Much of the Hurricanes defense this season is going to rest on the health of Joni Pitkanen. The big Finn is usually one of the team's leaders in ice time and is the team's most skilled defensemen when it comes to play-making and handling the puck. Pitkanen's skillset along with the fact that he plays so many minutes, makes him a very important asset for the Hurricanes defense corps and they are going to need him to stay reasonably healthy this year if they want their defense to be in decent shape. Injuries have always been a problem for Pitkanen and it reached a new high last season as a concussion, knee surgery and various other injuries limited him to only 30 games. We already know that the NHL is going to cancel a good chunk of the season, so Pitkanen's health will be even more crucial for the Canes this year.
Most people think of Pitkanen as more of an offensive threat who does most of his damage on the powerplay and while that might be his strongest asset, Pitkanen is relied on to do much more than work the powerplay. He normally plays more minutes than any other Carolina blue-liner and he will probably see his defensive responsibility go up next year with the Hurricanes not having many bonafide shutdown defensemen who can play top-four minutes. Pitkanen has experience playing a tough-minute role and killing penalties, so I think he could be relied on to play tough minutes along with either Justin Faulk or Tim Gleason in the top-four.
Pitkanen's strong offensive game usually leads to him posting better underlying numbers than the rest of the defense corps, but I have a difficult time saying that will continue if he is moved to a tougher role. The move to tougher minutes will also have an impact on Pitkanen's goal & point total at even strength because if he is starting more shifts in his own end, it's going to be difficult for him to drive the play forward and get more scoring opportunities. That being said, I don't think the team will put too big of a workload on him because while the Canes do have a lot of puck-movers, Pitkanen is the best of all of them and utilizing him in a shutdown role is misusing him in a way.
We all know that Pitkanen is capable of putting up at least 40 points in a season and he has been able to do that three times in his eight years in the NHL. He would likely have more if he were able to stay healthy for an entire year but it is what it is. Pitkanen is getting close to 30, so there are bound to be some questions about how whether or not he can be as effective offensively as he used to be, especially after all of the injuries. Much like Eric Staal, one thing we do know is that Pitkanen will play top minutes on this team and will get his opportunities. His effectiveness will depend on how he holds up throughout the year and if he can continue to be as good as he was from 2008 to 2011.
Defensemen are usually hard to project because their point totals at even strength tend to be very random, but we're going to give it our best shot with Pitkanen based on his underlying numbers in recent seasons.
Pitkanen saw his minutes per game decrease last season but I'm assuming this is because he played in fewer games and was limited when he returned from his injuries late in the season. Normally, Pitkanen plays at least 18 minutes a game at even strength and is sometimes depended on to play more than that. The Canes have more big-minute defensemen who they can turn to to keep some pressure off Pitkanen but I think he is going to return to playing 17-19 minutes a game this season. Justin Faulk, Tim Gleason and Jay Harrison were the only three on the roster who played that many minutes per game last year and I have to think that the coaching staff is likely going to play Pitkanen more than Harrison this year at even strength. Although, this may change if Pitkanen struggles and if Harrison continues to improve but I don't see that happening, to be honest. As of right now, Pitkanen is slated to be one of the team's top defensemen and the only way that will change is if he gets hurt again or sees his play decline a drastic amount.
The old narrative with Pitkanen is that he doesn't shoot the puck enough and while it might be frustrating to watch him constantly dangle around the offensive zone and pass up numerous chances, Pitkanen actually shoots the puck a decent amount for a defenseman. He normally records over four shots per 60 minutes but it's worth noting that his shot rate has been declining a bit over the last couple of seasons, at least compared to where it was a couple years ago. Pitkanen also played fewer minutes last season, so that's probably the reason for his shot rate increasing so much compared to the year before. My thought is that he will probably continue to get at least four shots per 60 minutes at even strength, but it won't be much higher than that.
