Carolina Hurricanes coach Bill Peters often speaks of his group-of-eight defensemen, indicating strength in the number.
All eight played in the NHL last season, Peters will say. All eight wanted to be there this season, ratcheting up competition in training camp, and the eight are on the Canes’ roster.
But Peters said he is loath to dress seven in games. Of the six who do play, the top four probably will log the most minutes, he said.
Andrej Sekera and Justin Faulk are the Canes’ top two. And then? Hard to say.
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“I think they’ll have a tough time,” NBC hockey analyst Pierre McGuire said of the Canes. “I don’t think you can win with Andrej Sekera and Justin Faulk as 1-2 on defense and that’s basically what they’re looking at right now.
“I just don’t know if there’s enough depth on defense. Sekera and Faulk are good players but not a 1-2 in the NHL.”
Sekera, in his first season with the Canes, set career highs in goals (11), assists (33) and shots (142), and was second on the team with a plus-4 rating in 2013-2014. A lot of defensemen in the league would have taken those numbers.
Asked if he felt the need to match that output this season, Sekera said, “I don’t put pressure on myself. I just want to play hard every game and see where that will take me. I know what I am capable of.”
Faulk, 22, will look to take the next step in a career that has been trending upward. He won an NCAA championship as a freshman at Minnesota-Duluth, played for the U.S. in World Championships and then on Team USA in the 2014 Sochi Olympics, and now wants to help the Hurricanes end their playoff drought in his fourth season as an NHL regular.
But Sekera, 28, believes the group of defensemen all can contribute, can combine to get the job done.
“We’re all experienced in the league and everybody knows what they can bring to the table,” he said.
Ron Hainsey, who signed a three-year extension with the Canes, is beginning his 12th NHL season. Not a flashy type, he’s steady and dependable, playing all 82 games last season.
Tim Gleason has a physical edge to his play – an edge he appeared to lose last season, when he was traded by Carolina to the Toronto Maple Leafs. But Gleason is back, signed as a free agent to a one-year contract, and appears to be re-energized under Peters.
Veteran Jay Harrison and Brett Bellemore give Peters size, and John-Michael Liles and Ryan Murphy are good puck-handlers who can quarterback the power play. Faulk, Murphy and Bellemore are right-handed shooters.
Hainsey and Liles are the oldest at 33, and Murphy, 21, the youngest.
“It’s a good group, an underrated group probably,” Peters said. “There’s a lot of different personalities and different types of players. There’s puck-movers, you’ve got some competitive guys, you’ve got some big guys with good sticks.”
Hainsey said the Canes have options, that there will be two defensemen each game “waiting in the wings looking to show what they can do.”
“The other side of it is you go through the unluckiness of the year, eight to sometimes 12 defensemen will play depending on injuries,” Hainsey said. “You need a lot of guys to get through an 82-game year. We’ll need everybody along the way to get the job done.”
In Wednesday’s practice, the blue-line pairs were Sekera-Faulk, Hainsey-Liles, Harrison-Gleason and Bellemore-Murphy. Peters also has looked at other combos in camp.
“It’s been a nice competition, guys trying to do what they do best and not get out of your comfort zone too much,” Liles said. “If you’re a puck-mover, be a puck-mover. If you’re a stay-at-home, be a stay-at home. Do what you do best.”
“It’s a well-rounded group, top to bottom.”