A night when the player who was once supposed to be Carolina’s next great defenseman was in the opposing lineup seemed like an appropriate moment to take a step back and appreciate that the Hurricanes’ future on the blue line has never seemed brighter.
At the halfway point of what looks like another otherwise wasted season, unquestionably the most positive development has been watching not only Justin Faulk work his magic and 18-year-old rookie Noah Hanifin live up to his considerable billing, but the less-heralded Brett Pesce and Jaccob Slavin step seamlessly into the NHL.
As has become routine, all four played critical roles in Friday's 4-1 win over the Columbus Blue Jackets and onetime Hurricanes prospect Jack Johnson. Slavin was a rock on defense with several critical blocks on a Columbus two-man advantage (with Faulk in the penalty box) and Hanifin picked up an assist on Elias Lindholm's go-ahead goal. The three rookies and the All-Star – all Americans, ages 23, 21, 21 and 18 – continue to make up the majority of a functional NHL blue line that defies convention.
“Obviously, we're definitely a young (defensive) corps, but we get a lot of help from (John-Michael) Liles and (Ron) Hainsey, too,” Slavin said. “They help us out a lot with anything we need, any questions we can go to them. They definitely make it easier. We just try to bring our best every team to help the team win.”
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Faulk ended up being the player Johnson was supposed to be when the Hurricanes drafted him third overall in 2005, a two-way threat and perennial All-Star and potential future Norris Trophy candidate. Johnson has never reached that standard, although he was gone from the Hurricanes organization long before that became clear, shipped to the Los Angeles Kings in the fall of 2006 after he refused to leave Michigan, landing eventually with the Blue Jackets.
The book is still open on Hanifin, but after a half-season in the NHL in what should have been his sophomore year at Boston College, he's met the expectations that came with being the top defenseman in the draft. The sky remains the limit, and he has a long way to go yet, but there's nothing at this point to suggest he can't get there. Pesce and Slavin came in without the same expectations, but the Hurricanes were quietly optimistic about both, even if they never expected them to slot so easily into the lineup.
This is especially notable because it's hard to look around the league and find that many quality defensemen. Fifteen years ago, just about every team had three or four guys you could count on night in, night out. The bar was set lower then. You could have a reasonably successful career tethered to the net on a 15-foot cord, banging the puck off the glass and out of the zone. Defensemen weren't asked to move the puck or skate as much as they are now, when you're lucky to have two guys and ecstatic to have three that exceed a basic standard of competence.
It helps that the three rookies are surrounded by mentors, from Hainsey and Liles to assistant coach Steve Smith, one of the best in the NHL in his playing days, to ex-Hurricanes defenseman Tim Gleason, recently added to the staff as an unofficial coach. The Hurricanes also play an efficient, compact style under Bill Peters, which along with a stronger commitment to defense from the forwards gives an inexperienced defenseman more of a safety net.
“But that's not taking away anything,” Hurricanes captain Eric Staal said. “These kids are legit.”
The four youngsters have apparently re-energized Liles, whose late-career renaissance at age 35 could prove lucrative for the Hurricanes during what figures to be a veteran exodus at the Feb. 29 deadline. The kids on the blue line, though, are clearly keepers.
Luke DeCock: 919-829-8947, firstname.lastname@example.org, @LukeDeCock