NHL.com continues its preview of the 2014-15 season, which will include in-depth looks at all 30 teams throughout September.
Carolina Hurricanes defenseman Justin Faulk is accustomed to strong starts and even stronger finishes.
In his first international appearance for the United States as an 18-year-old, Faulk scored the game-winning goal to give the Americans the gold medal at the 2010 IIHF U-18 World Championship.
A year later, as a freshman at the University of Minnesota-Duluth, Faulk played a key role in the Bulldogs' run to their first NCAA championship. That summer, the Hurricanes, who had selected Faulk in the second round (No. 37) in the 2010 NHL Draft, signed him to a three-year entry-level contract. Again, Faulk announced himself immediately, scoring 22 points in 66 games in 2011-12.
In 2013-14, his third season in the NHL, Faulk posted career highs in games (76), assists (27) and points (32), and ranked 22nd among defensemen in even-strength points (20). In February, his stellar play was rewarded with a place on the U.S. team that finished fourth at the 2014 Sochi Olympics. A month later, he signed a six-year, $29 million contract extension to stay with Carolina through 2019-20.
Despite being a gold medalist, an Olympian and a multimillionaire before most people his age graduate college, the 22-year-old is not content with a bright start to his NHL career. For Faulk, it's all about how you finish.
"I haven't made the Stanley Cup [Playoffs]," Faulk told the Raleigh News & Observer in August. "It's tough to go home knowing you didn't make it, that you fell short. I mean, there's only one team that wins each year, but you've got to make the playoffs."
"It's been three years for me, and I know it's been five years for a few guys here. With most of us coming back, we all have that same goal to get there and see what you can do."
Faulk knows the Hurricanes will need a big year from him if they hope to break their five-season postseason drought. Along with Jeff Skinner, Elias Lindholm and Ryan Murphy, Faulk is part of a promising young core in Carolina.
"We obviously know it's there, with a lot of young guys," Faulk said. "But we also want to be guys who are relied on who end up becoming the leaders on the team, whether it's just with work ethic or production or whatever it might be. I don't think there's anything wrong with a situation where we're thought of as the core of the team."
Though Faulk is just a year older than Murphy, he has played three times as many NHL games. The two are close friends and vacationed together in the Bahamas this offseason, but Faulk also serves as mentor to his fellow defenseman.
"We get along well," Faulk said. "I kind of help him out a little bit getting used to things, since I have a little bit of a bigger presence in the locker room than some of the newer guys. He comes to me with questions once in a while and I make sure I do everything I can to help him out as a player."
Defense - CAR
GOALS: 5 | ASST: 27 | PTS: 32
SOG: 152 | +/-: -9
In terms of Faulk's own development, there is still room for growth. Despite leading Hurricanes defensemen in shots in 2013-14, Faulk was limited to five goals. His 3.3 shooting percentage was the lowest among the team's regulars. His stellar even-strength production did not bleed into the power play, as he posted eight points on an impotent extra-man unit. In many ways, Faulk's season -- he had three assists and a minus-5 rating in a 12-game stretch following the Olympics -- mirrored the Hurricanes' larger inconsistencies.
New coach Bill Peters, who has plenty of experience molding young players and defensemen, is looking forward to helping Faulk reach the next level as a player and a teammate.
"I think he's just scratching the surface," Peters said. "There's a little bit more he can do with the puck, a little more he can do on the power play, and those are areas we want to be better in. Again, here's a young guy we want in the rush, want part of our power play whether it's the first or second unit, and a guy we have really high expectations for."
Faulk returned to Raleigh early, in mid-August, to make sure he was getting into peak condition ahead of training camp. After all, he's got a reputation for fast starts to uphold. Now he's got his sights set on an even stronger finish in 2014-15.
"There's no better experience than winning," Faulk said. "Just kind of having that drive in my head to get back to that stage where you're winning games in whatever League it might be -- World Championships, Olympics, whatever -- that's what makes players good."