A day after receiving a six-year contract extension, Brett Pesce was thinking only about next year.
The Carolina Hurricanes defenseman wants to be stronger. He wants to improve his shot and be more of an offensive factor. He wants to help the Canes reach the Stanley Cup playoffs for the first time since 2009.
“It’s time to get better and work harder and really elevate my game each and every year,” Pesce said Wednesday. “I’ve got to up my game now.”
The Canes like his game. Pesce, often paired with Jaccob Slavin last season, provided some smart, tough, effective play on the back end.
Slavin recently agreed to a seven-year contract extension. Pesce’s six-year deal that will pay him $4.025 million a season. It’s a twosome that could be together for some time as general manager Ron Francis now has the two signed to long-term deals.
“Everyone knows the chemistry me and Jaccob had last year,” Pesce said. “Hopefully we can continue to grow on that and grow together as a pair.”
And not just the chemistry with Slavin. Justin Faulk and Noah Hanifin, and now Trevor van Riemsdyk, give the Canes not only one of the younger defensive corps in the NHL but also one that could develop into one of the best as a group.
Haydn Fleury and Jake Bean, two former first-round draft picks by Carolina, could make a push for roster spots. The competition should be intense in training camp.
“I think it’s awesome and I think it’s rare that with our group of defensemen, we’re all so close,” Pesce said. “I grew up with Jaccob. I remember us playing on festival teams in the U.S. development camps when we were like 15. I think it goes a long way to come in the league together and grow as people and hockey players. That kind of builds our chemistry off the ice.”
Pesce, 22, played a year of college hockey with van Riemsdyk, a former roommate at New Hampshire. Van Riemsdyk, who won a Stanley Cup ring with the Chicago Blackhawks, was obtained by the Canes this summer from the Vegas Golden Knights after Vegas took him in the expansion draft.
“He’s another good-skating defenseman and he’s young, obviously, as well,” Pesce said. “He’s a really good player, very smart in the D-zone and can join the rush and help offensively. I think he fits perfectly into our system.”
Two years ago, Pesce came to Canes camp hoping to make a good impression and fit into the system. He had an AHL cameo with the Charlotte Checkers but quickly played his way into the Canes’ lineup.
After taking a shot off a foot in a game his rookie year, Pesce had trouble walking to his car after a Canes practice. Carolina had a road game the next day, and Pesce appeared doubtful for the game.
“Oh, I’m playing,” he said.
Pesce did. And he played all 82 games last season, tying Slavin for the team high with his plus-23 rating.
But even Pesce, a third-round draft pick in 2013, is a bit amazed what he has accomplished the past couple of years.
“I always hope and strive for the best and it’s actually happened,” he said. “It’s pretty surreal. I have a lot to be thankful for. … It’s a good time for myself and the organization, and I’m just excited to get going.
“It was a long offseason, that’s for sure, and I’m getting pretty bored. I think we made the moves to be a playoff team, for sure. Anything below that is an underachievement.”