A point that I have constantly refuted with most of the players in this feature is that it usually takes a few years for them to develop and they likely won't be playing in the NHL everyday until they are in their 20's. For the Hurricanes, Justin Faulk has been one of the two exceptions to that rule. When you have a defenseman in your organization who is only 19 years old, most hope that he may turn into a great/useful NHL player someday. Faulk only turned 20 years old in March and is already a top-four defenseman in the NHL.
It's really amazing to look at how much Faulk has accomplished over the last 18 months. He was part of a National Championship winning Minnesota-Duluth Bulldogs squad last April and then played with the Charlotte Checkers in the AHL playoffs only a few weeks later. He then went onto make the Carolina Hurricanes out of camp last season and became part of the full-time roster in November. If that wasn't impressive enough, Faulk was relied on to play some heavy minutes for the Canes despite being at such a young age. Faulk played more minutes per game than any other Carolina blue-liner last year and was a key contributor in all three areas of the game. In addition to that, he was being tested against some pretty tough opponents as he ranked third among Carolina defensemen in quality of competition.
Now, Faulk didn't come out of this unscathed as he was in the red in terms of the amount of shots he was on-ice for and gave up a lot of chances at even strength, but his performance was very good for a rookie who was carrying an enormous workload. Despite his young age, Faulk showed a ton of composure in his own end and his defensive play was actually very impressive. He managed to do this while regularly playing against opposing team's top-sixes and playing on the Hurricanes second PK unit. I should also mention that he was the team's strongest penalty killing defenseman. This was probably the most surprising thing about his rookie season because Faulk was projected to be somewhat of a high-risk, offensive defenseman but he plays a very fundamentally sound game, especially for a kid his age. I still think Faulk has some work to do with his decision making but at this point in his career, he is far ahead of where most expected him to be, and that is a good sign.
Faulk's rookie season is even more impressive when you take his age into context. Since the lockout, there have only been a handful of defensemen who played full seasons in the NHL before they turned 20 and Faulk is in good company with many of the players on this list. He may not reach the heights that Jim Rutherford compared him to weeks ago, but the Canes definitely have a special player on their hands here. He wasn't as good as the likes of Drew Doughty or Tyler Myers in their rookie seasons but he was used in similar situations as those two and his performance wasn't terribly far off. That being said, Cam Fowler and Zach Bogosian are probably better comparables for Faulk if you look at each player's quality of competition rankings on their respective clubs. Once again, that's pretty good company to be in.
It is going to be tough for Faulk to live up to expectations next year because his rookie campaign was so good that everyone might forget that he's still just a kid and learning his way around the NHL. However, if he does improve on his rookie season then it's pretty amazing to think about what player he will be in his mid-20's. We're starting to see more young blue-liners break into the league and become top 20-40 defensemen in the league at young ages, so the future is very bright for Faulk but there are things he can improve on.
I said earlier that he played a fundamentally sound game but he was still on ice for a lot of chances against at even strength, so I would expect him to improve on that next season by playing an even stronger game in his own zone. I'm not sure what he can do to improve on that other than improve his physical play to make life tough for opposing forwards. He isn't the best shot blocker either but it's better if he isn't relied on to block shots constantly since that's not his top asset. Plus, Faulk should be spending more time in the opponent's end of the rink since he is a good enough skater and puck-handler to be the type of player that drives possession at even strength. He wasn't the best in that area last season but given his skillset and the amount of chances he produced last season, I think we will see that improve over time.
In addition to having stronger underlying numbers, another thing I am hoping for Faulk to improve on next year is his even strength point production. Five of the eight goals and 12 of the 22 points he recorded last season came on the powerplay, so he wasn't exactly an offensive force despite being on ice for a lot of chances at even strength. He was very good on the powerplay but a look at his 5-on-4 shooting percentage shows that his production there could be prone to regress next season. Faulk was on ice for 20 powerplay goals but the volume of shots he was on ice for was pretty low while the Canes had the man advantage, so that makes me a tad skeptical of how his 5-on-4 numbers will look next season. His overall numbers, however, should be fine because he had very poor shooting luck at even strength despite producing a lot of scoring chances. It's possible that his improvement at even strength could cancel out the decline in powerplay production, should it occur.
There are a lot of reasons to be excited about Faulk right now. It's tough to find someone who could possibly be a franchise defenseman in the second round of the draft and it's even more rare for someone of Faulk's age to play in the situations that he did last season. The possibilities are endless for him right now and it should be a thrill to watch him in years to come.