Even before Joni Pitkanen was lost for the season, his position as the Carolina Hurricanes’ nominal No. 1 defenseman had been usurped by a shaggy-haired youngster with a perpetually busted lip only six months removed from his 21st birthday.
Justin Faulk’s meteoric rise up the depth chart in Carolina hasn’t gained much attention around the NHL, but this season that may change quickly. Not only will Faulk have a chance to make the U.S. Olympic team, but he’ll also be integral to any success the Hurricanes have.
If his career continues to blossom, Faulk is the kind of player who could end up winning the Norris Trophy someday – at the moment, a laughable assertion to anyone who hasn’t actually watched him play closely and a realistic one to anyone who has.
“If you’re in a larger market, certain players get talked about more than others. That’s just the nature of being in those areas,” Hurricanes captain Eric Staal said. “If he plays the way I know that he can and our team does well, he’ll be as well known as he needs to be, for the right reasons. For a young kid playing that position, I don’t think people realize how good he could be.”
Faulk is a rarity on two fronts: The Hurricanes develop impact defensemen about as often as Chumbawamba has a hit song and they have never had a defenseman with this much potential.
Glen Wesley was a rock in the heart of the defense for more than a decade. The Hurricanes gave up three first-round picks to get him and he played a massive role in building a foundation for the franchise here, but in the latter half of his career he never had the offensive production that inevitably fosters Norris Trophy consideration.
The Hurricanes thought they were drafting this kind of player when they took Jack Johnson with the No. 3 overall pick in 2005, but Johnson refused their entreaties to turn pro in the spring and fall of 2006 and was traded away. Now with his third organization, he has developed into a solid defenseman, but not the once-in-a-generation player he was thought capable of becoming.
Faulk lasted until the second round, 37th overall, of the 2010 draft before his first and only season at Minnesota-Duluth. He may have eluded scouts because he doesn’t stand out in the usual ways, not as a big hitter or offensive dynamo or towering figure, but that’s exactly what makes him so good.
He’s not particularly tall at 6 feet, but he’s solidly built at 215 pounds and is willing to throw his body around. He passes and sees the ice well enough to contribute on the power play and switch the game quickly from defense to offense. He has the hockey sense, skating ability and deft stickwork to defuse attacks with quiet efficiency. What he has lacked is the postseason stage to show off those attributes, something Faulk knows all too well.
“You see at the end of players’ careers, they never won anything,” Faulk said. “I’m not saying it discredits their career, but the better a team does, the better off every individual is on the team. First and foremost, make the playoffs, I think. That’s where I want to be.”
The challenge for Faulk this season is to add more of an edge to his game, to elevate his play more consistently, to take over games when the result is uncertain. He has the ability to do that more often than he does, but it’s easy to forget he’d only be heading into his senior year had he stayed in school.
Because he is that young, Faulk is also the first piece of the Hurricanes’ core for the post-Eric Staal/Cam Ward era. The other pieces have yet to fall into place. Jeff Skinner is being paid like one, but hasn’t played like it lately. Ryan Murphy and Elias Lindholm have a shot, but are far from guaranteed.
For now, Faulk is the vanguard of what the Hurricanes might be 10 years down the road. He’s also the most important piece of their defense right here, right now, right away.