Too much of a good thing is a good thing
Posted September 27, 2011
The Carolina Hurricanes discovered a problem this training camp, but it is a problem that most NHL teams would love to have. The Canes have a logjam on the blue-line - too many players this pre-season look like they can step in and play.
Considering four years ago the concern in the organization was the depth at defense, the Canes now have a glut and that is a good thing.
Carolina came into this camp knowing there were seven NHL-ready defensemen on the roster. Today, the team has what looks like as many as ten players that can step in and play regular NHL minutes.
Why the increase in that number? The team can credit the play and practice habits of Justin Faulk and Ryan Murphy. The rookie defensemen have played in every game this pre-season and their presence has created a real sense of competition.
The Hurricanes have their top four defensemen set comprised of Olympians Tim Gleason (USA), Tomas Kaberle (Czech Republic), Joni Pitkanen (Finland) and veteran Bryan Allen. The rest of the group seemed to be set heading into training camp with young offensive-defensemen Jamie McBain, steady vet Jay Harrison, the physical presence Derek Joslin and not much room for anyone else. But Faulk and Murphy have grabbed the attention of the coaching staff.
Is it something that head coach Paul Maurice likes to see?
“Yes, I do.”, Maurice said quickly and with a smile.
Faulk and Murphy have played, albeit against pre-season competition, at a level that says they can play with the NHLers. Consider that Murphy is just 18 and Faulk is 19, these two have yet to reach their potential. Bobby Sanguinetti, a 23-year-old, has also had a strong camp and is making a case to be NHL-worthy. The coaching staff has noticed their presence and how it has raised the level of play for the defensive group - something that the head coach has seen and used to drive this group of players.
“I think that that is the first sign of depth, when you can create that competition without having to…When you’re not taking a guy out of the line-up to shake him up, but you are taking him out because there is somebody that you think may be able to perform that job better, that’s real competition, that is real motivation.”
It also creates the question of where will these players be best suited to develop into full-time NHL D-men. Murphy would have to be returned to Kitchener of the OHL if he does not make the Hurricanes, which is the going NHL policy, not Carolina’s. Faulk left Minnesota-Duluth after helping them win an NCAA title to pursue his pro career, helping the Checkers last year in the post season. Both of these players have displayed a skill set worthy of staying, but Murphy has been hard to ignore due to his plus-talent skating ability.
“He has a very specific style so the one thing we can encourage is…and just so I am clear this is not something that we sat down and said this has to improve, because part of the reason why he is a special player is because he does unexpected things on the ice and you don’t ever want to take that away.” Maurice is comfortable with his game and thinks that Murphy has the basics and a good understanding of what his limitations are right now, “So there is not a lot about his game I don’t like.”
There are things that Paul Maurice says Murphy has to improve upon, and he had a similar chat last year with another rookie the Canes selected from Kitchener.
“This is exactly the same conversation I had with Jeff Skinner. There are times where, at this level, where you have to move the puck as your first option. Before we intervene with that we want him to learn that on his own. It’s a developmental process”
The Hurricanes have another young defenseman they are anxious to see in Derek Joslin who missed the start of camp with an illness. Joslin showed last season that he can be a physical presence on the Canes blue line after being acquired in a deal with San Jose. He was a plus-7 in 17 games with Carolina and at 24-years-old, many around the league consider him ready for a breakout.
Jay Harrison has become an everyday NHL defenseman, providing physical play even if that means dropping the gloves. In camp, you can notice Harrison helping out the younger players by talking to them in breaks and being vocal. Harrison also has an underrated offensive game as evident by jumping into the play to provide several offensive chances and scoring the other night against Winnipeg.
Maurice noticed that Harrison has picked up on what the blue line is being asked to do, “That’s really something that we have been pushing from day one, an active D, and Jay picks up on that and he is such a good skater he can do a really fine job with that.”
Harrison has also become an asset killing penalties, something that every NHL team looks for from its defense.
Jamie McBain possess the requisite offensive skills that make him a scoring threat in the back end that teams spend years to try to develop. Another one of the group of defensemen well under 30, at 23 he knocked on the door of double digit goals last season (7) and is the puck moving defenseman that most teams covet. Fully recovered from off-season surgery, McBain might skate right past the ten goal mark this season.
Add Bobby Sanguinetti into the mix and the Canes back line has plenty of depth.
Faulk and Murphy might not make the Canes this year, bur their emergence opens up plenty of possibilities for the future of the team. Right now, it impacts the players that have a NHL roster spot and it saves Paul Maurice from wasting words.
“You always have the excuse the 'coach doesn’t like me' or whatever it is. Or they’re just trying to send a message. Those messages are always half-heard, you know.”
Having players convey that it takes a lot to be an NHL player is invaluable to a coaching staff and Maurice made that clear, “When the message is that there is a player there that might be able to take your job, that one gets heard loud and clear. And usually you don’t have to say it.”
Carolina didn’t just buy a defense, through the draft and trades management has added depth, skill and competition in the organization. The next few years in Raleigh could showcase some top talent for the Canes and from the looks of it that talent will be around for years.
You can never have too much of a good thing, and in the NHL you can never have enough of it on defense.