Sports

Canes’ defensive group a good fit for faster, younger NHL

Younger, faster, agile, mobile — those are words often used about the changing face of the National Hockey League as the game continues to become more about speed, skill and skating.

They’re also the right words to describe the Carolina Hurricanes’ defensive corps.

It’s a mix of defensemen, none older than 27, who all have good size and can move. Some were drafted and developed by the Canes and others brought in by trades and free agency. And, yes, it’s a well-paid group at more than $27 million.

While some might call it a no-name group other than perhaps Dougie Hamilton, they’re all well-known by opposing coaches and prominently mentioned in scouting reports. Justin Faulk is a former NHL All-Star. Jaccob Slavin should soon be one.

“Now that we’re actually making some noise, because we’re still hanging around, you can’t not notice those guys because they are so good,” Canes coach Rod Brind’Amour said Monday after a team practice at PNC Arena.

After the Canes swept the New York Islanders in the second round of the Stanley Cup playoffs, Isles coach Barry Trotz was talking about his team’s problems in getting good offensive shifts in the series.

“They’re a quick, high-pressure team that forces you to execute,” Trotz said. “They close on you quick. They block shots. They have great sticks, especially the defensemen and especially the top four.”

That would be Hamilton, Slavin, Faulk and Brett Pesce. They’ve gotten the top-four minutes. But Calvin de Haan, after returning to the lineup from injury in the Washington series, has been solid and Haydn Fleury the same late in the Isles series.

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Washington’s Alex Ovechkin (8) shoots and scores as Carolina’s Jaccob Slavin (74) defends during the first period of the Carolina Hurricanes’ game against the Washington Capitals at PNC Arena in Raleigh, N.C., Monday, April 22, 2019. Ethan Hyman ehyman@newsobserver.com

The Canes, awaiting the winner of the Boston Bruins-Columbus Blue Jackets series in the Eastern Conference finals, have allowed 14 goals in five-on-five play in the 11 playoff games while scoring 26.

“We’ve got a lot of big brains on that back end and guys who can think the game well,” de Haan said Monday. “I wouldn’t say anyone is super flashy out there. Everyone just gets the job done, it seems like. That’s all you can really ask for. We’ve got a pretty mobile group back there. Really solid.

“In the (Isles) series it wasn’t pretty at times but we seemed to keep them toward the perimeter of the rink and didn’t give them much down the middle. That’s Defense 101.”

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The Carolina Hurricanes’ Jaccob Slavin (74) defends New York Islanders’ Devon Toews (25) in the third period during Game 1 of the second round Stanley Cup series on Friday, April 26, 2019 at Barclays Center in Brooklyn, N.Y. Robert Willett rwillett@newsobserver.com

Trevor van Riemsdyk was a fixture in the third D pairing before being crunched into the wall by the Isles’ Cal Clutterbuck in Game 2. Van Riemsdyk, who left the ice clutching his left shoulder, underwent surgery last week, his season over.

“He never gets a lot of credit but he’s a guy you win with on your team,” de Haan said.

Fleury, watching from the upper level at the Barclays Center, said he had two quick thoughts when van Riemsdyk went into the wall. The first was the shock and sorrow of seeing a teammate hurt. His second: next man up, again.

“I felt so bad, he was in so much pain,” Fleury said Monday. “I don’t think he missed many games this year and he is such a pro and puts so much dedication into this game. He’s my best friend on the team and was playing probably the best hockey of his life.”

Fleury played the first three games of the first-round series against the Capitals before de Haan was able to return. Now, van Riemsdyk is out.

Fleury said after the 2-1 victory over the Isles that Brind’Amour came up to him and said, “Are you ready to go, bud?” Fleury, a former first-round draft pick by the Canes, stepped back in and was a part of 5-2 victories in Game 3 and 4 -- albeit with limited minutes -- as the Canes wrapped up the Eastern Conference semifinal series.

“When you look at their defense, it’s as mobile as any in the National Hockey League,” NBC hockey analyst Eddie Olczyk said. “They play super fast and a lot of that starts on the back end. The way Roddy (Brind’Amour) wants to play is straight-ahead, get the puck, get it off your stick, get it up and get in the footraces.”

The Canes usually win many of those races.

“You think you’re on the forecheck and then two seconds later you’re chasing a defenseman from behind,” Edmonton Oilers coach Ken Hitchcock noted this season. “They’ve got so much size and mobility back there and they use it to their advantage.”

Slavin and Hamilton have been the top pair, and Slavin has 11 assists in the playoffs -- initially was credited with 12 but later had one taken away. Slavin’s stickwork has been eye-opening at times, his instincts so keen and his hand/eye coordination so good.

Faulk and Pesce have been used together and both are right-handed shooters, causing Pesce to play the left side, his offside.

“I’ve grown used to it,” Pesce said. “In the offensive zone you’re already corked and ready to shoot it in a more comfortable position, and can get more pucks on net.”

Pesce was ready on the right side Friday in Game 4, unloading a shot that Isles goalie Robin Lehner stopped but couldn’t hold. Greg McKegg, positioned in front of Lehner, popped in the loose puck for a 3-1 lead in the decisive second period.

The Canes can only wait out the Bruins and Blue Jackets. De Haan said he’d be watching Game 6 on Monday night.

“It’s playoff hockey, man, the best time of year,” he said.

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In more than 30 years at The N&O, Chip Alexander has covered the N.C. State, UNC, Duke and East Carolina beats, and now is in his 11th season on the Carolina Hurricanes beat. Alexander, who has won numerous writing awards at the state and national level, covered the Hurricanes’ move to North Carolina in 1997 and was a part of The N&O’s coverage of the Canes’ 2006 Stanley Cup run.
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