RALEIGH — Jaccob Slavin’s path to winning the Lady Byng Memorial Trophy took several years. He had to overcome being the rare defenseman worthy of the award and the even rarer Hurricanes player considered for one of the NHL’s top honors.
But enough about gentlemanly play. It’s time to rev up Slavin’s Norris Trophy candidacy.
“In my opinion, he’s one of the best in the league for sure,” Hurricanes center Sebastian Aho said of Slavin.
The past few weeks have underlined how important Slavin — who went from being considered one of the most underrated players in the league to some believing Dougie Hamilton helped carry his play — is to not only the Hurricanes’ defense but the team as a whole.
“I always thought he was a great defenseman,” said Ian Cole, who has been partnered with Slavin during the team’s COVID outbreak. “Not just offensively, not just defensively but all the way around. Two-way, can do everything, can skate, can play hard — can do it all. And in my mind, those are the types of defensemen that are the best in the league, that really anchor a team. And he very much is that anchor for us.”
Since Ethan Bear entered the league’s COVID-19 protocol on Nov. 22, followed a handful of days later by the team’s two other usual right-handed defensemen, Brett Pesce and Tony DeAngelo, joining him, Slavin has picked up the slack in more ways than one.
The most obvious has been Slavin’s ice time. While Slavin has consistently averaged 22-23 minutes a night throughout his NHL career, in five of six games this month he’s played at least 27 minutes, eclipsing 29 in four of those games. That included a career-high 32:28 in last Thursday’s overtime win in Calgary.
“I can’t be more impressed about an individual,” coach Rod Brind’Amour said after the win over the Flames. “This is just kind of icing on the cake that he can do this.”
Part of the bump in ice time has been Slavin taking on power play responsibilities with the point men on both units, DeAngelo and Pesce, on the shelf.
It was another assignment he took in stride, helping Carolina get out of a seven-game power play drought with an assist against Ottawa and another in Winnipeg.
The increased workload hasn’t diminished Slavin’s bread and butter. Slavin has continued to draw the toughest assignments each night and remains the backbone of the league’s second-ranked penalty kill.
The Hurricanes have an 88% success rate on the penalty kill and have allowed just two goals in December — and one came on a five-minute major in Winnipeg. They killed off the entirety of a five-minute major three nights earlier in Buffalo.
“The penalty kill is something that we take pride in as a group,” Slavin said after the win in Winnipeg. “I know (assistant coach Tim) Gleason takes a lot of pride in it and how we do things. So when you step over those boards, you got a job to do.”
Although many of the aforementioned improvements came out of necessity — whether it was because of Carolina’s coronavirus outbreak or its propensity to take penalties — Slavin has also elevated other parts of his game.
While he is known for having one of, if not the best defensive sticks in the league, Slavin has shown a willingness to lay the body when the opportunity arises this season.
A perfect example was Sunday in Vancouver. With goalie Antti Raanta on the bench for an extra attacker as the Hurricanes tried to score a late tying goal, Vancouver forward Vasily Podkolzin tried to collect the puck for an empty-net goal. While in past seasons he probably would have swept away the puck with his stick, Slavin instead stepped up and delivered a thunderous check. It was one of many big hits Slavin has had this, adding another wrinkle to his defensive game.
“I don’t know if it’s a conscious decision. I never necessarily look for it,” Slavin said before Tuesday’s postponed game in Minnesota. “I never try to take myself out of the play to look for a big hit, but when the opportunity presents itself and it seems like that’s my only option. I’m not afraid to use the body.”
One obstacle for Slavin getting serious Norris consideration is he’s never been a top point producer. His best offensive season was in 2019-20 when he had six goals and 30 assists for 36 points in 68 games. It’s not a coincidence he had his best showing in the Norris vote — he’s appeared on ballots each of the past five seasons — that year, finishing fifth.
Slavin’s offense has increased this season as well. Despite having only one goal so far this season, he’s on pace for the most points of his career. Through 27 games he has 14 points, which project to a 42-point season if he plays all 82 games. The goals should come as well since he’s on pace for a career-high 179 shots this year but has just a 1.7% shooting percentage compared to a 4.4% career average coming into 2020-21.
With Pesce and DeAngelo both set to return and Bear working his way back into shape, Slavin will probably settle back into his usual role of 22-minute shutdown defender. The last few weeks have shown just how high his ceiling is.
“Slavo’s really picking up a lot of the slack there,” Brind’Amour said. “Power play, extra minutes — that’s why he is what he is.”