yeah, we like to bro it up a bit,” Pesce said. “Sometimes we need to be left alone. We need our Brett and Noah time.”

The only other thing that would make this a perfect bromance is if the two were defense partners, but every relationship has its limits. When Hanifin jumps over the boards, it’s almost always with Faulk, while Pesce and Jaccob Slavin are the other pair that make up the Hurricanes’ top-four. And what a top-four it is. There’s a lot to like about this group, particularly if you’re an American hockey fan who has designs on the NHL coming back to its senses and participating in the Olympics again. It is a Made in America defense corps drawing comparisons to some of the best in the NHL. It’s not quite there yet, but the talk of this group being ‘Nashville East’ – the Predators’ top-four is made up of Roman Josi, P.K. Subban, Mattias Ekholm and Ryan Ellis – is not far off. Except for one tiny matter, of course. “We’re not anything until we get to the playoffs,” Faulk said. “We can be as good as we want in the regular season, but if we don’t make it to the playoffs, we don’t make any runs, it won’t be anything. Once we make it to the playoffs, we have a group back here to be able to lead us.”

There seems to be universal agreement on that. Any discussion of the best defense corps in the game has to include the Hurricanes. But the best part for them is that you could be talking about the present or the future and the conversation would remain the same. Rounded out by another American in Trevor van Riemsdyk and a Canadian in Haydn Fleury, the Hurricanes also have waiting in the wings 2016 first-rounder Jake Bean, a point-per-game producer in the WHL who’ll be an integral cog for Canada at the 2018 world juniors, and Roland McKeown, a 2014 second-round pick of the Los Angeles Kings who was acquired three years ago in the Andrej Sekera trade. The numbers game suggests not all of them will find a home on the Carolina blueline, but it’s a wonderful problem to have.

Ask any GM the one position he’d like to have in abundance and he’ll tell you it’s defensemen. The more the merrier, because teams never know when injuries will hit or when they’ll need a valuable chip in trade talks. But in the here and now, there’s an awful lot to like about the foursome of Faulk, Hanifin, Pesce and Slavin. Not only do they make two left-right pairs, which is all the rage these days, but their breadth of talent is something to behold. In Hanifin and Faulk, Carolina has two gifted skaters who can move the puck and create offense from the back end, whether springing loose one of the Hurricanes’ speedy forwards or quarterbacking a power play. In Slavin and Pesce, the Hurricanes have a classic shutdown duo capable of logging big minutes and doing the heavy lifting against the best offensive players in the league. Neither came to Carolina as a known quantity, but both are rapidly emerging from under the cover of being underrated players. Ask anyone in hockey about Slavin and you’ll almost certainly get raves. Think of a much quieter, unassuming, bearded and religious Rod Langway and you’re on the right track. There might not be a defenseman in the NHL who’s better at breaking up plays than Slavin. From 2015-16 through the first month of this season, no defenseman had more takeaways than Slavin’s 148, which included a league-high 83 last season. And it’s not as though the other three are slouches in that department. Pesce ranks seventh during that span with 103, Faulk eighth with 102 and Hanifin 11th with 91. “I’ve never really been much of a physical guy, so I’ve always relied on my stick and my body positioning,” Slavin said. “Making sure I have the right angles, on the draw and in the corners, making sure I have the right body position, just being comfortable with that and trusting my own abilities.”

Carolina Hurricanes defensemen Brett Pesce (left) and Noah Hanifin (middle) celebrate a goal with Sebastian Aho.

And the best thing about it? At just 25, Faulk is the greybeard among the four, and he’s under contract for another two years at $4.8 million per season. GM Ron Francis will look like a managerial genius in a couple years if Slavin and Pesce continue their upward trajectories. When he finishes his entry-level deal after this season, Slavin is tied up for seven more years at an average of $5.3 million and Pesce is locked in for six more years at an average of just more than $4 million. Hanifin, who has yet to sign an extension, is tough to project. Slavin and Pesce play more minutes and more difficult minutes, so it’ll be hard to justify paying Hanifin more than either of those players, which could force the two sides into a bridge deal worth about $3 million a year, or it might result in Hanifin being dealt. But even if the Canes sign Hanifin to a long-term deal and give him Slavin-like money, that means they’ll have four of the most promising defensemen in the NHL locked up for the next two seasons at just more than $20 million combined. When you’re a budget team as Carolina clearly is, that’s monumental.

No wonder coach Bill Peters likes them so much. Like everyone else in hockey, he looks at the players in this group and sees a lot of good things in their future. But there’s the playoff problem. The Hurricanes haven’t made the post-season in eight years. The franchise is essentially for sale, and the crowds continue to stay away in large swaths. That makes the present a little more urgent for this team, which would be bolstered by the defense corps making the kinds of advancements in their games to be considered elite. “Potential is a dirty word, right?” Peters said. “Potential means you haven’t proven anything yet. It’s all potential until you’ve done it, then it’s actual fact. They’re all young guys, they all have not even come close to reaching their ceiling, and they all have work to do. If they put the work in, they’ll be a real good core moving forward.”

