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Conference Final

Slavin's rough road to NHL paying off for Hurricanes in playoffs

Defenseman has parlayed unheralded background to conference final against Bruins

by Tom Gulitti @TomGulittiNHL / NHL.com Staff Writer

RALEIGH, N.C. -- Jaccob Slavin walked into the interview room at PNC Arena last week, saw more than 20 media members and a line of television cameras waiting for him to step up to the podium and said, "Wow!"

The Carolina Hurricanes defenseman isn't used to this kind of attention, but the spotlight has found him during his first Stanley Cup Playoff experience, and he has excelled under its focus.

The stage will get bigger in the Eastern Conference Final against the Boston Bruins, which begins with Game 1 at TD Garden on Thursday (8 p.m. ET; NBCSN, CBC, SN, TVAS), and Slavin seems to understand his days of flying under the radar are over.

"It's part of the game," he said. "Obviously, for me, I'm still going to just go out there and try to continue to do what I do and that's glorify God with everything I've got. Whether that's playing well or playing bad, I'm just going to try to keep doing that."

A man of deep commitment to his faith and family, Slavin is not the kind to seek the accolades he's receiving now, but they come with the territory. The 25-year-old was instrumental in Carolina's upset of the defending Stanley Cup champion Washington Capitals in the first round of the playoffs, getting a Hurricanes/Hartford Whalers record nine assists and battling with Capitals forward Alex Ovechkin and Co. for seven games, before helping hold the New York Islanders to two even-strength goals in a four-game sweep in the second round.

Slavin's 11 assists are second in the playoffs behind San Jose Sharks defenseman Erik Karlsson, who has 12, and he's sixth in the NHL in ice time in the postseason, averaging 26:36. He'll face his toughest challenge yet playing against the Bruins powerful top line of Brad Marchand, Patrice Bergeron and David Pastrnak, but after watching him over the past four seasons, the Hurricanes know he'll be up for it.

Video: CAR@WSH, Gm7: Staal pots snap shot to tie it in 3rd

"People who've grown up with Slavin know how good he is," Carolina coach Rod Brind'Amour said. "He's an elite defenseman. Whether he's on the scoresheet or not, his value is the same."

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A fourth-round pick (No. 120) by the Hurricanes in the 2012 NHL Draft, Slavin has been a hidden gem for much of his career. Longtime Carolina scout Bert Marshall, who spent 14 seasons as an NHL defenseman, found Slavin playing for Chicago of the United States Hockey League.

Chicago picked up the Denver native, who was undrafted in the USHL, as a 15-year-old from the Colorado AAA program during the 2010-11 season. 

"He started playing for us and we couldn't get him off the ice," said Scott McConnell, who took over as Chicago's general manager and coach that same season. "So one game turned into 10 and then the next thing you know it's like, 'Hey we're just going to go ahead and take him.' "

Video: Quest For The Stanley Cup: Slavin drives to the arena

After playing 17 games with Chicago in 2010-11, Slavin became a workhorse on a struggling team that went 25-31-4 in 2011-12 and 29-31-4 in 2012-13. 

"He played 34 minutes a night," McConnell said. "He was a coach crutch. He just played. He could play in any situation that you gave him and excel in it."

Marshall saw Slavin play at least 10 times, but a 7-1 loss to Dubuque on Dec. 15, 2012 still stands out.

"They were getting hammered and he was minus-2 at the end of the first period, and I'm looking at the two goals against him when he was on the ice and there was nothing he could do about them," Marshall said. "The team wasn't very good, but that doesn't necessarily mean players off of bad teams can't become good players. He had that inner want to succeed."

That determination has served Slavin well at every step, whether it be in the USHL, during his two seasons at Colorado College or playing for the United States at the 2014 World Junior Championship. He was not among the 212 North American skaters in NHL Central Scouting's final rankings for the 2012 draft, but McConnell said he was on the radar of a few teams. 

So, when it came time for the Hurricanes to make the penultimate pick of the fourth round, Marshall didn't hesitate when director of amateur scouting Tony McDonald asked, "What about Slavin?" replying, "Grab him."

