In the eyes of the national media, Justin Faulk's rookie season went somewhat unnoticed as most of the focus was put on the likes of Gabriel Landeskog, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Matt Read and Adam Henrique. Faulk obviously isn't in the same class as Landeskog or RNH and he did not put up the numbers that would earn him more national recognition, but it's hard to say that his rookie season wasn't special. Since the 2004-05 lockout, there have only been a handful of defesnemen who have been able to break into the NHL for a full year and very few of them played in the situations that Faulk did.
Defensemen usually take a long time to develop compared to other players, so you typically do not see a lot of defensemen in their late-teens or early-20's break into the NHL full-time. Faulk managed to do that last season and he also ended up leading the Hurricanes in minutes played per game, played regularly on both special teams units and was frequently matched up against opposing team's top-sixes. Considering that Faulk only turned 20 this past March, it's pretty remarkable that he managed to step into a full-time role with the Canes and play the minutes that he did. It should also make a lot of fans optimistic about the future because he has already gained a lot of experience at such a young age.
Faulk did have some growing pains when it came to preventing opposing shots and scoring chances, though as he was on-ice for the highest amount of chances against per 60 minutes among Carolina defensemen last season. The Hurricanes were also controlling less than 50% of the 5v5 shots when Faulk was on the ice, so while Faulk was able to step into a big role in the NHL, he had his share of problems. Last year could be considered "trial by fire" for him considering it was his first full year in pro hockey and he was thrown into a big role right off the bat, so I think he performed well in this circumstances.
The Hurricanes know they have a special player on their hands with Faulk but what should they expect him to do in his sophomore season. Some might say that he has already done everything the team has asked of him and more and while that might be true, this upcoming year for Faulk is going to be focused on improving himself as an all-around player. It's possible that Faulk could finish this next year as the team's #1 defenseman if he is good enough, but what can he do to give himself that title? In my opinion, it all starts with him improving his play at even strength and continuing to develop his solid two-way play which is leagues ahead of where many thought it would be.
Now, as far as projecting the upcoming season for Faulk in terms of goals and points goes, this s probably one of the toughest things to predict not only because he is a defenseman but also because he has played one year in the NHL and nothing more. Thus, it will be hard to base his projection off his past performance and instead, I'm going to base it largely off the type of minutes I expect him to play and what areas I think he will improve on this year. This will be a little different approach from my other projections but this is the kind of thing you have to do with a player like Faulk.
Faulk essentially played top-pairing minutes at even strength last season. I know that Gleason-Allen were considered the "top pairing" but Faulk, along with Jay Harrison, were playing more minutes while Joni Pitkanen was out of the lineup. If Pitkanen is able to stay healthy then Faulk could see his minutes at even strength reduced, but with the coaching staff being so high on him, I doubt it will happen. Faulk has shown the ability to play big minutes against tough competition and since the Hurricanes have a lack of defensemen with those qualities, it's doubtful that Faulk will see much of a minute reduction compared to last season. He might play fewer minutes on the powerplay since the Canes are stockpiled with puck movers but he should still continue to get 17-18 minutes a game at even strength. He may get even more minutes if an injury or two occurs.
When the Hurricanes drafted Faulk, he was pegged more as an offensive defenseman with a big slap-shot and more of a high-risk game. We definitely saw his offensive upside during his rookie season, especially when it came to leading a breakout, but Faulk's point-production wasn't that great. He had only three goals and 10 total points at even strength, which is pretty low for a defenseman who plays so many minutes. His low goal total can be partially explained by his terrible shooting percentage at even strength but he also didn't shoot the puck that much compared to other defensemen (Harrison had 3.98 ESSOG/60 min. last season), so we can't expect Faulk's goal total to jump up based on simple regression alone.
Getting a little more shooting luck will certainly help Faulk's goal total but he is also going to need to start shooting the puck at little more than he did at even strength last year if he is going to reach his full offensive potential. The good news here is that Faulk is only 20 years old, has only one year of NHL experience and has already been given the minutes he needs to succeed so there is hope for him to start improving his shot rate in the coming years. Will it happen next year? It's possible but not guaranteed. My thought is that Faulk's shot rate will improve next year no matter what, but it won't increase a great amount unless he is given a bigger zone start push or a more offensive capable defense partner. The former probably won't happen but the team could experiment with a Faulk/Pitkanen top pairing, which would give Faulk plenty of opportunities to produce offensively.
ES on-ice Sh%
Faulk's shooting percentage woes also extended to the Hurricanes at the team level, as they were converting on less than 7% of the even strength shots they took when Faulk was on the ice. Simple regression would lead you to believe that Faulk will have a higher even strength assist total next year with a little more luck but things don't always work out like that. Trying to predict how a team's shooting percentage will go in a given year works about as well as picking a random number out of a hat because you never know what will happen. This is especially true with defensemen.
While shooting percentage is next to impossible to predict, something that we can expect for Faulk in this coming season is for the number of shots Faulk is on ice for to either increase or stay relatively constant from last season. If Faulk does get a zone start push, then he should be on ice for more shots but if he were to stay in the same role, then I'd expect the Canes shot rate to increase only by a little amount. Why do I think it will increase? Because the Canes should have a better team up front and if Faulk gets to play with the top-six (which he probably will), then he would be playing behind a line that is stronger at driving the play forward. This should lead to him being on-ice for more shots on goal in general and will hopefully lead to him getting on the score sheet more often. Of course, this is assuming everything goes to plan with the Canes forward corps, which is uncertain right now.
