Carolina's blue-line has been missing a key piece for most of the season as they have gone about three months without the services of Joni Pitkanen. He has been out since early December with both a concussion and a knee injury which required surgery but according to reports, he could be returning to the lineup as soon as Wednesday. His presence on the powerplay has been missed greatly and so have his puck-moving skills so getting him back will be a huge boost to the lineup. The question is, how will the Hurricanes use Pitkanen when he returns? The nice thing about a defenseman like Pitkanen is that you can use him in almost anyway you want. He can play top pairing minutes but can also play the powerplay/offensive specialist role and kill penalties if you need him to. After the jump, we'll take a look at how Kirk Muller and Dave Lewis might use Pitkanen based on who he's had success with in the past and what would work best for the rest of the defense corps.
Without Pitkanen in the lineup, the Hurricanes have been getting by with a defense corps consisting of Bryan Allen, Tim Gleason, Justin Faulk, Jay Harrison, Jaroslav Spacek and Jamie McBain. Derek Joslin has also been inserted into the lineup but has been used as a forward more recently. The first question that comes to mind is wondering which one of these defensemen will sit when Pitkanen returns. This becomes a non-issue if Spacek is still hurt but if he is healthy, I suspect that the team will roll seven defensemen because that's a better option than continuing to use Joslin as a forward. If that is the case, where does Pitkanen fit in the lineup? If Pitkanen is going to be playing top-pairing minutes, then it's possible that we could see him used with rookie Justin Faulk or in a shutdown role with Tim Gleason. However, his usual partner over the last couple of seasons has been Jamie McBain, who has been used mainly as a third-pairing defenseman over the last few months. Should McBain go back to playing with Pitkanen, he's going to need to play over 20 minutes a night against much tougher competition. Can McBain do that and continue to play well?
Going by possession stats from the last two years, breaking up the Pitkanen-McBain pairing might be in the Hurricanes' best interest.
|With Pitkanen||Without Pitkanen||Pitkanen Without|
|With Pitkanen||Without Pitkanen||Pitkanen Without|
CF = corsi events for, CA = corsi events against, C% = corsi percentage. All data is at even strength & courtesy of Hockey Analysis.
These charts show the corsi events (shots on goal + missed shots + blocked shots) that occurred while Pitkanen was on ice with a certain defenseman compared to his performance while not being paired that defenseman and the defenseman's performance without Pitkanen on the ice. As you can see from the chart, both Pitkanen and McBain were more successful away from each other than they were as a pairing. It makes sense when you think about it. Both are players who have more offensive skill-sets and were regularly matched up against opposing team's second lines. Pitkanen wasn't getting the benefit of cushy zone starts this season, either and that probably had a domino effect on McBain. It's easy to forget that this is only McBain's second full season in the NHL and he's flourished as a third pairing but has struggled in just about every other role. Pitkanen, being more experienced has had to bail McBain out of a lot of tough situations and has seen more territorial success with just about every other defenseman as a result.
So, if a Pitkanen-McBain pairing isn't going to work, what will? Pitkanen hasn't spent much time with any other defenseman this year but I like the idea of pairing him with Gleason and giving him some tougher minutes. I know that Gleason/Allen has been the shutdown pair for most of the season but they have been torched since the All-Star Break, so shaking things up isn't the worst idea. Plus, I like the make-up of a Gleason/Pitkanen pairing. You have somewhat of a high-risk player in Pitkanen paired with a more defensively responsible guy in Gleason who can help bail out Pitkanen if he gets himself into too much trouble. They play different styles but Pitkanen is solid enough in his own end that he can take the tougher assignments that come with the territory when you play with Gleason.
Another possibility is pair him Justin Faulk, who has been playing against second-tier competition with Jay Harrison for most of the season. Pitkanen and Faulk play a similar game, are both used to playing over 20+ minutes and could develop some chemistry if they were to be used as a defense pairing. Faulk and Harrison have been good this year but I personally think that Faulk's been the stronger of the two and moving Harrison down to the third pairing will not hurt the team that much. Faulk-Pitkanen could also be a potential defense pairing that we see for the next few years since both are under contract for awhile.The one issue with this is that Pitkanen and Faulk are the strongest puck movers on the team by far and putting both on the same defense pairing will hinder the two other units when it comes to breakouts and getting the puck out of the zone.
It's going to be interesting to see what the team does with Pitkanen after he returns because they have a lot of options and I wouldn't be surprised if Muller experiments with a few things with the defense corps down the stretch. Getting Pitkanen back is going to be a huge boost to the team, either way.