Rod Brind'Amour is putting the pressure on his defensemen to be the difference for the Carolina Hurricanes against the New York Rangers in the Stanley Cup Qualifiers.
"Well, it's certainly our strength," the Hurricanes coach said. "Our defense is going to have to drive the boat, there's just no way around it."
The Rangers' strength lies in their top-six forward group, which includes left wing Artemi Panarin (95 points; tied for third in NHL) and center Mika Zibanejad (41 goals; fifth in NHL) playing on separate lines, creating what could be a matchup dilemma.
That makes Brind'Amour's job of choosing the six defensemen that he believes will give Carolina the best chance against New York harder.
At least he has options. More than most, in fact.
"We're as deep as we've ever been," Brind'Amour said. "Quality defensemen."
The Hurricanes (38-25-5, .596 points percentage), the No. 6 seed in the Eastern Conference, expect to have eight healthy defensemen available when they play the Rangers (37-28-5, .564), the No. 11 seed, in a best-of-5 series that begins Aug. 1 at Scotiabank Arena in Toronto, the Eastern hub city.
The winner will advance to the Stanley Cup Playoffs, and the loser will have a chance at the No. 1 pick in the 2020 NHL Draft in the Second Phase of the NHL Draft Lottery.
Among that list is Dougie Hamilton, Brady Skjei and Sami Vatanen, who are expected to make up half of Carolina's defense group in Game 1 but did not play for the Hurricanes the last time they played the Rangers on Feb. 21 (a 5-2 loss).
Hamilton, who had 40 points (16 goals, 24 assists) and a plus-30 rating in 47 games this season, was out with a fractured left fibula he sustained Jan. 16 that caused him to miss Carolina's final 21 games before the season was paused on March 12 due to concerns surrounding the coronavirus. Hamilton has been a full participant in practice since training camp opened on July 13, skating on the top pair alongside Jaccob Slavin, his partner before he got hurt.
"If we can project to get him back at even 90 percent or 80 percent of what he was, that's going to be a big boost for us," Brind'Amour said. "I'm hoping he's 100 percent once this gets going."
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Skjei (Rangers) and Vatanen (New Jersey Devils) were each acquired in a trade on Feb. 24 in part to fill the gap left by Hamilton and Brett Pesce, who had shoulder surgery on March 5 and likely won't start skating with contact until early September.
Skjei played in seven games (one assist) with the Hurricanes before the season was paused and could be part of their second defense pair with Vatanen, who did not play or participate in a full practice with Carolina during the regular season while dealing with a lower-body injury.
"Going into these playoffs, not knowing exactly what's going to happen with injuries and with obviously COVID, I think you need to have as much depth as you can," Skjei said. "We're very comfortable with our 'D' and we think any player can play any night and play a big role."
Brind'Amour said training camp has been especially important for Skjei and Vatanen to get acquainted with the Hurricanes' style of play.
"It's more time and reps and discussion on how things work," Brind'Amour said.
Joel Edmundson, Trevor van Riemsdyk, Jake Gardiner and Haydn Fleury fill out the Hurricanes' depth at defensemen.
Pesce would be a lock to play if he were healthy, but even without him, the Hurricanes confidently feel can neutralize Zibanejad and Panarin.
"I think our team matches up really well against them just the fact that we're big on pressure and big on not giving guys time and space," Skjei said. "That's exactly what you do against the top players in the League."
Carolina forward Justin Williams expects that to happen.
"They're all top-four defenseman, in my opinion," Williams said. "It's going to be heck for the other team, but it's going to be a lot of fun for us, I believe."
First, Brind'Amour has to choose who is going to play in Game 1.
"It's a great problem to have, but we've got to figure that out," Brind'Amour said. "With the short series, you really don't have time to figure stuff out. We've got to go with who looks the best right now, but we do have enough time to do that."