About the only thing missing from the Hurricanes’ defense corps is the physical element. None of them is what you would consider a banger, and there isn’t one on the horizon. But remember the thing we said about trade chips and never having enough skill on the back end, something the Hurricanes have in abundance. If the NHL continues with its crackdown on slashing to the hands and ever does something about multiple crosschecks, the need for a junkyard dog will be that much more diminished. Toughness is always a lot easier to find than skill, anyway.

Take Slavin, for example. Many believe he’ll ultimately turn into the alpha male of this group. A native of Denver by way of Colorado College, Slavin already leads the team in overall ice time at more than 24 minutes a game, including logging the most shorthanded ice time and the most minutes against the top lines in the league. He’s also beginning to display some offense, and this past summer, he and his wife decided to stay in Raleigh, where he had access to the Hurricanes’ facilities and strength coaches. Off the ice, those around him see him as a beacon of decency. As a devout Christian, Slavin openly acknowledges that his profession as a hockey player does not define him and that there is only one impression that concerns him, as evidenced by Galatians 1:10, which is his personal motto: “Am I now trying to win the approval of human beings or of God? Or am I trying to please people? If I were still trying to please people, I would not be a servant of Christ.”

Slavin may not be terribly concerned with what mere mortals think of him, but people are beginning to talk. When asked what Slavin brings to the Canes’ blueline, Pesce said, “I guess the question is what doesn’t he bring? His speed is second to none. He’s got great hands, great vision and an unbelievable stick defensively.”

That stick was on full display in mid-October when the Hurricanes defeated the Edmonton Oilers on the road and the duo of Pesce and Slavin limited Connor McDavid to just three shots and one assist in 26:31 of ice time, the third-highest single-game mark of McDavid’s career. At times, the two of them were downright suffocating, and those who didn’t recognize the duo’s shutdown ability before that night came away with a definite impression. “It’s easier to get up in the morning knowing you’ve got to play a guy like Connor McDavid or Sidney Crosby and do your best to shut them down,” Pesce said. “Not just for me and ‘Slavs’ but all our defense corps. It makes the game a little more exciting. I like challenges. It makes the game more fun for us.”

The idea of facing the biggest stars in the league might make some defensemen want to stay in bed, but the Hurricanes’ blueliners are either supremely confident or supremely naive about their defensive responsibilities. “We just laugh it off and have fun with it,” Slavin said, “but we also know our assignment.”

You get the impression the Hurricanes have the “having fun” thing down pretty well. They’re a young group, with van Riemsdyk the oldest on the blueline at just 26. Justin Williams and Cam Ward are the only two players on the team north of 30, and even Jeff Skinner, who is second only to Ward in continuous service and has been around for forever, is only 25. That creates an esprit du corps on and off the ice, and the defense corps is no exception. Many of the single players live in the same complex, including Pesce, Hanifin and Faulk. “I think you can count on just shy of one hand how many married guys there are,” Faulk said. “You get forced to hang out with each other. We don’t have a choice. On the road, at home, we’re together. None of us has a girlfriend. Well, some guys have girlfriends, but a lot of us don’t, so we’re stuck with each other.”

Now the only task that remains for this group, as Peters pointed out, is to transform that potential into reality. It is not quite there yet, and they have not yet developed the consistency that the Predators’ group has. But Nashville’s defense was also a work in progress that was fostered by the departures of Ryan Suter and Shea Weber. Ekholm didn’t emerge as a force until last season, and Ellis took a few years to develop into the player he has become. So what does Carolina’s top-four have to do to reach Nashville’s stratosphere? Well, they have to get a little better at everything. That will take time and may require the addition of a more physical and veteran presence that can only be acquired outside the organization. With the game trending toward an importance in possession, it all starts with being good in the defensive zone, then developing speed in the neutral zone and driving possession in the place Peters likes to call, “the fun zone.” Faulk and Hanifin are mandated to continue their development in the defensive zone, and Slavin and Pesce are constantly being pushed to make their zone exits cleaner and work on getting pucks through the sea of legs and bodies that usually stand between them and the net. “(Nashville) has the puck most of the shift, and they control the game from the back end,” Hanifin said. “That’s something that our ‘D’ corps wants to be able to do. You want to control the game. You want to have the puck. If the (opposing) team gets it and they’re chipping it out of the offensive zone, we want to regroup quickly and have the puck all the time.”

The Hurricanes are still finding themselves and creating their identity. There have been great games like the one against the Oilers, and there have been others where things have not gone nearly as well from the back end. For all the promise, Carolina entered November with a .500 record and out of the playoffs. The entire team in general and the defense corps in particular is learning that an 82-game season might be a grind, but every single point that is left on the table, every blown lead, is one that might leave them outside the playoff picture at season’s end.

Much of where the Hurricanes finish up this season will come down to their top-four, but the young Americans will dictate the franchise’s fortunes well beyond that. The Pittsburgh Penguins managed to win the Stanley Cup last spring with a defense corps that was bound together with duct tape, string and wire, so a dominant blueline is not always essential. But the Penguins were the exception to the rule. If you want to be a contender in the NHL, you need a stud-laden blueline. And if that’s the case, the future is indeed bright in Carolina. “The talent level is tremendous and the character is awesome,” Pesce said. “I think the sky is the limit.”



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