RALEIGH — “It’s a cornerstone for our group, for sure. It’s defense first. Defend, but when they get a chance, they’ve got the green light.”
That was Hurricanes coach Rod Brind’Amour after his team won its second game of the season, a 4-3 overtime victory at home over Tampa Bay that included three goals from the coach’s “cornerstone” stable of defensemen.
While getting three goals a night from the back end is setting a bar a bit high, the Hurricanes’ defense hasn’t slowed much through Sunday’s 2-0 road win over the Red Wings.
Carolina’s 20 goals by defensemen in the first 24 games are the most of any team in the NHL, with only the Rangers — 17 goals in their first 21 games — within shouting distance of the Hurricanes.
“Roddy just encourages us to just step in — obviously, in a smart way, but he encourages us to get into the play and keep pucks in and shoot whenever we can,” defenseman Brett Pesce said Saturday after he scored his third goal of the season to trigger a comeback win over the Panthers. “And I think we’ve done a pretty good job of that all year.”
The Hurricanes have gotten a goal from their blue line in 13 of the team’s games this season, including five games with more than one goal from the D.
And many of them have been from early-season Norris Trophy candidate Dougie Hamilton.
Hamilton’s 10 goals lead the NHL, and the 26-year-old has done it with a goal in 10 different games, giving Carolina a consistent attack from the defense.
Washington defenseman John Carlson had otherworldly 36 points through the weekend, but Hamilton was tied with Colorado rookie phenom Cale Makar for the second-most points by a defenseman with 25.
To give some perspective on just how many points that is at this point in the season, 13 NHL teams didn’t have two defensemen totaling 25 points through Sunday’s games, and three more were tied with Hamilton’s total. The top four scoring defensemen on the Blackhawks — Erik Gustafsson (7), Olli Maatta (7), Duncan Keith (6) and your choice of Brent Seabrook or Calvin de Haan (both 4) — only have 24 total points among them.
So, yes, Hamilton has been really, really good.
“It starts with Dougie,” Pesce said. “He’s been unbelievable. It’s impressed me how well he’s playing defensively, too.”
And that’s the other part: Hamilton’s responsible defensive play has allowed Brind’Amour to play his most dangerous defender more often because he hasn’t had to worry about as many careless mistakes ending up in the Carolina net.
Hamilton is playing 43 more seconds a night at even strength (17:33 last season to 18:10 now) through 24 games, along with 64 seconds more power play time per game (up to 2:56 from 1:52) and a prominent role on the penalty kill, where he is playing 2:04 this season after logging just 20:41 in all of the 2018-19 campaign.
But it’s more than just Hamilton.
Pesce is on pace for his first double-digit goal year, while Joel Edmundson and Haydn Fleury — who had two and zero goals, respectively, last season — each have already scored twice.
Jaccob Slavin has proved a reliable foil to Hamilton, making it easier for his partner to jump into the play, plus Slavin is usually good for about eight goals a year and is right around that pace again.
But, as Pesce said, the Hurricanes’ offense from the bank end is triggered by Hamilton — and more than 120 games into his time in Raleigh, No. 19 has let his instincts take over.
“Just reading and reacting,” Hamilton said of his game-winning goal Saturday against the Panthers, where he came off the bench and immediately cruised into the slot to make himself available for a pass from Teuvo Teravainen. “I think just kind of hoping that the puck would somehow find me … and I just tried to shoot it.”
The end result? Goals. Lots of them.