Justin Faulk of the Carolina Hurricanes will be entering his fifth NHL season and has the facial battle scars of a veteran defenseman.
By his count, Faulk has had at least six cuts that required a significant number of stitches – more than 80, he said. It comes from doing the dirty work of the position, of taking a stick or two in the face, or a few pucks.
At 23, Faulk is a Hurricanes cornerstone. He is their best defenseman, possibly the team’s most valuable player and one of the Canes’ stars.
Not that he claims to be, saying simply, “I don’t get caught up in that stuff.”
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But Faulk was selected to represent the team this week in the NHL Media Tour in Toronto. He was an NHL All-Star last season, when he was second on the team with 49 points and led the Canes in power-play points with 20, showing off a heavy shot that’s become respected in the league.
Ryan Johansen respects it. In a game last season, the Columbus Blue Jackets’ star center was about to block a Faulk shot from the point, only to think better of it and turn away.
Faulk believes he can become a 60-point scorer this season, becoming the first Canes defenseman to achieve it.
“Sure, I guess,” Faulk said. “It would be nice. But not if I don’t play my game every night.”
For Faulk, that could mean logging 25 minutes a game. It would mean jumping into the offense and being in the right places. It would mean a lot of power-play time, although he also scored two short-handed goals last season.
“There’s a lot of factors,” Faulk said. “I don’t know. I think if I continue to play my game every night and bring my A game, if I do that, I’d like to think I haven’t reached my ceiling at 23 years old. Hopefully it will keep going up.”
Canes coach Bill Peters believes it will. Asked about the next step in Faulk’s development, he said, “Just continue to emerge. Just continue to do what he’s doing. I think he’s on a real good path.”
The path for Faulk began as a second-round draft pick by Carolina in 2010. He won an NCAA title at Minnesota-Duluth as a freshman, then began his pro career, and he has been steadily trending upward, playing for the U.S in the 2014 Olympics and World Championships.
Faulk’s name wasn’t mentioned in Norris Trophy conversations last season, receiving one fifth-place vote. Erik Karlsson of the Ottawa Senators was selected the league’s best defenseman for a second time, finishing ahead of Drew Doughty of the Los Angeles Kings and 2013 winner P.K. Subban of the Montreal Canadiens.
But Faulk, at 5-11 and 216 pounds, played all 82 games, a testament to his durability. He was tied for sixth among NHL defensemen with 15 goals, tied for third in power-play goals (7) and tied for third in game-winning goals (4).
Could this be the year Faulk starts getting some Norris mention?
“We’ll see,” Canes defenseman Ron Hainsey said. “We have to take a step as a team, I think, which would help that.”
Karlsson helped lift the Sens into the playoffs last season. Faulk has yet to play in a Stanley Cup playoff game.
“But he’s got to keep growing,” Hainsey said. “He’s got to just worry about his game. He can’t worry about the Norris conversation. If he has another great season like he did last year, all that stuff will arrive with that.”
The best players are good in all areas of the ice. And they’re ready to go every night.
Canes defenseman Justin Faulk
Faulk and Hainsey became the Canes’ top defensive pair after the NHL trade deadline last season, after Carolina dealt Andrej Sekera to the Kings. Faulk played 25 or more minutes in nine games after the deadline.
“We need to make sure we play him the right amount of minutes,” Peters said. “He’s going to become one of those guys who’s a horse and can play a lot of minutes.”
Faulk and Hainsey should go into this season as the Canes’ shutdown tandem, and on a blue line that will have some new faces. Veteran James Wisniewski was obtained in a trade with the Anaheim Ducks, a day after Carolina made Boston College defenseman Noah Hanifin the fifth overall selection of the 2015 NHL draft.
Hanifin, like Faulk, decided to leave college after one season. Like Faulk, who played 66 NHL games in his rookie season, Hanifin hopes to make the Canes’ roster.
Faulk said he contacted Hanifin a few times over the summer and will do all he can to ease the transition for him.
“He’s a college kid, so I’m biased towards him,” Faulk said, smiling. “He just needs to come in and be comfortable to the point he can just play his game.”
Faulk says his focus will be on better consistency, in practice, in games. As he put it, the NHL’s best players are “on top of it every night.”
“It’s like the difference between pro golfers and good golfers,” he said. “The pros don’t miss. They can hit every short, drive, chip. The same is true in hockey. The best players are good in all areas of the ice. And they’re ready to go every night.”
For a defenseman, that means going back into the battles, even if it means a few more scars.