The Carolina Hurricanes opened the season with nine defensemen on the roster. For some teams, that may be a bad thing. For Carolina, it's a good problem to have.
A lot of pixels were devoted to the high dollar contracts going to the NHL’s elite (or, in some cases, just best available) defensemen signing new contracts this past summer. The top four deals went to Christian Ehrhoff, James Wisniewski, Shea Weber and Drew Doughty, who will earn between $6 and $10 million dollars this year or, on average, a salary of $7.625 million a head.
Another free agent who was among those classified among the “Best Available” was the Carolina Hurricanes’ Joni Pitkanen. In a departure from the norm, the 28-year-old Finnish blueliner caught many by surprise when he chose to sign a three-year deal with Carolina in June -- without ever testing the free agent market -- agreeing to what looks like a generously discounted $4.5 million annually.
Admittedly, Pitkanen’s resume is hardly without blemish, and his inconsistency is often his most consistent trait – from hero to zero from one shift to the next. That's why, though it's early, it's hard to miss that he has raised his game to the next level.
On Wednesday night against the Bruins, he beat Tim Thomas threading the needle with a wicked shot to open the scoring on the power play. Throughout the game, the smooth skating Finn saved goals with his quick and physical response at the other end. A whole lotta hero, not much zero. The Canes held on to win 3-2 and Pitkanen was chosen as the game's 2nd star. Many hockey fans in Raleigh are buzzing about how solid he looks so far. News & Observer columnist Luke DeCock agrees.
So, knowing the depth on Carolina’s back end, with nine defenseman making the opening day roster, it’s no wonder that Craig Custance made the leap to this possible outcome at his Insider column at ESPN.com:
The Carolina Hurricanes brought Joni Pitkanen back this summer with a three-year, $13.5 million deal, but Luke DeCock wonders if the Hurricanes can afford to keep him with their sudden depth on defense. Carolina also added Tomas Kaberle at a reasonable price this summer (three years, $12.75 million) and have an emerging group of young defensemen. It means that Pitkanen could hit the trade market and would be one of the most attractive options out there for teams looking for help on defense.Sorry, but no. I’m here to tell you, Pitkanen is not going anywhere. Yes, there is unprecedented depth among the D in Raleigh, but from GM Jim Rutherford’s perspective, for the foreseeable future, Pitkanen’s a keeper.
But seriously... 9 D?
Here’s a rundown of the other 8 defensemen and how they fit into the grand scheme of things:
The three who best fit the definition of shutdown defensemen are Tim Gleason, Bryan Allen, and Jay Harrison. None of them are known for chipping in goals, but they are a strong, gritty and mostly disciplined bunch that is among league leaders in blocked shots, +/-, hits and with just two minor penalties. Coach Paul Maurice has paired Gleason and Allen together the last two games, and they are the most solid shutdown pairing that the 'Canes have seen since Bret Hedican and Glen Wesley patrolled the ice at the RBC Center for the Stanley Cup team.
The other five players that make up Carolina's defensive corps bring the skill set built around skating and puck-handling that is more similar (but none quite equal) to Pitkanen’s, prompting speculation that something has to give.
Three young players, Jamie McBain, Derek Joslin and Ryan Murphy spent the first three games of the new season healthy but scratched, while rookie Justin Faulk, at 19, got big minutes paired with Allen, Kaberle and Pitkanen. For Wednesday, the team's fourth game, Faulk got a seat upstairs while Jamie McBain, a Hobey Baker nominee at Wisconsin, who is now in his third year as a pro, was given his chance against the defending champions.
McBain, 23, is known as a slow starter every fall, but after a week as the odd-man out, he attacked the game against the Bruins with more conviction and power than he’s likely ever displayed before Christmas since he still believed in Santa Claus.
Where did Justin Faulk come from? In last month's Training Camp, the 2010 second rounder emerged far ahead of his projected development schedule, and prompted a lot buzz about his NHL readiness. Rutherford will be holding him closely. As a right shot with a strong two-way game, expect Faulk to be a mainstay in Raleigh for years to come. Whether he’ll stick with the big club or be returned to the AHL Checkers in Charlotte remains to be determined.
Ryan Murphy, the Hurricanes’ first round pick in June, had displays of brilliance during the preseason that brought the fans out of their seats. The Canes held on to the 18-year-old for a week into the regular season as much to impress upon him the essentials required to play in the NHL before sending him back to the Kitchener Rangers on Thursday.
Derek Joslin, 24, was acquired from the San Jose Sharks in February in the deal that sent Ian White the other way. He saw a few games when injuries opened a spot on the roster last spring, and impressed with his nifty blend of physical play and skilled puck handling; he was re-signed to a two-year $1.4 million contract in July. Last month, he arrived at camp with mononucleosis and has yet to play other than one game in the preseason. Might he be available to trade? Maybe, but with nothing to measure his current level of performance, the return would not be optimal. With a $700k salary, there's no hurry.
That’s eight out of nine. Which brings us to Tomas Kaberle: surely the most unexpected signing Rutherford has made in many years.
Kaberle vs Pitkanen
With a salary of $4 million this year, Kaberle, 33, is the fifth-highest paid player on the roster. His performance down the stretch with Boston was a disappointment, given the expectations, but it didn't prevent the Bruins from winning the Cup. How does his arrival affect Joni Pitkanen’s status?
Not a bit. Wednesday, Kaberle was slotted in the bottom pairing and had the least TOI of the six on the ice, despite four-plus minutes on the power play. He’s still facing a learning curve of new teammates, new system and is the definition of work in project.
So why did Carolina sign him? The 'Canes signed him for his veteran experience, vision and finesse and to become a catalyst on the power play. We can and should expect it to take a while before he’s up to speed and the pieces drop into place consistently at even strength.
Paul Maurice has started the season with Kaberle and Pitkanen together on the first power play unit. In so doing, the effectiveness of the Canes’ ability to gain and get set up in the zone then keep the puck in motion has already far surpassed anything ever achieved in 2010-11 when they finished 24th in the league with a measly 15.9% success rate with the man advantage. That’s not redundancy, it’s synergy.
At the surface, Pitkanen and Kaberle would seem to be cut from the same cloth, but a closer look shows they play a different game. Five years younger than his Czech counterpart, Pitkanen fitness is remarkable. He routinely logs 25 minutes without breaking a sweat and is equally effective at both ends of the ice. He gets minutes short-handed almost matching his power play TOI. His plays with an edge and will bring the "nasty".
After three years in Raleigh, now married and a new father, Pitkanen made it clear last June he was fully committed to playing for Carolina for three more. Rutherford is well aware this defensemen is reaching the prime of his career and has a value that would be impossible to replace, particularly for a club bound by budget every year.
At the moment there are eight healthy defensemen on the Hurricanes roster. Yes, that is not Rutherford’s typical arrangement. While there are several reasonable scenarios on how this plays out over the season, suggesting he might trade Pitkanen? We won’t even go there.
Photo credit: Jamie Kellner