Pitkanen's three even strength goals last season were the result of him getting a bit of shooting luck at even strength and while that may not sound like much, you have to remember that he only played in 30 games. Over an 82 game season, Pitkanen would probably end up with a similar goal total if he didn't have such a high shooting percentage. His average shooting percentage at even strength over the last five years is about 4.7%, so Pitkanen is likely to score 3-5 goals at even strength if he stays relatively healthy. He was only able to do so despite playing 30 games last year because he got the benefit of a high shooting percentage.
|Year||ESA||ESA/60||ESSF/60||ES on-ice Sh%|
Pitkanen was able to be on-ice for a high amount of shots on goal despite not getting a zone start push like he did in 2008-09. This could speak of his ability to drive the play forward at even strength but the amount of shots a defenseman is on-ice for usually depends on the group of forwards playing in front of him. I'm not saying that it's the only factor, but it definitely plays a big role. Given Pitkanen's skllset, one might think that Pitkanen would be sent out with some of the team's best offensive threats such as Eric Staal, Jeff Skinner and Alexander Semin. While that's a safe assumption, things might be completely different if he's used on a pairing with Tim Gleason instead of someone like Justin Faulk or Joe Corvo. If that were the case, then it's more likely that Pitkanen gets sent out with the third line or Jordan Staal's line, which will have a big effect on the amount of shots he is on ice for.
Pitkanen's most common linemates were a mixed bag last season but he still managed to be on ice for over 33 shots per 60 minutes at even strength, so that speaks well of his ability to drive possession offensively. My thought is that Pitkanen will see his defensive responsibility increase but he will continue to be sent out with the top-six and continue to be on-ice for at least 30 shots per 60 minutes at even strength. The Canes don't have the personnel to employ a "shutdown pair" and will probably spread out the tough minutes among the defense corps, which will put Pitkanen in a tough role, but not one that plays away from his strengths. I don't see why Pitkanen wouldn't be used with the top-six unless he gets demoted to the third-pairing.
|Year||PP TOI||PP TOI/G|
Even if Pitkanen sees a reduction in even strength minutes, one thing you can always bank on is him spending a lot of time on the powerplay. Pitkanen's strongest asset is his offensive upside and ability to quarterback the powerplay, and there isn't any reason for this to change this year. The Canes have at least five defensemen on the roster right now who can be used on the powerplay, so this may effect his ice time a little but I would still expect him to get a lot of minutes there. Will he play four and a half minutes per game like he did a few years ago? Probably not, but Pitkanen should continue to play at least four minutes per game with the man advantage. That's been the norm for him over his career and I think it will stay the same even with the Canes having too many puck movers.
|Year||PPG||PPG/60||PP SOG/60||PP Sh%|
Another surprise to members of the "Shoot the Puck Joni"club is that Pitkanen has actually been shooting the puck more often on the pwoerplay and his shot rate has been steadily increasing over the years. It actually reached a new high last year. Now the question is whether he will continue to shoot the puck more or if last season was his peak and he will see his shot rate decline. I think last season was an aberration because he played in fewer games but he should be able to shoot the puck at a decent rate if the years before that are any indication. Expecting him to have a shot rate round 6-7 shots per 60 minutes is reasonable.
Powerplay shooting percentages for defensemen tend to do crazy things becuase they have only so many shots on goal in a year, so the best we can do to project Pitkanen's goal total is use his five-year shooting percentage. Pitkanen's career shooting percentage on the powerplay is about 3.8%, but it could easily end up being anywhere from 0-11% because that's how shooting percentages work in small sample sizes. Pitkanen has never been a big goal-scorer on the powerplay, so I wouldn't expect much to change here.
|Year||ESA||ESA/60||PP SF/60||PP On-ice Sh%|
Over the last five seasons, roughly 40% of Pitkanen's total points have come on the powerplay and the majority of those points have come from assists. This is a trend that will likely continue this season and the expectations for him have to be pretty high since the Hurricanes powerpolay is looking drastically improved heading into this year. This will lead to Pitkanen being on ice for more shots but whether or not it leads to him having a higher assist total depends on how well his teammates shoot. This is something Pitkanen has little control over, but something you may notice is that his teammates have maintained a shooting percentage of around 11-12% when they were playing with him over the years, so that's worth keeping in mind. It's also worth mentioning that Pitkanen has recorded an assist on 46% of the powerplay he goals he was on ice for over the last five years.
I could see Justin Faulk taking over this title by the end of the season but as of right now, Pitkanen is the Hurricanes best all-around defenseman and will probably play the most minutes of anyone on the blue-line. That being said, he doesn't need to be the backbone of the defense like he was in years past because the team has more guys who they can rely on to play big minutes now. Therefore, I'm projecting him to play about 17 and a half minutes per game at even strength. This would give him 1435 minutes played in an 82 game season.
