Unlike the forward lines, the Hurricanes did less juggling with their defense pairings and had a few units that stayed together for most of the season. Injuries to Jay Harrison and Joni Pitkanen caused some of the pairings to be switched around but for the most part, the Hurricanes kept their defense pairings the same for portions of the year. Tim Gleason & Bryan Allen handled most of the tough minutes, Justin Faulk and Jay Harrison played against second lines and provided offense while Jamie McBain and Jaroslav Spacek played the easier minutes and were also relied on for offense. Most Hurricanes fans were comfortable with these pairings but it's unlikely that they will stay in-tact next season.
Change is something that is normally unwelcomed but I would expect there to be a new look to the pairings next year. With Allen's return being an uncertainty, Pitkanen being healthy (knock on wood), free agents being signed and the possibility of others being promoted from within, it's almost a guarantee that Carolina's defense will look somewhat different. To see how drastic these changes will affect the team and what kind of players need to be brought in to fill these holes, we can look at how certain defense pairings performed this year.
There's been a lot of debate over who the "top" defense pairing for the Canes was this year, especially since the team's usually #1 defenseman spent most of the year on the shelf and looking at how they did by scoring chances will let us know what pairing really was the best for Carolina. More importantly, this will give us a better idea of which defenseman are best suited for certain roles. We know that whoever played with Gleason was assigned tough minutes while those who played with Spacek were given easier minutes. Seeing who played well with those defensemen and who didn't will show if there is any other defenseman on the roster capable of playing the toughs next season. This is very important to look at with free agency coming up and Allen possibly departing.
We all know the Canes will be looking for a defenseman but is it possible that there is someone on the roster who was underrated or someone who could possibly replace Allen. We will find out after the jump.
Just remember each player's role before making judgments on the numbers because what kind of minutes a player is used in often affects their scoring chance/shot data. To make things easier on yourself, refer to the team's Usage Chart.
Here are the numbers from Carolina's most commonly used defense pairings this year. This is all even strength data.
This could surprise a lot of people but the team's best defense duo last year was third long-lived third pairing of Jamie McBain and Jaroslav Spacek, and they actually led the way by quite a lot. This isn't terribly surprising when you think about it, though. Refer back to the Player Usage Chart and you will see that Spacek played some of the easiest minutes on the team. He was deployed regularly in the offensive zone against third and fourth lines. Spacek might be brittle and near the end of his career but he showed with the Hurricanes that he can be useful as a third pairing guy. McBain was also more than capable enough to handle these minutes and something that may come as a surprise to a lot of people is that he handled himself well when he played with Tim Gleason.
That pairing was still getting outchanced at even strength but they were not bad by any means, especially when you compare them to Gleaosn's other pairings. The only time McBain struggled was when he was with either Joni Pitkanen or Derek Joslin. The latter shouldn't come as a surprise because he was awful in all facets this season, but the former is a bit of a shocker. Pitkanen is obviously more known for his offense but he and Pitkanen clearly weren't a good combination. These two were playing 20+ minutes a night but they weren't playing that tough of minutes so maybe Kirk Muller needs to think about splitting these two up next year. I would be on board with that idea, actually.
As far as the tough minute pairings go, Gleason and Allen were outchanced by a lot but they did virtually all the heavy lifting for this team last year on defense. Their situation requires a lot of context but I was a little disappointed that they weren't closer to the .500 mark than they ended up. You will also see that Gleaosn had a lot of problems when playing with someone other than Allen. This can be the cause of many things. Peraphs he was stuck with players who weren't ready for tough minutes or aren't good enough to play in those situations. That's likely the case with Justin Faulk and Jay Harrison respectively. It's interesting that McBain was the one player other than Allen who he succeeded with so that could lead to McBain's role being increased next season but I don't think the team will go into next season with him as one of the shutdown defensemen. He hasn't played enough in that role to be the only option there, but it's worth noting that he could be stronger defensviely than a lot of people give him credit for.
I'm going to assume that Jay Harrison and Justin Faulk will stay together next season. They played against the seconds last season and did a damn fine job in that role, so it wouldn't surprise me to see them continue to play there. Although, I wouldn't rule out Faulk moving up on the depth chart given his potential and how high the organization sees him but he wasn't exactly great when he played with Gleason. Although, Faulk can stay in his current role and be one of the top-two defenseman since there are a lot of teams who employ that strategy. Faulk and Pitkanen might be a potential top pairing if Muller doesn't want to keep him with Harrison. Harrison's strong numbers with Kaberle compared to how they were with Gleason show that he's more suited for a protected role so seeing him moved down on the roster is a possibility.
What conclusions can we draw from all this? For one, I think the Canes will likely try to sign a stay-at-home defenseman in the upcoming weeks. If anything they will get someone for the penalty kill if Allen leaves. If Muller is going to keep having one bonafide shutdown pair then the team needs to bring in another shudown defenseman in order to make it work. Having a combination of the two styles could be interesting and we saw a glimpse of that at the end of the year with Faulk/Gleason as a pairing. I also think that they will let Spacek walk and let someone else assume play on the third pairing. Jamie McBain and Jay Harrison is one possibility but that's just my guess. Last but not least, I think Joslin will not be on the team next year unless he can improve dramatically. Sure doesn't look like that will happen, though.
There's definitely going to be some changes, though. I feel that coming.