When the Carolina Hurricanes were bolstering their roster for the 2020 Stanley Cup playoffs, there was no predicting how quickly the COVID-19 outbreak would halt the season so suddenly.
Gutted by injuries to their back end, the Hurricanes sought help in the form of Sami Vatanen and Brady Skjei at the 2020 trade deadline to replace two key, injured defensemen in Dougie Hamilton and Brett Pesce.
Now, as the NHL prepares for a hopeful return to play, the Hurricanes find themselves in an awkward position now that they have a nearly healthy roster, and a few too many defensemen.
|2019-20 Regular Season (CAR)||Games Played||TOI per game|
|Brett Pesce (INJ)||61||21:53|
|Trevor van Riemsdyk||49||14:52|
The Hurricanes currently have eight healthy defensemen – not including Pesce, who is only in month four of his four-to-six-month recovery time frame and is doubtful to return this season.
Pesce underwent shoulder surgery in early March and was originally ruled out for the rest of the season. But should the Hurricanes make a deep run into August, it may not be out of the question for Pesce to return further down the road.
The decision head coach Rod Brind’Amour now faces is how to juggle eight NHL-calibre defensemen with only six spots up for grabs.
Hamilton Eager to Make Much-Anticipated Return
Hamilton was on pace for a career-high season when he suffered a broken fibula in mid-January. He had amassed 14 goals and 40 points in 47 games and was among the league’s top defensemen in many key categories. Not only was he the Hurricanes’ MVP to that point, but he was a top candidate for the Norris Trophy as well.
Fortunately, he’s now made a full recovery and is ready to presumably slot into his usual position on the No. 1 pairing with Jaccob Slavin. The duo was put together for parts of last season, when Hamilton was just making his transition to his new team in Carolina. But this season, the duo of Hamilton and Slavin were lights-out, playing together every game and proving themselves to be one of the NHL’s best defensive pairs.
A broken leg is one of the scarier injuries a hockey player can face, so until Hamilton is able to fully test it by hitting the ice and participating in high-octane hockey, there’s no certainty he’ll be able to immediately play those heavy top-line minutes.
But Hamilton is still the Hurricanes’ best offensive defenseman, and with him operating the No. 1 power-play unit with Slavin commanding the Hurricanes’ penalty kill, they’re guaranteed to eat plenty of ice time.
Newcomers Skjei and Vatanen Are Key Factors
Vatanen, who hasn’t played since Feb. 1 due to a lower-body injury, is another defenseman returning from injury for the Hurricanes. Though he hasn’t played a game for Carolina yet, he did average 21:45 time-on-ice (TOI) for the New Jersey Devils before he was dealt to the Hurricanes in late February.
On top of his ability to log big minutes, he’s handy on the power play as well. He scored 5 goals and 18 assists in 47 games for the Devils this season, 10 of those points coming on the power play. He’s also a right-handed shot, which makes him a perfect fit for the second pairing with Pesce’s status still up in the air.
As for Skjei, he only played seven games for the Hurricanes this season, registering just one assist, but was a steady, confident presence in that stint. He’s capable of skating upwards of 20 minutes per game and also plays a reliable two-way game. His left shot would complement a strong No. 2 pairing with Vatanen without disrupting the chemistry of the other usual pairings.
The Fight For the Final Spots
With a powerful top four potentially in place, Brind’Amour has Joel Edmundson, Jake Gardiner, Haydn Fleury and Trevor van Riemsdyk remaining to battle it out for the final two spots on the blue line.
Edmundson has been a steady bottom-pairing guy since coming to Carolina in the Justin Faulk trade one year ago. You won’t notice him a lot on the ice, but that’s usually what you want out of a stay-at-home defenseman. He’s also a left-hand shot who can play both sides. With an average shorthanded TOI of 2:48 per game this season, he’s a guy Brind’Amour can comfortably rely on.
Gardiner’s first season with the Hurricanes was a little bit different. He played all 68 games but also went through long stretches of inconsistency where he was maligned for giveaways and weak defensive coverage. But then he’d come back the next game and give a boost to the team with his patented stretch passes and smooth puck movement.
Gardiner is a guy who can give you a lot if his confidence is high and if he’s used correctly, and maybe a sheltered third-pairing role is just what he needs to thrive.
Fleury and van Riemsdyk were the two guys who often found themselves as the sixth defenseman or the healthy scratch. Brind’Amour seemed to favor van Riemsdyk over Fleury when he had a healthy roster – perhaps due to his veteran experience and right-handed shot.
Fleury is younger at 23 years old, and is still fighting to establish himself as a regular NHLer. It’s been three seasons now that he’s been on the cusp of reaching that level, but 2019-20 was his steadiest season yet. As the youngest of Carolina’s blueliners, he may have the easiest time transitioning back to the game, and that could propel him into a roster spot.
Projected Lineup and the Seventh Defenseman
Running the 11-forward, 7-defenseman lineup is something Brind’Amour toyed with throughout this season, especially when injuries struck and the Hurricanes were short on forward depth.
If there was ever a time to lean on seven defensemen, maybe it’s now. Alhough that experiment didn’t have much success in the regular season, it may help trim down minutes for guys like Hamilton and Vatanen who may need to be eased into the fray. Here’s what the Hurricanes’ blue line could look like if play resumes next month:
Slavin – Hamilton
Skjei – Vatanen
Gardiner – Edmundson
With a healthy balance of offense and defense on each pairing and van Riemsdyk and Fleury available to sub into the lineup, the Hurricanes are in an excellent spot defensively.
Should the NHL’s re-opening plan continue without setback, the Hurricanes will play a best-of-five series against the New York Rangers to determine which team qualifies for the 16-team playoff bracket.