There a lot of things to be happy about concerning the Hurricanes off-season but there are still plenty of question marks surrounding the team, the biggest of which being on defense and whether or not they have enough players capable of handling tough minutes. Carolina's defense is going through a tough transition period, so they are going to take their lumps and they certainly did last season. No team gave up more shots per 60 minutes at even strength than the Canes did last season and things like this usually happen when you have a lot of young players and injuries on top of that.
Going into this season, the Hurricanes defense is mostly the same with the exception of Joe Corvo taking the place of Bryan Allen and Jaroslav Spacek leaving via free agency, so it's easy to understand why a lot of fans are worried. It shouldn't be all bad, though. Getting close to a full season from Joni Pitkanen will help and some of the younger players like Justin Faulk and Jamie McBain are only going to get better with time. Plus, the team has a very solid shutdown defenseman in Tim Gleason and you also have to think about the improvements Jay Harrison made last season. Still, the defense corps could use a shot in the arm to make them more of a dangerous unit.
The defense received that boost last season in the form of Justin Faulk, who emerged as a top-four defenseman at the age of 19 and was pretty exceptional given the circumstances. Faulk made the loss of Pitkanen far less of a blow than it could have been and dramatically improved the Hurricanes defense. Getting a surprise like that would be an enormous help to Carolina this season and some are thinking that they may get it from last year's first round pick Ryan Murphy.
Many fans were impressed with Murphy in training camp last year and he ended up making the team's final roster but never saw any action and was sent back to his junior club in Kitchener before even playing a game. Since the Hurricanes defense has roughly the same personnel as last season, it's possible that Murphy could be good enough to make the team out of camp and actually stick around full-time. I have little doubt that Murphy could end up being one of the six best defensemen on the team during training camp but even if that is the case, it might be the best if he spends another year in Kitchener.
That idea may sound prepostrous but you have to look at the big picture with Murphy. He is only 19 and another year in junior isn't going to ruin or stall his devleopment and it might actually help him work on his overall game. Plus, most 19 year old defensemen are not ready to play big minutes in the NHL and are more often used in a more protected role or are playing in another league. The season Justin Faulk had may have thrown off some people's expectations but the fact of the matter is that it takes a long time for defensemen to develop and most of them are not ready for the NHL at 19. There have been only 88 19-year old defensemen in the history of the NHL who played at least 41 games in their rookie season and in the last 10 years, only 20 defensemen have been able to do so. Most of those players were special talents who went on to have long, great careers. Murphy has high-end talent and might fall into that class but we can't assume that right now.
To show what kind of role young defensemen usually step into during their rookie season, I composed a chart showing every defenseman since the lockout who played in the NHL when they were 19. The chart shows their ice time at even strength, where they ranked on the team in quality of competition, how often they started their shifts in the offensive zone and how much their team was controlling shots at even strength when they were on the ice. This basically shows the role they were assigned and how well they performed in said role. Data courtesy of Behind The Net.
|Player||GP||TOI/G||QoC Rk||Corsi ON||Corsi Rel.||OZ% Start|
|Michael Del Zotto||80||14:13||5||2.06||3.9||58.6|
A good chunk of these defensemen played a lot of minutes but only three were playing against the toughs and six were playing against top four competition. That's a pretty small sample size in the grand scheme of things and those who were given the toughs struggled with those minutes. Cam Fowler in particular was destroyed shot-wise during his rookie season and Luke Schenn had some weak underlying numbers when the Leafs were using him as a shutdown defenseman as a 19 year old. There were others who played a lot of minutes but were kept away from top lines for the most part. Erik Karlsson seemed to thrive in that kind of role during his rookie season and it took Victor Hedman a couple years before the Lightning started using him as a true shutdown defenseman.
Most of these players went on to be top-four defenseman at some point in their careers but they had to be eased into those roles when they were younger, which is the case for just about everyone in the bottom-half of the list. Oliver Ekman-Larsson might be the most prominent example since he only played a little more than half the season in his rookie year and then played tougher minutes the next season. He was even trusted with playing against Anze Kopitar's line during the Western Conference Finals in this year's playoffs. If Murphy makes the team this year, I would expect the Hurricanes coaching staff to follow a similar approach with him, where they would place him on the third pairing with easier minutes because that would be the best way to use him for now. Every young defenseman is going to make their mistakes, especially one with Murphy's style of play, so the coaching staff has to minimize those flaws by putting players like Murphy into positions where they can succeed, which likely means using him in a sheltered role. Only Tyler Myers (and to a lesser extent Drew Doughty) were able to step into a tough-minute role during his rookie season without much of an issue.
The Hurricanes may wait until the 7-game test before they make a final decision on Murphy because they are going to want to see if he can play top-four minutes. Between Corvo, McBain, Harrision, Sanguinetti and Gragnani, the Canes have plenty of third-pairing defensemen on the roster as it is and don't need to add another one, so they aren't going to keep Murphy on the team and burn a year of his ELC to play sheltered minutes. That isn't the best for Murphy and it doesn't help the team if they want to get the most value out of Murphy's ELC years. It's tough to make a final judgment on a player in such a small sample size but the Canes might be faced with a tough decision on Murphy come October depending on how he plays and if they keep him until then. Murphy also can't go to the AHL until he plays four years of junior hockey, so spending another year in Kitchener really makes the most sense right now.
I am very eager to see Murphy play a contributing role on the Hurricanes but I also think that there isn't a need to rush him into the NHL and that him spending another year in Kitchener might be the best decision. With so many offensive minded guys on the blue-line right now, it's tough to find room for him and he will have to go above and beyond to make the team this year.