RALEIGH — If he had his druthers, Carolina Hurricanes coach Bill Peters — and every other bench boss in the NHL — would have his top six defensemen available for all 82 games.
Thirteen games into the 2017-18 season, Peters has had that just seven times.
Both Brett Pesce, who will return to the lineup Friday in Columbus, and Trevor van Riemsdyk — each right-handed — have missed three games this year due to concussions, forcing the team to work in No. 7 defenseman Klas Dahlbeck (a lefty) and call up blueliners from Charlotte.
That isn’t an excuse Peters was willing to embrace earlier in the week with his team languishing at the bottom of the Metropolitan Division standings.
“Have we had everybody available at the same time? No, but that’s very rare that you do in this league, especially over the course of 82 games,” he said.
And the good news is those call-ups have performed well in their brief stints with the Hurricanes.
Trevor Carrick, in his second NHL stint after playing two games in March 2016, logged a quiet 7:32 in Carolina’s 5-3 win in Edmonton in Oct. 17. Roland McKeown, recalled when Pesce suffered his concussion, had a similar performance in his NHL debut (9:05 in a shootout loss in Arizona last Saturday), then had two assists in the team’s 3-1 home win over Florida on Tuesday.
“That was really encouraging, obviously,” Peters said of McKeown’s performance. “We had Trevor Carrick come up and I thought he played well when he was up, and Rollie was really good. … It’s nice to know we got another good young one coming.”
McKeown admitted he had fewer butterflies in his first game, but they had somewhat passed for the Panthers game.
“In the second game, you kind of know what to expect going into it,” McKeown said. “So it feels good to win foremost, then the points are icing on the cake. … I think the biggest thing is you’ve got to believe you can play in this league. And when you get the opportunity, I’ve always said you gotta show what you have.”
Another positive for Peters on defense is he hasn’t had to worry much about his top-six rookie, 2014 seventh overall pick Haydn Fleury.
“He’s really done a good job adding a little bit of physicality back there,” Peters said. “He’s physical net-front, his boxouts, he’s good on the rush. Where he’s been real good too is keeping plays alive in the offensive zone.”
Like McKeown, Fleury admitted to being nervous when he first made the NHL, but it’s become easier with each game.
“I think you don’t have those big-time nerves like it was for the first, probably, four games,” said Fleury, who has three assists while averaging 14:36 of ice time in his first 13 outings. “You’re pretty nervous. Those have kind of gone away and I can start playing more my game. I’ve felt I had a pretty good start, so just keep building off of that.”
Fleury has climbed the depth chart early in the season, going from the third pairing with van Riemsdyk to recently playing alongside Justin Faulk in the top four. However the wait wasn’t easy for Fleury, who spent all of last year with the AHL’s Charlotte Checkers in his first professional season and saw a few defensemen get promotions ahead of him.
“I think it was good. In hindsight you can say that, but at the time you kind of get a little bit antsy,” he said of not getting recalled last season. “When the [Ron] Hainsey trade happened last year I kind of got a bit antsy and a bit excited.
“But I understood where we were at,” he added. “We were in a playoff hunt in Charlotte and those games at the end of the year were big, so I completely understood and it gave me more motivation for the summertime.”
With the top six healthy and back in place starting in Columbus and several more in the pipeline, Peters and the Hurricanes can’t help but be confident about their depth in Charlotte.
“They’re having a good season down there as a team, and there’s some guys individually that have continued to take steps and that’s what you want in your development,” Peters said. “So we definitely know who’s playing well down there, and if we need to call guys up we’ve got multiple options.”