The Carolina Hurricanes have a roster decision to make regarding defense.
With eight capable defensemen, who will be the odd man out on the Carolina Hurricanes blueline when play resumes late this summer?
Rod Brind’amour and the rest of the Carolina Hurricanes’ coaching staff have a difficult decision in front of them when play finally resumes later this summer. With eight healthy NHL defensemen on the roster, two guys will more than likely find themselves watching games from the press box, just itching to get back on the ice. The only question is who are the odd men out?
First off there are a few guys who we know are locks to be in the lineup, those, of course, being Jaccob Slavin, Dougie Hamilton, Jake Gardiner, and Brady Skjei. With Brett Pesce still out, these are the Hurricanes’ top options on defense, even though some fans may not see it that way with Gardiner at times.
As the scapegoat for a lot of unwarranted criticism in Toronto, he tends to be singled out when the whole team is in a bit a rough patch. Yes, he’s had off nights, but every player has their ups and downs in a full 82 game season. Like Hamilton, he had to go through an adjustment period after joining the team as a free agent.
Before the halt to the season, he was playing some of his best hockey as a Cane and was looking more and more like the player they signed to a multiyear deal in the offseason.
It goes without saying that when Slavin and Hamilton were together the tandem was one of the best in the entire league. Before his injury, Dougie was on pace to have a career year and was even among those in the Norris conversation.
Slavin is hands down the team’s best defenseman and should be considered among the best in NHL. With Hamilton healthy and good to go, these two are without a doubt going to be in the lineup each and every night and playing top minutes in the process.
Lastly, Skjei was brought in for the long haul. Already having an interesting start to his Hurricanes career with the whole pandemic, things are about to get more interesting. Traded to Carolina from New York deadline day, he will be facing off against his former team for the first time in play in rounds.
Only a few years removed from being seen as the future captain and leader of the Rangers squad, he’s going to be looking to prove the Blue Shirts made a big mistake and letting him go, especially to a divisional rival. Likely anchoring the second D pair, I am expecting Brady’s fingerprints to be all over this series.
So now who is left?
Rounding out the rest of Carolina’s defense corps is Haydn Fleury, Trevor van Riemsdyk, Joel Edmundson, and Sami Vatanen. Each and every one of these guys will probably see some ice time at some point in the series, it’s just a matter of how much and when.
Out of this group you’d think TVR and Edmundson have a bit of an edge over Fleury and Vatanen. Rod seems to rely more on his veteran players during key points in games, and with an extremely small margin for error, I’d expect him to do the same in the play-in rounds.
Both van Riemsdyk and Edmundson have won the Stanley Cup before, Trevor with the Hawks in 2015 and Joel this past season with the Blues, so they know what it takes to get it done.
Not the flashiest of guys, you know what you’re going to get from TVR each and every night. A guy capable of slotting in a team’s top four if need be, he’s a real luxury for the Canes on the third pair.
Edmundson brings that physicality and grit you need to be successful in the playoffs. Honestly, something Carolina was lacking a bit in their matchup with Boston last spring, he could give you the slight edge you need when the games tighten up late. Not afraid to drop the gloves, his game seems more suited for the postseason, making him a likely candidate to help set the tone in game one vs New York.
When you look at a unit of Slavin, Hamilton, Gardiner, Skjei, van Riemsdyk and Edmundson the lefty-righty balance is a bit off. With four lefties and two righties in this scenario, someone would have to play their offside. While not the end of the world, some coaches prefer their D pairs to have an equal number of left and right shots. Enter Vatanen.
Also brought in at the trade deadline, Vatanen has yet to make his Hurricanes debut. Only hitting the ice a handful of times with the rest of the team, he seems like a guy Rod would hold out the lineup, at least to start, for a variety of reasons.
Arguably the biggest, he hasn’t really gotten a chance to learn the Canes’ systems. Had the playoff started on time this may have been more of a concern, but it isn’t all the smart to throw a player to wolves in the postseason without him knowing the way your team likes to do certain things. Having the mini “training camp” in July will go a long way in making sure he’s comfortable.
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Also, Brind’amour seems like the type of guy to reward the players that were there for the long haul and got you to what, honestly should be the playoffs, but, are the new play in rounds, to begin with.
Had Dougie still be out, maybe he’d be a lock to play, as he can help replace some of that offense production from the back end, but with him, back in the lineup it might be best not to disrupt the team chemistry.
On the other hand, playing against the Rangers, a team Carolina has struggled to score on lately, it might be a good thing to have as many offensive threats in the lineup as possible. Soon to be a UFA, the Canes may want to see how Vatanen fits within their system if they, all be it a long shot, have any intention of signing him to some sort of an extension.
He’s also a right shot option and would help balance out the D pairs if Rod decides to go that route.
No matter what he does or doesn’t do, Hayden Fleury almost always seems to be the odd man out. I don’t know what it is but it appears as if either Dean Chynoweth or Rod Brind’amour lack a bit of trust in the player, making him the most likely of candidates to sit out for game one.
Personally, I feel as if he was playing some of his best hockey in the second half of the season and the pairing with him and Brady Skjei looked like it had the makings of something special. He’s done enough, in my opinion, to stay in the lineup but ultimately I’m not the one who gets to make that decision.
With the Charlotte Checkers last year he was dynamite in playoffs leading to their eventual Calder Cup Championship. Should he reach a similar level play in the NHL postseason, having him as a depth guy could be a possible X factor for the Canes? I’m expecting him to sit out for games one and possibly two before slotting in for a guy like TVR.
At the end of the day, it is possible they decide to dress 7 D for a game or two, but given how Rod dislikes how someone almost always ends up getting left out of the rotation, this seems unlikely. With the slightest of margins for error, with only 5 games max to determine the rest of the season, players with probably have a short leash given the abundance of depth.
It is possible, and probably the most likely scenario, that the top four guys will be mainstays in the lineup and the bottom four guys will rotate in and out depending on how the previous game went/should an injury occur.
I for one am glad that I don’t have to be the one making this decision, as it could be the deciding factor if the Hurricanes officially make the playoffs or not.
There really isn’t a right or wrong solution, as all eight players have done enough to prove that they can make a difference in a game and should be in the lineup. With Hamilton and Vatanen returning for injuries the blue line got a bit crowded.
Although they are set to return, an injury or two is still likely to occur, and having this amount of depth is never a bad thing. With a trio of players set to hit the open market when it’s all said and done, the time is now to see what this elite defense core is capable of.
Question for CC Readers: Which six players would you start on the backend if you were Rod?