"I don't think we were lucky that we got him there," Marshall said. "I think we may be a little bit lucky in terms of what he's turned into, but those things are all up to the individual player."

***

Mike Haviland, a former assistant with the Chicago Blackhawks who won the Stanley Cup with them in 2010, became Colorado College's coach before the 2014-15 season and remembers thinking then that Slavin was on a fast track to the NHL. Slavin, who was 6-foot-2, 170 pounds when he was drafted by Carolina, was up to 6-3, 195 pounds for his sophomore season on his way to his current 6-3, 207-pound frame.

As a freshman in 2013-14, he led the Tigers with 25 points (five goals, 20 assists) in 32 games, earning the National Collegiate Hockey Conference Rookie of the Year and second-team all-NCHC honors. He dropped to 17 points (five goals, 12 assists) in 34 games in 2014-15, but was voted to the NCHC's all-conference first team.

Video: CAR@PIT: Slavin gets Hurricanes on the board with PPG

"His smarts for the game were just off the charts, his hockey IQ," Haviland said. "We used to call him a human breakout here. He could turn on a dime and his first two steps were explosive and he was gone, and could make that first pass. He was an elite player at the college level."

Colorado College was a rebuilding program, going a combined 13-50-9 during Slavin's two seasons there, but it proved to be a perfect learning environment. He played in all situations, running the power play from the point and logging heavy ice time.

"He was playing 28 minutes a night here," Haviland said. "Sometimes maybe you can be on a team that's maybe in a rebuild, but you're playing and that's a big part of your development. … and Jaccob took advantage of those minutes and really worked on his game day in and day out and just got better and better."

When Slavin left Colorado College to turn pro in 2015, Haviland figured correctly his stay in the American Hockey League would be brief. Slavin played 14 games with the Hurricanes' affiliate in Charlotte in 2015-16 before being called up to make his NHL debut against the Toronto Maple Leafs on Nov. 20, 2015. 
He never returned to the AHL.

"His first shift, I knew he was a player," Hurricanes center Jordan Staal said. "He was one of those kids that he came in right away and made a couple plays and you were like, 'Oh, he's going to be around for a while.'"

Carolina made sure of that when it signed him to a seven-year, $37.1 million contract extension, which kicked in this season, on July 12, 2017. The average annual value of $5.3 million looks like a bargain now for a top pair defenseman making a name for himself in this postseason.

His offensive production has been a bit of revelation -- he had 31 points (eight goals, 23 assists) in 82 regular-season games this season -- but hasn't surprised the Hurricanes.

"I don't think anything's different," defense partner Dougie Hamilton said. "I think maybe it's just people see it more."

This is Carolina's first time in the playoffs since 2009 and something new for Slavin; other than two first-round exits with Colorado College in the NCHC's postseason tournament (all eight teams qualify regardless of record), he said he hadn't played for a team good enough to make the playoffs since, "youth hockey, probably," so he has been enjoying this run.

"This is the best time of the year, and it's a lot of fun playing out there," he said. "The intensity revs up, the game revs up and those are the games everyone wants to play in."

Slavin also has a reminder at home that keeps everything in perspective; he and his wife, Kylie, had been on an adoption waiting list since before this season and, by fate, their infant daughter, "Baby E," arrived at the start of the playoffs. The Slavins are not revealing the baby's name or other details until the adoption becomes official.

That meant missing a couple of practices and flying back to Raleigh from Washington between Games 1 and 2 of the first round in addition to the all other craziness of becoming a first-time parent. The break since the Hurricanes finished the second round with a 3-0 victory against the Islanders in Game 4 on Friday was a blessing in that it gave Slavin some free time to spend with his daughter before turning his attention back to the playoffs and the Bruins.

"My wife has been a rock star with it all and she's been taking, I'd probably say, 99 percent of the sleeping load with the nighttime feedings," Slavin said. "She's been really good at everything, so I thank her for that. But it's been awesome. It's been absolutely awesome."

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