Despite the high total with a small sample size last year, Pitkanen's shot rate has been declining a bit over the last two years, so it's reasonable to project him to have a lower shot rate than he had in years past. I still think he will have at least four shots on goal per sixty minutes, though but it won't be close to what it was in some of the years past. My personal projection for him is to have 4.35 shots at even strength per 60 minutes, which is a reasonable medium between the two rates he posted over the last couple of years. This would give him about 104 shots on the season. If he posts this shot rate, he could end up with anywhere from 3 to 8 even strength goals on the season. Since Pitkanen has never shot at a very high percentage, I have him finishing with three even strength goals in an 82 game season.
As I stated earlier, I think Pitkanen will continue to be used with one of the top-six lines even if his defensive responsibility increases, so I think he will be on-ice for at least 30 even strength shots per 60 minutes. My projection for Pitkanen is for him to be on ice for 31.7 even strength shots per 60 minutes, which would put him on-ice for about 758 even strength shots in an 82 game season. It's tough to predict how well his teammates will shoot, but going with the league average (roughly 8%) is a safe bet. If the Canes shoot at 8% with Pitkanen on the ice at even strength, that would put him on-ice for 60 goals over 82 games. Over the last three years, Pitkanen has recorded an assist on 31-35% of the even strength goals he was on-ice for, so expecting that to continue is a safe bet. Given that, I am projecting Pitkanen to have 18-21 assists at even strength this season.
I am not sure how the team plans to spread around powerplay ice time, but I think Pitkanen will continue to get at least four minutes per game on the powerplay if he's able to stay healthy. As for his powerplay shot rate, it has been increasing every year but I wouldn't expect him to have over 9 shots on goal for every 60 minutes he spends on the powerplay. That rate just seems unsustainable. I think Pitkanen's shot rate is likely going to regress but he should be able to shoot the puck at the rate he did a couple years ago, which was around 7.5-7.7 PP shots per 60 minutes. If Pitkanen continues shooting at that rate, he should have about 35 powerplay shots, which would result in him scoring anywhere from 0-3 goals in an 82 game season. I said earlier that the best thing to do here is to use his five-year shooting percentage to project this (4.3%) and that would give him 1-2 PPGs, which sounds about right.
Despite the improvements to the Hurricanes powerplay, I'm expecting the amount of powerplay shots Pitkanen is on ice for next season to also decrease, but that's mostly because the team's shot rate was so high last season that I don't see it sustaining. It's more likely that the Canes powerplay shot rate falls somewhere in between where it was last year and the year before. The Canes powerplay was actually very good at producing shots last season and Pitkanen was one of the team's better players in that category, so with that in mind along with the fact that the team's powerplay should improve overall, I'm projecting Pitkanen to be on ice for 48.5 PP shots per 60 minutes.
Over an 82 game season, this would put Pitkanen on ice for about 263 powerplay shots, which would put him on ice for anywhere from 29-37 powerplay goals. My projection is to have the Canes shoot at around the league average on the powerplay with Pitkanen on the ice and that would put him on ice for 31-32 goals. Consider that he has recorded an assist on 46.7% of the powerplay goals he has been on-ice for the last five years, and you have Pitkanen recording 14-15 powerplay assists in an 82 game season.
82 Game Projection
|Pitkanen 2012-13||ESG||ESA||PPG||PPA||SHG||SHA||Total Pts||PPG/82|
It might be a little odd that I'm not projecting Pitkanen to have 40 points, but consider that he's getting older and that the ice time is likely going to be more spread around among the defense corps, and it's very likely that Pitkanan finishes an 82 game season with 35-39 points. The one thing that holds him back is that he has never been able to score many goals both at even strength or on the powerplay. Most defenseman aren't good goal-scorers but someone with Pitkanen's offensive upside should be able to score more than six goals in a season, something he has been unable to do for the last three years. If he is able to get some decent shooting luck again, he may top this projection but I'm setting the bar at 5 goals and 39 points for now. A 40-point season is tough to accomplish for a defenseman and with there being only so much ice-time to be spread around, I think Pitkanen will end up falling just short.