So often, there’s a ripple effect when something changes on a hockey team. The goalie gets hurt, and everyone else tries to do too much, only making things worse offensively and defensively. A new player, even in a minor role, puts the other players in better positions to succeed.
The Carolina Hurricanes are seeing that on two different fronts right now, heading into the road half of a home-and-home with the New Jersey Devils on Wednesday. Most apparent is the work of midseason signing Manny Malhotra in the face-off circle. Less noticeable, but with potentially a bigger impact in the long term, is Brett Bellemore’s play on defense.
By taking all the defensive-zone and off-side face-offs the Hurricanes were too often losing, and winning many of them, Malhotra’s arrival improved every other center’s numbers. Eric and Jordan Staal might not be any more competent in the face-off circle – although it’s certainly possible they may have been inspired by Malhotra’s success – but they’re winning more because they’re being asked, essentially, to take easier draws.
Malhotra is in the NHL’s top 10 at 60.6 percent and the Hurricanes have gone from 46.4 percent, 23rd in the NHL, to 50.5 percent, 14th. That’s the ripple effect. Malhotra’s arrival didn’t make everyone better at face-offs. It just looks that way.
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As beneficial as that has been for the Hurricanes this season, it’s not nearly as significant as Bellemore’s development. Hurricanes coach Kirk Muller called the 25-year-old rookie the biggest surprise of the teams’ season, giving the Hurricanes options they didn’t expect to have on defense.
“He really trained hard this summer and came into camp, right from Day 1 he was ready to go at it,” Muller said. “He’s kept that consistent level. We pulled him one game just to get other guys involved, but he’s done everything and more that we wanted him to.
“The other night in Detroit, he didn’t have a great first period, but you know what? He came back and had a great second and third. When you see that with an athlete, you say, ‘This kid’s mentally strong. He’s a hockey player.’ ”
Because of Bellemore, the Hurricanes can afford to give Mike Komisarek as much practice time as he needs to find his game. (Muller did say Tuesday that while Komisarek has been used mostly as an emergency forward during his tenure with the Hurricanes, he would not be afraid to use him on defense at this point.) And because of Bellemore, the Hurricanes are in position to make a trade and shore up other areas.
Tim Gleason would likely be the player to go, 30 years old and in the second year of a four-year, $16million contract, although he has a no-trade clause and has spent much of the season injured. The Hurricanes have muddled along just fine without him, going 9-4-4 as compared to 0-6-1 with him in the lineup. Many factors contribute to that gap, not merely Gleason, but their record without him is a security blanket if the Hurricanes were to move him in pursuit of a skilled center or puck-moving defenseman.
(Yes, the fabled “puck-moving defenseman.” Hurricanes general manager Jim Rutherford’s perpetual hankering for puck-moving defensemen – never mind Murphy and Justin Faulk and Andrej Sekera – has become an eternal quest.)
When Gleason wasn’t on the ice for practice at Raleigh Center Ice on Tuesday, there was a brief electric shiver as the possibility of a trade suddenly loomed. But Muller said Gleason was hurt, with an undisclosed injury, and could be out as long as a week.
That iced trade speculation for the moment, but the ripple effect from Bellemore’s solid play has left the door open for the Hurricanes to make a move from what has now become a position of strength.