Jaccob Slavin was the first to mention it, quickly and in passing.
“The sophomore slump is obviously something that happens to some and doesn’t happen to others,” the Carolina Hurricanes defenseman said.
Slavin was talking about young players in their second year in the NHL. He’s about to enter his second season, as are defensemen Noah Hanifin and Brett Pesce, all intent on taking the next step forward in their development.
For the Hurricanes to qualify for the Stanley Cup playoffs for the first time since 2009, that may need to happen. There can be no backward steps, no slippage, no second-year slump.
“We’re just going to focus on playing our game and not worry about what season we’re in in our career,” Slavin said. “Just play the best we can and help the team win.”
The Canes will have their first on-ice practices of preseason training camp Friday at PNC Arena, and all three D-men come into camp saying they’d added size and strength. The 6-2 Slavin and 6-3 Hanifin said they’ve put on about 10 pounds apiece and the 6-3 Pesce about five to 10 pounds.
Remember, all three were playing college hockey before last season. Hanifin was at Boston College, Slavin at Colorado College and Pesce at New Hampshire. Then, seemingly overnight, they were together in the NHL facing the best forwards in the world.
“Last year everything was new,” Hanifin said. “The systems were new, the league was new, the guys on my team were new. This year I feel a lot more comfortable on how to go about things and what to expect.”
Last year everything was new. The systems were new, the league was new, the guys on my team were new. This year I feel a lot more comfortable on how to go about things and what to expect.
Canes defenseman Noah Hanifin
Hanifin, after playing his freshman year at BC, was the fifth overall pick in the 2015 NHL Draft, signed his entry-level contract and was in the Canes’ starting lineup at age 18. Slavin and Pesce saw some time with Charlotte Checkers, the Canes’ American Hockey League affiliate, but soon were with Hanifin in the lineup.
After the season, Hanifin joined the U.S. team for the 2016 World Championships in Russia, a meaningful experience.
“Just meeting other players from around the league helped me a lot,” Hanifin said. “Just learning different things. That’s what it’s all about when you’re young, trying to learn as much as you can, and I thought I got a lot out of that trip.”
Canes coach Bill Peters, who coached Team Canada to the gold medal in Russia, said Hanifin was “very poised, very confident” in the tournament.
But all three defenseman played in that vein much of last season. Slavin, 22, had a very calm demeanor on the ice, making the right pass, making good decisions, and had a plus-1 plus/minus rating. Pesce, 21, was positionally sound and kept his errors to a minimum, although the three D-men had their bad moments, as all rookies will.
“The biggest thing for me was being in the play all the time, whether that was out of the defensive zone having to get up the ice or improving my gap coming back,” Slavin said. “That’s something I’ve learned a lot of this past year and something I want to improve on. And then from the offensive side getting up in the play whenever I can.”
Hanifin, who can motor with the puck, said he’s about 213 pounds now, better able physically to battle with some of the bigger forwards.
Talk about a grind. Hanifin, who turned 19 in January, played 79 games as an NHL rookie after 37 at BC. Pesce was in 69 games and Slavin 63 for the Canes.
“Learning the league, learning the players in the league is the most important part of your rookie year, at least one of them,” Pesce said. “I think once you make that adjustment, it makes the game a lot easier. You play each guy, each line differently.”
Pesce said he realized “relatively quickly” that he could compete in the league, smiling and adding, “That’s a good feeling.”
In addition to his conditioning, saying he wanted to be heavier in the corners and stronger on the puck, Pesce said he worked on his shot extensively. The three all can improve in that area – Hanifin converted four of 122 shots (3.3 percent), Pesce four of 85 (4.7) and Slavin two of 84 (2.4).
As for this season, the three believe the Canes, after the changes made in the offseason, can be a playoff-caliber team.
“If we have the right mindset and play consistent, strong hockey this season there’s no reason we can’t make the playoffs,” Hanifin said.
Pressing questions for camp
What rookies make the team?
Forward Sebastian Aho seems a given and defenseman Haydn Fleury could with a big camp. The Canes’ two first-round draft picks this year, forward Julien Gauthier and defenseman Jake Bean, should get a taste of NHL training camp and be returned to junior.
Who will be the four centers?
Jordan Staal and Victor Rask will center the top two lines and veteran Jay McClement may again center the fourth. The Canes could finally move Elias Lindholm to center and Teuvo Teravainen, obtained this summer from the Blackhawks, should get a look in the middle.
Who’s the sixth defenseman?
The Canes signed Ryan Murphy, another former first-rounder, to a two-year NHL contract in July. Murphy can help on the power play and has played 124 NHL games, but he’ll be pushed by Fleury and others in camp.