There was much talk before the season about the Carolina Hurricanes’ defensemen, of the group being young, talented, mobile and the perfect fit for the NHL’s fast, uptempo style of game.
If the Canes were to return to the Stanley Cup playoffs for the first time since 2009, the D corps would be a big part of it, everyone agreed.
But 26 games into the season, the Hurricanes (11-10-5) are below the playoff cut line and still starved for goals – Carolina was 27th in scoring at 2.69 goals a game after the 3-0 road loss Tuesday against the Vancouver Canucks.
One reason: little help from the back end.
Only three defensemen have goals this season – Noah Hanifin, Justin Faulk and Jaccob Slavin. Hanifin has five, scoring the overtime winner Saturday in the Canes’ 3-2 win over the Florida Panthers.
Faulk, who has scored 48 goals the past three seasons, has one in 26 games despite putting 74 shots on goal. Slavin has scored twice on 53 shots.
Brett Pesce, Trevor van Riemsdyk and rookie Haydn Fleury have yet to find the net despite combining for 98 shots.
“I think as a group of six we need to capitalize,” Pesce said. “When we get Grade-A opportunities, we definitely have to bear down and make more things happen.”
Canes coach Bill Peters has downplayed the lack of scoring in recent weeks, noting a greater need for better positional play in the defensive zone. Sort that out and minimize the other team’s scoring chances, Peters said, and the rest will take care of itself.
Many Eastern Conference teams have gotten more offensive production from the back end than the Canes. The Columbus Blue Jackets have 16 goals from six different D-men and 40 total assists compared to the Canes’ eight goals and 32 assists through Tuesday’s games.
The Rangers have nine goals and 51 assists and the Pittsburgh Penguins nine goals and 45 assists. The most dire situation is in Buffalo, where the Sabres have one goal and just 25 assists.
“All of our guys can skate,” Faulk said. “That doesn’t mean they’ll put up 30, 40, 50 points or whatever and score a bunch of goals, but when you can skate, it makes it so much harder on teams to establish forechecks. We can get the puck back in their end and create offense. As you do that, the points will come.”
Opposing teams do all they can to take away Faulk’s booming shot. The former NHL All-Star has had 62 shots blocked as teams shut down the shooting lanes and has missed the net on another 33 attempts – both team highs – as he looks to quickly get off shots.
Hanifin has had 46 blocked but has put 54 on net after a career-high seven shots Saturday against the Panthers.
“It’s my third year now, and I’m starting to feel more confident,” Hanifin said. “I know what I’m expected to do, and I know my role. That’s the area of my game over the summer I really wanted to improve on and make sure I’m creating more offense.”
Slavin had five goals last season, and his 29 assists were the best among the D-men. He became the youngest defenseman in franchise history to get a hat trick, scoring three times and adding an assist March 13 against the New York Islanders.
“We have some offensive-minded defensemen on our team,” Slavin said “When those guys are putting up the points and usually playing well and on the right side of the puck offensively, we’re usually not spending as much time in the D zone. When we are contributing from the back, that means as a group of six we’re playing better and that means our team is playing better. I think that’s definitely something we need to pick up as a group of six.”
Pesce scored two goals last season and van Reimsdyk five in 58 games with the Chicago Blackhawks. Fleury was with the Charlotte Checkers of the AHL, scoring seven goals in 68 games.
They’ll all continue to shoot. The Canes need the help.
“For me, it’s just not going my way,” Pesce said. “My confidence is still up, so I think if I get one, it will hopefully take off a little bit. I’ve got to keep going and not get down on it.”
Offense from the defense
Here’s a look at the Canes’ group of six on defense:
Noah Hanifin: Former first-round pick had 51 points (8 goals, 43 assist) in 160 games his first two seasons and is being counted on for more this season.
2017-18 production: with five goals, 9 assists in first 26 games, he leads D-men in goals and points.
Jaccob Slavin: Seemed to be scratching surface of offensive potential last season with 5-goal, 29-assist season.
2017-18 production: Off to disappointing start with two goals and four assists.
Justin Faulk: Former NHL All-Star has averaged 16 goals and 41 points past three seasons and has 23 power-play goals.
2017-18 production: Has been ineffective offensively with one goal (on 74 shots) and six assists in 26 games.
Brett Pesce: More is being expected offensively from Pesce in his third year after a career-high 20 points last season.
2017-18 production: Missed some games with concussion and has not been a factor, missing on all 25 shots and contributing four assists.
Trevor van Riemsdyk: Former Chicago Blackhawks D-man had five goals and 16 points in 58 games last season in Chicago and was expected to match those totals.
2017-18 production: Has not scored and has three assists in 22 games, providing little offensive help.
Haydn Fleury: Former first-round pick is in rookie season and offensive expectations are low.
2017-18 production: has 36 shots but has not scored his first NHL goal. Has four assists but just one in past 14 games.