News travels out of Raleigh to the rest of the hockey world about as fast as light from a distant solar system reaches Earth.
Even so, the rest of the NHL has begun an inevitable realization of Justin Faulk’s greatness.
But in Raleigh, where Faulk’s status as the future of the Carolina Hurricanes franchise is old news and nightly infallibility among an odd cast of defensive teammates seems just normal, the long-haired, soft-spoken Minnesota native must face the challenge of equaling the sky-high expectations of an organization that views him a near demi-god.
Even for a player the caliber of Faulk, that will be no easy task.
NEWS: @JustinFaulk27 Named #Canes Alternate Captain → Details: http://t.co/2vvHQ2wNcZ #Redvolution pic.twitter.com/kQg2MGnztM
— Carolina Hurricanes (@NHLCanes) October 7, 2015
It is becoming less and less of a secret that No. 27 deserves recognition as one of the up-and-coming superstars of the NHL.
In 2014-15, the ‘Canes rode Faulk like a four-child family rides a minivan: he was just the ninth player (age 22 or younger at the start of the season) in league history to play 2,000 minutes in a season.
Despite his longtime partner, Andrej Sekera, being traded midseason, Faulk still set the franchise defenseman scoring record. Even from the blue line, Faulk ranked first or second on the team in all of assists, points, power play goals, power play points, game-winning goals, shots on goal, hits, blocked shots and takeaways. And among all league defensemen with at least 1,000 minutes played, Faulk ranked 10th in on-ice shot attempt (Corsi) differential – and started a lesser percentage of his shifts in the offensive zone than all nine defensemen above him.
Carolina still won only 30 games, however, even with that level of dominance from their No. 1 defenseman.
While there exist reasons to believe his 2015-16 supporting cast will be stronger – reliable puck-moving veteran James Wisniewski was acquired via trade, No. 5 pick Noah Hanifin made the team out of camp and Faulk now boasts established chemistry with Ron Hainsey – one must wonder what kind of hell the ‘Canes would enter should Faulk go down with an injury or (as impossible as it sounds) fall a little closer back to Earth statistically.
In 2014-15, when Faulk registered at least a point, Carolina was 20-10-4. When he didn’t, Carolina was 10-31-7. The correlation between Faulk’s productivity and the team’s success was clearer than the fate of Alexander Semin.
Faulk also scored the most points ever by a Carolina/Hartford defenseman and ranked 12th among all NHL defensemen. He’s unlikely to match such enormous numbers again in this coming campaign, if only due to mere regression: of the top 12 defensemen scorers in 2013-14, only four finished in the top 12 again last season.
When the ‘Canes need an important penalty killed or a double shift in the dying minutes or a dependable partner for a young, raw prospect, they turn to Faulk. Essentially regardless of how the 2015-16 season plays out, this will remain roughly the same – No. 27 is already firmly embedded, and with logical reason, as the club’s defensive cornerstone.
Yet the dilemma arises from the fact that the ‘Canes are not only engraving in Faulk as a first-pairing defenseman (roughly 59 other players around the league are faced with this same pre-season expectation) but are counting on him to be one of the best defensemen in the entire league.
That’s a lofty goal for a 23-year-old with an undeniably non-elite group of players around him.
It’s a comparable situation to the Rangers with Ryan McDonagh last season. In 2013-14, the then-24-year-old McDonagh tallied 14 goals and 43 points; in 2014-15, McDonagh remained a critical top-pairing stalwart for the Blueshirts but his shooting percentage dipped from 7.9 to 5.4 percent and his stat line declined to eight goals and 33 points.
Faulk could possibly follow a similar path in 2015-16.
Unless in the case of injury, the ‘Canes can certainly be comfortable penciling in Faulk for 25 minutes a night. To expect him to match or improve upon his endless magic of last season, however, is a target even the best player on the team may struggle to hit.