Hurricanes Need Entire Defense Corps to Fill Hamilton Roster Hole

When Dougie Hamilton agreed to a 7-year, $63 million contract with the New Jersey Devils during the offseason, it suddenly opened a massive hole in the Carolina Hurricanes’ defensive group. Over the past few seasons, the team had developed a reputation across the NHL for having one of the most diverse and deepest groups of blueliners across the league. With the likes of Hamilton, Jaccob Slavin, Brett Pesce, and Brady Skjei anchoring the bunch, the team had a bona fide ace that they could rely on in any situation — both offensively and defensively.

With the departure of their All-Star caliber defenseman on the back-end, the team was met with many questions – but few answers at the position. Replacing a player who practically carried the offensive-defenseman role for the team, alongside the trade of Jake Bean and the loss of Jake Gardiner for an undisclosed amount of time due to surgery, the team was left without a true threat on their blueline. Those developments left general manager Don Waddell very busy trying to piece the puzzle together over the offseason — which led to the team bringing in troubled defenseman Tony DeAngelo on a one-year deal and the acquisition of former Edmonton Oilers standout Ethan Bear. The Canes will look for those additions, plus a potential step forward from some in-house options, to provide the team with a spark.

The Ethan Bear Effect

Ever since the trade that brought Ethan Bear to Raleigh in exchange for a known commodity in Warren Foegele, I’ve been a firm conductor of the kid’s hype train. Surrounded by a much deeper forward core and defense corps than he had around him in Edmonton, it’s been evident that he’s a player with serious untapped upside on the offensive side of the puck. He showed a lot of encouraging traits in his regular-season debut with the team on Oct. 14, with the standouts being his shifty, fluid skating ability and strong breakout passing. He also showed an excellent knack for holding offensive-zone possession at the blue line, which was a direct factor in Andrei Svechnikov’s first-period goal against the New York Islanders:

While playing alongside one of the best defensive defensemen in the NHL, Slavin, is a great stabilizing factor for any player in the league, Bear has also shown that he’s no slouch in his own end. He’s such a smart player, which allows him to get himself into the correct positions defensively. He has routinely won puck battles with an active stick and an underrated physical edge. The most encouraging part of his game is that when he wins the puck back, he knows what to do with it. He’s calm in his zone exits, and he’s made a few stretch passes that probably made Gardiner smile somewhere.

Related: Hurricanes Strike Gold With Ethan Bear Trade

He had a very inspiring debut with the team, as he led all Hurricanes defenseman with a 69.7 Corsi for percentage (CF%) at even strength in the Islanders game. He followed that up with another strong performance against the Nashville Predators and has staked his claim as a top-pairing defenseman. At only 24 years old, he has legitimate room for growth in this team’s system, and his role should continue to increase with repeat performances of his first two games. Moving forward, I could see him work his way into a spot on the second power-play unit, as I’ve seen offensive instincts from him that warrant a look in that role. With how bad the Oilers project to be on defense, it’s almost unbelievable that they were comfortable moving him — and their loss could turn into a major gain for the Canes moving forward.

Can Tony DeAngelo Produce?

Regardless of everyone’s individual feelings towards the team’s addition of DeAngelo — and we all have our own thoughts about it — there’s no denying that the group is relying on him to be a big factor in replacing the offense that Hamilton consistently offered. The Hurricanes are banking on him to try and replicate the offensive breakout season he had with the New York Rangers in the 2019-20 season when he scored 15 goals and 53 points across 68 games and emerged as a legitimately potent creator.

Tony DeAngelo New York Rangers
Tony DeAngelo during his time with the New York Rangers (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

The (very) early returns have been good, with DeAngelo posting two assists in his Hurricanes debut and looking like a genuine threat on the team’s first power-play unit. I thought he looked very mobile throughout the game, and he showed off his strong vision of the ice and crisp, smart puck movement. His style is a noticeable change from Hamilton’s, especially on the power play. Whereas Hamilton was mostly a stationary marksman, DeAngelo brings a more mobile approach. He consistently worked himself into open areas in the offensive zone and used deception with his eyes to work the Canes’ forwards into open space of their own. Both of his assists came on the man advantage, and he had a team-high five shots on goal against the Islanders.

Overall, when you put the PR nightmare that the signing created to the side, it’s pretty easy to understand why the team was content on giving the player a one-year, $1 million deal as opposed to the seven-year, $63 million deal that Hamilton received from the Devils in free agency. With the likes of Sebastian Aho, Teuvo Teravainen, and Andrei Svechnikov manning the team’s PP1, you’d struggle to find any offensive D-men that wouldn’t be able to produce on that unit. The concerns about his character and overall defensive ability remain, which was on display against the Predators. He struggles with defensive positioning, which makes it essential to have a stable partner like Ian Cole beside him. In essence, I would argue that DeAngelo is more of a replacement for Bean than Hamilton, as a similar but more polished player.

Brett Pesce – Power-Play Specialist?

Dating back to last season, it’s become apparent that, for some reason, head coach Rod Brind’Amour is adamant about using Pesce as the team’s second-unit power-play quarterback. At times throughout the 2020-21 season, he was deployed on the unit alongside (or even in place of) both Bean and Gardiner, which makes little sense when considering each individual’s skill set. In all honesty, I’m not overly bullish on Pesce’s ability to run the man advantage. He thrives on the defensive side of the puck and has never stood out as a dynamic offensive player.

Brett Pesce Hurricanes
Brett Pesce, Carolina Hurricanes, Mar. 1, 2018 (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

Maybe the coaching staff sees something that I just haven’t, but when I analyze the offensive package that Pesce possesses, he doesn’t stand out as a true power-play point man. He’s fine as a puck mover, but he doesn’t have the side-to-side vision that you’d expect in that role, nor any unpredictable instincts with the puck. The second unit hasn’t scored a goal through the team’s first two games, and while he hasn’t been the lone issue, he’s played a role in the struggles. It’s obviously a small sample size, but it’s hard to be optimistic when his point shots are routinely bouncing off shin pads, and the puck isn’t being cycled around quickly enough.

As I mentioned above, Bear is a much more natural fit for the role, and it could yield better results. I had always felt that Pesce was only on the power play as an anchor for Bean, who had his fair share of defensive issues last season. But with the latter out of the picture, there’s little reason to limit your man advantage by forcing a player who lacks natural offensive instincts into the role, especially when considering the amount of firepower on both of the Hurricanes’ units. On paper, their power play is strong enough to take over hockey games and is a real strength for the group. I mean, you never know — maybe Pesce will surprise us, but I’d have him on a short leash, especially with Bear waiting to pounce on the opportunity.

Overall Outlook

Make no mistake about it. While many good things can be said about Bear, DeAngelo, and others’ ability to help the team create offense from the blue line, each option pales compared to Hamilton, who had analytically emerged as one of the best defensemen in hockey since his arrival. He undoubtedly played a significant role in the Hurricanes’ success over the past three seasons. While there’s some potential to subdue the loss from an offensive perspective, the fact of the matter is that there are very few clear answers.

Moving forward, the team will have to hope that one, or potentially all of the options they have, will produce. It’s near impossible to expect any of these individuals to replicate Hamilton’s production — 121 points across 184 games — but it’s fair to speculate that the defense, as a whole, is more well-rounded. If Bear and DeAngelo can provide an anticipated spark, while the shut-down guys in Slavin, Cole, Pesce, and Brady Skjei can continue in their effective roles, this core has unlimited upside and could remain as one of the deepest groups in this league.

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