RALEIGH, N.C. -- Carolina Hurricanes defenseman Justin Faulk has made a habit of outpacing expectations. It started his freshman year at University of Minnesota-Duluth.
"He was very good as a freshman, pretty dominant for an 18-year-old kid," Minnesota-Duluth coach Scott Sandelin said. "He had the physical tools, he could skate, he had a good shot. By Christmas, I thought we might not keep him for more than a year just based on how he played."
Defense - CAR
GOALS: 10 | ASST: 26 | PTS: 36
SOG: 157 | +/-: -17
Sandelin was right. Faulk helped Minnesota-Duluth win the 2011 NCAA Championship, then moved on to the NHL, where he was named to the NHL's All-Rookie Team in 2012. He was a U.S. Olympian in 2014 and NHL All-Star in January. It's a pretty solid hockey resume for a 22-year-old, but Faulk would prefer to take age out of the equation.
"I'm not a huge fan of saying I'm only 22," Faulk said. "Coming into the League, I didn't care that I was 19. I want to be held to the same standard as everyone else."
Faulk has been a bright spot in a season of struggles for Carolina. He leads the team in ice time at 24:10 per game, and he logs the second-most minutes on Carolina's League-leading penalty kill. But the numbers that people notice lately are his offensive ones. His 10 goals and 36 points are career-highs, with 24 games remaining.
It might seem like Faulk is merely polishing his skill set, but his age suggests that he has yet to peak. Time and experience will allow him to improve on his minus-17 rating. Carolina coach Bill Peters quickly acknowledges that it's only natural to have some growing pains.
"Like all young D-men in this league, when they make mistakes, they're noticeable mistakes and they end up in the back of the net," Peters said. "That's how you learn."
Being the detail-oriented coach that he is, Peters launches right into a thorough analysis.
"I'd like to see him on his 1-on-1s be a little more physical, a little more gapped up." Peters said. "Sometimes he has a tendency to play the puck and get caught looking down. That's going to go away. As he gets more experience in the defensive zone, I'd like to see him box out and be physical around our net, not drift or get puck focused."
Faulk seems a good fit for his first-year coach. Peters is patient and optimistic, but there is no time to be wasted. So the Carolina coach is perfectly willing to let his young defenseman handle the rigors of playing on the top defensive pairing.
"I live in the real world, so the reality of the situation is he's in our No. 1 pair," Peters said. "So Tuesday he's going to see a lot of (Philadelphia Flyers forward Claude) Giroux and the next game he's going to see a lot of (Washington Capitals forwards Nicklas) Backstrom and (Alex) Ovechkin. That's a tall task for a young defenseman, and he does a good job with it. He'll only get better as we continue to improve our supporting cast around him."
The heavy workload comes with its drawbacks. The elite players will work their magic against even the best defensemen. Faulk gets that.
"If I can shut them down, it works out good. If not, maybe it makes you think a little bit," Faulk said with a chuckle. "No, it's a welcome challenge playing against top lines every night. It's nice to have the trust from the coaching staff."
So, what does it take to neutralize the best forwards in the NHL?
"You have to be sharp in all areas, whether it's defensively taking away their time and space or how you make plays with the puck," he said. "You don't want to turn the puck over when they're on the ice obviously because they tend to capitalize on that. Just take care of the puck and be responsible."
In that regard, Faulk is solid too. His takeaways-to-giveaways ratio is plus-12.
Faulk will have plenty of time to develop in Carolina, where the core group is young but has yet to feel the additional pressure of the Stanley Cup Playoffs. When the time comes that the Hurricanes do challenge for a playoff spot, Peters believes Faulk will be ready.
"I see Faulk being a true No. 1 guy in the League on a No. 1 pair on a good team," Peters said. "In five years when he's 27, let's see where he's at. He's going to be the puck guy with his partner and he's going to be hard to play against."
For Faulk, the individual accomplishments are promising mile markers in his young career, and maybe even signs of what lies ahead. But four years into his NHL career, he has more on his mind than his individual worth.
"It's nice to be a part of those things, but hopefully I've got a lot of career left in me and I'll be able to add to that in the team aspects like making the playoffs," he said. "Obviously I'd like to win the Stanley Cup."
Until then, he will stick with his low-key approach. He won't let his age define him either.
"I just show up every day and keep pushing, I guess. I'm 22, but I have to come in and put in the work the same way everyone else does."