Faulk was on the first powerplay unit for most of last season and he will continue to be next year even if Pitkanen is still in the lineup. I could see the team having trouble balancing powerplay ice time between those two, McBain, Corvo and Harrison but I think Kirk Muller should be able to find spots for all four of them. I think Faulk may see his PP ice time go down a bit from the three minutes per game he played last season but he should still get a considerable amount of time on the first unit. There is a possibility that Corvo or McBain could outperform him on the powerplay but Faulk should be safe in the grand scheme of things.
An area where Faulk is prone to regress this season is his powerplay goal total, because nearly 16% of the shots he took ended up finding the back of the net. He was still getting a pretty high amount of shots, though which gives me some confidence that Faulk will be able to remain productive on the powerplay but I think his goal total will likely go down. Even on the powerplay, it's hard to maintain that high of a shooting percentage no matter how good your powerplay is.
PP On-ice Sh%
When the Canes were using Faulk on the powerplay, they also received some good shooting luck as nearly 15% of the shots they took resulted in goals. There isn't enough evidence present to suggest that this will continue so Faulk's shooting percentage is prone to regress and when you consider that Faulk wasn't on-ice for that many powerplay shots last year, it wouldn't surprise me if his powerplay point total ends up being lower next season. That being said, there still isn't much known about Faulk so it's possible that he can maintain a high on-ice shooting percentage next season but it's probably safer to take the under here. If Faulk was stronger at creating shots & driving the play then I would think otherwise but he hasn't been able to do that so far.
I have Faulk playing roughly the same minutes as he did last year, which would be a little under 18 minutes per game at even strength in addition to 2-3 minutes per game on the powerplay. I'm leaning towards the lower end with his powerplay ice-time, though because of the Hurricanes being over-populated with offensive defensemen. As for the type of minutes he plays, I don't think Faulk will be thrusted into a true shutdown role as I expect the Canes to spread out the tough minutes among the defense corps and not have one truly "sheltered" pairing. With only one shutdown defenseman in the corps, this is the strategy that they will probably have to employ. This would put Faulk with one of Pitkanen, Harrison or Gleason for the majority of the year and unless he plays with Gleason, I think Faulk will get a bit of a zone start push at even strength.
This was the situation that Faulk was being used in last season and he didn't have that high of a shot rate despite the zone start push (52% Off. Zone Start % last year), so that doesn't speak well of Faulk's offensive acumen. At the same time you have to consider that he was only 19 years old for most of last season and playing difficult minutes. Faulk's production on the powerplay shows that he does have offensive talent and can improve in the coming years, which is why I have his shot rate increasing to 3.6 5v5 shots per 60 minutes this season. That may seem high but I think Faulk will be more impressive offensively this year unless the team decides to throw him into a shutdown role with Tim Gleason. Since Faulk proved himself capable of playing tough minutes last year, I could see him being used in that role but doing that would also be playing away from his strengths, which isn't a smart thing to do.
Faulk recording 3.6 shots per 60 minutes would lead to him recording about 87 even strength shots on goal in an 82 game season, which would give him 3-4 even strength goals in a year if he shoots at the same percentage as last season. Since Faulk has only one year of NHL experience, we can't use a career average to predict Faulk's even strength goal total. What we can do, however, is adjust it to the league average, which would give Faulk 5-6 even strength goals on the season.
I have Faulk being on-ice for a little more than 30 shots on goal per 60 minutes next season, which is a little higher than the shot rate he posted last season but I think Carolina's improved top-six will have a positive effect on him. 30.85 shots per 60 minutes at even strength would put Faulk on-ice for about 204 even strength shots on the year, which would put him on ice for anywhere from 49-78 even strength goals in an 82 game season. A league average shooting percentage would put him on-ice for 54, which is what we are going to project for him here.
On the powerplay, Faulk should experience a bit of a decline in his production, as he benefited from a high personal and on-ice shooting percentage. It's not guaranteed that both will drop back down to Earth, but it is unlikely that they will continue to stay as high as they were last season. However, Faulk does shoot the puck a lot on the powerplay which will help a little bit, but he probably won't have 5 PPGs again. I have Faulk posting a shot rate of 9 PPSOG/60 next year, which would give him about 39-40 powerplay shots in an 82 game season. Faulk could have anywhere from 0-6 PPGs if he posts this shot rate, and I have him posting a shooting percentage that is around the league average, which would give him 3 PPGs on the year.
As a team, the Hurricanes didn't produce many shots on goal on the powerplay when Faulk was on the ice and that could easily change next year if he plays on the first unit but for now, I'm going to play it safe and say that the Canes post a shot rate of 46 PPSF/60 with Faulk on the ice. This would put Faulk on ice for about 204 PP shots in a total season and would put him on ice for 14-28 PPGs in an 82 game season. The Hurricanes posting a league average PP shooting percentage would put Faulk on ice for 24 PPGs in a year.
82 Game Projection
Overall, I'm projecting Faulk to have a stronger offensive season than he did last year and most of it is going to be based on his production at even strength. Faulk should be better in all categories than he was last year and I think that, along with the team around him improving, will lead to better scoring numbers along with it. Faulk has shown that he has the tools to make a great NHL defenseman but he hasn't shown me that he will have that offensive breakout type season that everyone is hoping for, so I'm projecting him to have a pretty modest point total for now. This could easily change depending on how he performs this year and we will just have to wait and see what happens.
Stats courtesy of Behind the Net & Time On Ice