RALEIGH, N.C. – As the Carolina Hurricanes neared the completion of the second week of training camp on Thursday, head coach Bill Peters talked about the team’s evolving defensive play.
As much discussion has revolved around who will fall into place on the team’s roster up front, after losing two straight games recently to St. Louis (3-1) and Columbus (6-3), and five of six preseason games, at some point, the focus had to fall on who could emerge as the team’s leaders on the blue line.
Following the most recent round of cuts that brought the camp’s roster number down from 36 to 25, the remaining unit’s size allowed Peters to tighten up work with his rearguards.
“Lots of D – eight D’s – real good running practice at this level with eight D,” Peters said.
“It’s a good group. It’s an underrated group probably. There’s a lot of different personalities, different types of players. You’ve got some puck movers, you’ve got some competitive guys. You’ve got big guys with good sticks.”
With three right-handed shooters (Ryan Murphy, Justin Faulk, Brett Bellemore), and five left-handers (Andrej Sekera, Ron Hainsey, Jay Harrison, Tim Gleason, and John-Michael Liles), Peters ideally wants to have four on each side.
As a result, one of the leftys will need to come over and play on the right side, and according to the coach, Gleason seems to be the one to fit into that slot.
“You’ve got Gleas(on) who’s hard to play against,” Peters said.
“I think when we get it all finalized and they get some reps together and find out who’s gonna’ play the right side as a left-handed shot – we probably need one guy to slide over there. Gleas has been very comfortable over there. Then we’re really gonna’ have some continuity in the back end and we’ll be able to take a big step.”
Typical at the beginning of any season is the slower development of a team’s defensive set-up, particularly one undergoing a systemic overhaul and retooling like the Hurricanes are going through.
As Peters has alluded to previously during camp, the players all possess ample NHL experience to know and understand what they have to do, but how quickly they can all put it together is the key factor of how quickly success will come.
“I think everyone can handle it,” Faulk said following practice last week.
“Everything that’s been going on is all good…It’s been alright and we’ve been adjusting pretty well. We’re still tryin’ to figure it out as a whole unit, but we’re doin’ alright.”
As far as what Peters is looking for, each of the team’s recent games has shown areas he’d like to see the defensemen improve their work on.
Following the team’s 4-2 victory over the New York Islanders, Peters wanted to work more on their puck possession and movement.
“We need more poise with the puck,” Peters said.
“We just can’t hand our troubles off to the next guy. If you’re under a bit of siege, you may have to take a hit to make a play, but you gotta’ be a little more efficient in movin’ the puck. A little cleaner – don’t hand your troubles off to the next guy. Too many times in New York, the puck was on the wall and it was on the wall unnecessarily.”
Peters and assistant coach Steve Smith have worked harder with the black jerseys on that particular aspect of their game.
As much as the defensemen have been working to move the puck, the team’s forwards have also been instructed to be in the right spot to receive a pass and transition the puck through the neutral zone and into the other team’s zone with possession.
It’s a five-man back and five-man up system that everyone is still working to synchronize in all areas of the ice surface.
“It’s definitely an adjustment, any time you have a new coach comin’ in,” Liles said.
“New systems, offensively you’re tryin’ to be creative, but defensively I think you have to have five guys on the same page. Early in the preseason and early in camp, it’s something that we focused on and it’s definitely a work in progress. Any time you transition to something like that, from one thing to another, it’s definitely something that you continuously work on and you try and make sure that you and your D partner are on the same page as well as the other three guys and goaltender on the ice. It’s everybody workin’ together in units of five.”
Heading into Friday’s preseason matchup against the Buffalo Sabres, breakouts were another area that the remaining eight were skating hard to refine and present to an acceptable level for the coaching staff.
“Last couple of games we haven’t been exactly pleased with our breakout, so we worked on that again today,” Peters said.
“We’ll continue to evolve there and add some different wrinkles. We’re not against goin’ four forwards and one D, so we’ve gotta’ find a solution – I don’t want to say it’s a problem – it’s not a problem. We wanna’ be solution-based and we’re not exactly enthralled with how we’re bringin’ the puck up the ice. We wanna’ find some solutions there.”
Successfully breaking the puck out of its zone is critical for Carolina to get a handle of sooner rather than later at even strength and in special teams play.
Following an 0-for-5 performance with the man-advantage against St. Louis, the quarterback role on the blue line was still an area that Peters was unclear of who to award to just yet.
With one core group at camp remaining, more attention can now be paid on the defense to get closer to figuring it all out.
“Right now, we’re still evaluating those guys,” Peters said.
“We need somebody to emerge as the power play guy. As the guy who can pass the puck. As the guy who’s gonna’ run it in the zone up top, if we run it from the umbrella, we need that guy to emerge – sooner rather than later.”
The overall goal is to develop a set of defenseman who won’t just dump the puck out from zone to zone, but who have confidence to pass it to a forward who gets to the space they expect them to be in – be it to deliver a tape-to-tape pass or a strategic chip off the boards that will be picked up successfully.
“Quick transition, ultimately, is not to let another team set up,” Liles said.
“If you can catch a team a bit flat-footed, it’s to your advantage. You never want to pass your troubles on to another guy. In the NHL, and the skill that’s in this room, we’ve got a pretty good level of talent – guys can see the ice well. Ultimately, it’s makin’ sure to make those right reads and make them quick. I think that’s one of the things he’s focused on primarily, is just makin’ quick reads and makin’ sure that guys are moving to the right areas to allow the defensemen to make those reads and move the puck up quick.”
If a good pass isn’t the best first option, and as Peters alluded to, the defense must have enough ability to endure the flurry of the opposing team’s forechecking energy – maintaining puck possession while taking a hit until the time is right to move the black disc along.
No weak-minded defensive play will be tolerated and a veteran like Liles understands that.
“That’s part of the NHL – takin’ hits to make plays,” he said.
“Everybody in this room understands that and knows that and it’s what it takes to be a successful team. One of the many things it takes.”
Effective and efficient defensive positioning in their own zone, blocking shots, breaking the puck out, creating quick neutral zone transitions, solidifying and facilitating offensive zone possession, and being effective contributors on special teams is all that is expected of this group of defenseman.
How quickly they adhere to the coaching staff’s expectations and develop in all phases of the game is an area of success that the Hurricanes could use early on in the season.
That’s a big step that Peters would like to take, but for now and until that happens, work on the defense continues to be a work in progress.