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Projecting the Canes Defensive Pairs

Canes boast elite talent on the blue line

by Michael Smith @MSmithCanes / Hurricanes.com

The strength of the Carolina Hurricanes is their defense. The team boasts one of the most talented, skilled and potentially even underrated group of six on the blue line.

The Canes' defensive wealth is the result of years of adept drafting and developing combined with wise asset management.

Let's take a look at how the Canes will line up defensively this season.

Jaccob Slavin - Dougie Hamilton

The Canes' top defensive pairing is among the league's elite. Slavin's defensive prowess matched with Hamilton's offensive flair makes the duo a dynamic threat. Slavin and Hamilton will chew up minutes on the blue line, routinely taking on the opposition's best while also logging quality minutes on special teams.

Slavin posted career highs in assists (30), points (36) and plus-minus (plus-30) in 68 games in 2019-20. He led the Canes in average time on ice (23:24) and ranked sixth in the league in total shorthanded time on ice (210:55). Slavin finished fifth in Norris Trophy voting, with one second-place vote and five third-place votes in 82 appearances on Professional Hockey Writers Association ballots. He also finished fourth in Lady Byng voting with 31 first-place votes, second most among all players, after recording just 10 penalty minutes.

Slavin also made his first NHL All-Star Weekend appearance in place of his injured defensive partner. Slavin won the Accuracy Shooting event at NHL All-Star Skills when he hit all five digital targets in 9.505 seconds.

Video: Accuracy Shooting: Slavin wins with superb shooting

Hamilton, who NHL Network ranked as the seventh-best defenseman in the league, ranked fourth on the Canes in points (40) and eighth among all NHL defensemen in goals (14) in the 2019-20 season, despite playing in just 47 games. Had his season not been cut short by a leg injury, he likely would have posted career numbers across the board, he would have participated in his first NHL All-Star Weekend and he would have been in the mix for Norris Trophy voting.

Video: CAR@BOS, Gm2: Hamilton uncorks big one-timer for lead

"He's a big part of our team," head coach Rod Brind'Amour said. "We love him around here."

Brady Skjei - Brett Pesce

This is a new pairing, one the coaching staff has stuck with throughout training camp and one that is likely to remain intact come opening night. It's a balanced pair that's going to defend well and move the puck up-ice with relative ease. 

After the Canes acquired Skjei from the New York Rangers at the trade deadline, he logged just seven games before the pause cut the cord on the 2019-20 season. Skjei then played eight games in the 2020 postseason and logged a pair of assists and a booming hit on an old teammate turned teammate once more.

Video: "Us players wanted to have the pace of the game."

"He's such a dynamic skater. That's his best asset. His gaps are so good. When you have a D-man like that, it kind of makes everything easier for you," Skjei's defensive partner said. "We're lucky to have him here."

Pesce hasn't played a game with the Canes in 11 months, his return to the ice in training camp a long time coming after having shoulder surgery in March. Without question, the Canes are a better team when Pesce is in the lineup. His defensive partner and head coach called him "an elite defenseman in this league," and James Reimer said Pesce has a "ton of skill and heart" and is dependable and trustworthy as a defender. The Canes have had a recent knack for drafting and developing talent in deeper rounds; Pesce was the 66th overall selection (third round) in the 2013 NHL Draft.

"He's a real smart player. When he's not in the lineup, you certainly miss it, no doubt about it," Brind'Amour said. "I think he's one of the better defenders around. It's tough to replace a guy like that."

Jake Gardiner - Haydn Fleury

The Canes have found balance in each of their three defensive pairs, and with this duo, they strike a nice equilibrium between Gardiner's offensive abilities, especially on the power play, and Fleury's growing confidence in his own zone.

Gardiner is entering the second year of a four-year deal he signed with the Canes in Sept. 2019. Gardiner posted 24 points (4g, 20a), 11 of which were on the power play, in 68 games with the Canes in 2019-20. The 30-year-old blueliner, now a father of two, will be counted on to quarterback the Canes' second power play unit.

Video: CAR@PIT: Gardiner rips scorching one-timer for PPG

For the first time in his career, Fleury came into training camp with a spot on the Canes' blue line, well-earned from his performance in 2020, from late in the regular season through the playoffs. Fleury finished with 14 points (4g, 10a) in 45 games before adding another two goals, 19 blocks and 11 hits in what was a statement playoff showing from the young defenseman.

Tweet from @MSmithCanes: Playoff Fleur bringing the 💥 pic.twitter.com/W05d1z8EJW

"We're still counting on Haydn to get better and take that next step," Brind'Amour said. "I think we all would agree that the last little bit of last season definitely showed the promise."

In the mix: Jake Bean, Joakim Ryan

Bean was named an AHL First Team All-Star and received the Eddie Shore Award as the AHL's Defenseman of the Year in 2019-20, and now he's going to fight for a spot in the Canes' lineup. The team's 13th overall pick from 2016 is ready to make that a reality.

"It's exciting, something that feels like has been a long time coming for me," he said. "I think I took advantage of being in the American League and getting a lot of ice time. I'll do my best to make all that work come to fruition."

Video: "This feels like a long time coming for me."

Brind'Amour has noticed the young defenseman early in camp, as well.

"He's definitely taken a step," Brind'Amour said. "Will he get in [the lineup]? I'm almost sure of it. We need to see what we have in him."

The Canes inked Ryan to a one-year, two-way contact in October to beef up their defensive depth. Ryan has totaled 24 points (4g, 20a) in 141 career NHL games with San Jose and Los Angeles and has been skating alongside Bean as the team's extra defensive pair in camp practices thus far.

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