Several NHL teams have a rookie defenseman in the lineup. A few have two.
But three? That’s the number the Carolina Hurricanes have played the past six games, with Noah Hanifin, Brett Pesce and Jaccob Slavin making up half of their back end on defense.
Who saw that coming? Not Canes coach Bill Peters.
“I probably wouldn’t have believed it,” Peters said this week.
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The number now is back to two as the Canes host the New Jersey Devils on Thursday in a Metropolitan Division game at PNC Arena. Carolina on Tuesday recalled Ryan Murphy from the Charlotte Checkers of the AHL and reassigned Slavin to the Checkers.
Not that Murphy is a salty veteran. He’s 22 and has played 106 NHL games.
Peters said he had no qualms in using the rookies, who all have size, can skate, can move the puck and aren’t afraid to make plays with the puck.
“They’re a bit fearless that way,” Peters said. “They’re too young to know any better. They’re fresh and they’re wide-eyed and everything is exciting right now. They don’t have the ‘Groundhog Day’ attitude at all.”
The Canes made Hanifin the No. 5 pick of the 2015 NHL Draft and the 18-year-old from Boston left Boston College after his freshman year to turn pro. He has been in the lineup since the season opener against Nashville, although made a healthy scratch in a few games.
The Canes traded for defenseman James Wisniewski in June. But his season-ending knee injury in the opener soon allowed Pesce, who turned 21 on Nov. 15, to get his chance
“This league is hard and the toughest thing is adjusting within the game,” Pesce said Wednesday. “The other team might switch up their systems during a game and you have to recognize that and adjust your game.”
We don’t hide them. We have a lot of confidence in them. It’s the National Hockey League. It’s the best league in the world. Man up. There’s nowhere to hide.
Hurricanes coach Bill Peters
The New York Rangers did that with their forecheck in Monday’s game, Pesce said. He had a few early turnovers and a tripping penalty but said he began making quicker decisions, quicker passes in the defensive zone.
Peters said he doesn’t worry too much about defensive matchups. The young guys go over the boards and play.
“We don’t hide them,” Peters said. “We have a lot of confidence in them. It’s the National Hockey League. It’s the best league in the world. Man up. There’s nowhere to hide.”
Pesce played college hockey the past two years at New Hampshire and Slavin was at Colorado College. It wasn’t long ago that Pesce, from Tarrytown, N.Y., was cheering for the New York Rangers. On Monday, he was at Madison Square Garden competing against them for the second time this season.
“First time, second time, both were a treat and really cool,” Pesce said, smiling.
Peters says the NHL has become a young man’s league and that applies to defensemen, whom general managers once were wary about playing until they were older, more mature, more seasoned, stronger.
Hanifin and Pesce both are 6 feet 3. Both weigh a little more than 200 pounds, give or take a meal, and are well-conditioned.
“Physically I think I’m able to play at this level,” Hanifin said. “I don’t think that’s an issue for me although the guys are older and have that man strength.”
Rookie defenseman Darnell Nurse of the Edmonton Oilers is 20 and was the seventh overall pick of the 2013 draft. The Oilers have paired Nurse with veteran Andrej Sekera, the former Canes defenseman, but there has been a learning curve for the 6-4, 213-pound Canadian who was in the Ontario Hockey League last year.
“You’ve got to know who you’re out there against,” Nurse said. “Against a skill guy you need be aware of ice you’re giving up. It really is a game of inches. You give a guy a split-second and the puck can be in the back of your net.”
Nurse said the Oilers, like every NHL team, make extensive use of video as a teaching tool, saying, “Video doesn’t lie.”
Peters calls it “reality video.” He said a coach can be as positive as he wants with players but “at some point you have to show the reality, too.”
For the Canes, the reality is that rookie defensemen will be a big part of this team this season. It’s the hand Peters has been dealt.
“It’s not DraftKings,” Peters said. “It’s not the way it works. You find a way to make it work.”