Jay Harrison's development over the last few seasons has been very impressive. After being mostly an AHL defenseman for the first seven years of his career, the Hurricanes decided to take a chance on him in the summer of 2009. Since then, he has been a regular member of the team's defense corps and seems to improve every year. The last couple of seasons have been especially impressive because not only has Harrison become a regular NHL-er, but also a big-minute defenseman for Carolina.
Defensemen in general take a long time to develop, but Harrison is more of an extreme case of a late-bloomer than most. He didn't play a full season in the NHL until he was 27 and was mainly used in a sheltered third-pairing role in his first few seasons. That all changed the next year, as we saw the coaching staff give him more minutes, use him on both special teams units and play Harrison in high leverage situations against the other team's best forwards. Injuries and the lack of depth on the Hurricanes blue line is part of the reason why Harrison was placed in a bigger role, but he wasn't exactly out of place in the top-four either.
Harrison was one of Carolina's best defensemen last season and his contributions were showing up in all three zones. His nine goals led all Carolina defensemen and the team was barely being outshot with him on the ice. Considering he was playing a big minute role and not being sheltered, his performance was very good. It's even more impressive when you consider that he was mainly a third-pairing defenseman and career AHLer in the seasons prior to that. Harrison was also credited with mentoring rookie Justin Faulk last year, and is expected to perform a similar role with the Canes other young defensemen in the upcoming years, as the team decided to give him a four-year contract last off-season.
The real nice thing about having a player like Harrison around is that while he has his limitations, he is capable of playing a bigger role when asked. We saw that last season and once again this year when the injury bug hit the Hurricanes. The original plan going into the year was to use Harrison as a third-pairing defenseman and penalty kill specialist but once again, injuries forced him into a bigger role and his performance was roughly in-line with what it was last season. This has it's positives and it's drawbacks.
Harrison is a fine player and is capable of playing big-minutes, but his strengths are shot blocking and being solid positionally. When he has to skate to keep up with other team's top forwards or go up against more skilled players, it usually results in him getting burned unless he is working with a strong defense partner. He had that last year in Faulk. This year, whenever his primary defense partner was Joe Corvo, he didn't have as much of a safety valve and it resulted in him being on the ice for more chances & goals against.
That being said, Harrison improved in quite a few areas this year and should be a very important part of this team for the next four seasons. After the jump, we'll review his performance this year.
Remember how I said that the original plan was to use Harrison as more of a third-pairing guy at the start of the year? Well, the Hurricanes did just that until the injuries to Joni Pitkanen, Tim Gleason and Jamie McBain. This forced Harrison into a bigger role and he began to play a ton of minutes on almost a nightly basis. He also saw top-pairing minutes during a few games late in the season when Faulk was hurt. So Harrison was essentially a top-four defenseman for the Canes this year even though the team probably didn't want to use him in that type of role.
Harrison also was not given heavy defensive minutes either. He obviously had to play in those situations for a few games because of all the injuries but for the most part, Gleason and Faulk handled the other teams top lines while Harrison was mainly used against secondary competition. He wasn't "protected" in the extreme sense of the word, but he wasn't exactly a "tough-minute" defenseman either. However, he was still used regularly on the PK so the coaching staff liked him enough to trust him in key defensive situations.
5v5 Fenwick Diff/20
5v5 Chance Diff/20
Harrison was a better player this year in terms of being able to drive possession, but the one blemish on his record is that he was on the ice for more 5v5 goals against than any other defenseman on the team. I mentioned before that he isn't that great of a skater and can get burned by more skilled forwards, and we saw that plenty of times this year. It's why I think he is more suited as a third-pairing defenseman on a contending team rather than a top-four player like the Hurricanes were using him as. However, there is some reason to believe that a good chunk of the goals that Harrison was on the ice for weren't completely his fault.
If you look at the number of scoring chances against that he was on the ice for (5v5 SCA/20), you'll notice that Harrison was one of the team's better defenseman at preventing scoring chances. The problem was that Carolina's goaltenders stopped only 90.4% of the 5v5 shots they saw when he was on the ice, so it's possible that bad luck or poor goaltending made Harrison look worse than he actually was. There are some bad defensive players who have low on-ice save percentages throughout their careers, but Harrison's numbers this year season like an outlier since it was at the lowest point in the last five years. Harrison has his limitations, but he was not as bad defensively as his goals against total indicates and he was actually better in a lot of areas.
The Hurricanes were roughly a 49-50% possession team when he was on the ice during five-on-five play, so Harrison's performance this year was roughly the same as it was last year, if not a little better. The one big drop off the Canes saw from him this year was his offensive production, which was probably to be expected because he has never been that great of an offensive player. He has a decent shot and can be the trigger-man on the power play but neither his skating or his passing have been his strong points. Although, an interesting observation here is that he was on the ice for high number of Carolina chances and shots on goal, but some of that could be related to playing with strong teammates since he was normally on the ice behind one of the Staal lines.
5v5 Zone Entries
With the exception of Joni Pitkanen, none of Carolina's defensemen were great at carrying the puck through the neutral zone, but Harrison's performance was a lot worse than his teammates. It doesn't surprise me too much because he isn't a great puck-handler by any means and is better off playing dump-and-chase than trying to gain the zone on by himself. This isn't that big of an issue if is paired with someone who can carry the puck in often, but most of Carolina's defensemen were poor in this area so his limited offensive upside becomes more of a problem.
Season Grade: C+/B-
I was expecting better numbers from Harrison this year, but I also expected him to stay in a sheltered role for most of the season. He ended up playing much more than what was originally asked of him and his performance was about the same as what it was last season with a few improvements. The fact that he was on the ice for so many goals against while not making up for it offensively makes me reluctant to give him a high grade, but I think some of that was due to reasons beyond his control. In the end, Harrison was asked to play a lot more than what was originally expected from him and his performance was roughly in line with his expectations.
The Final Word
Harrison is a nice player to have around because he can step into a larger role when needed and give you a solid effort every night. However, one thing his performance showed us this year is that he is not a permanent solution as a top-four defenseman this year. One thing GM Jim Rutherford said after the season is that he felt the team had a lot of "good defensemen being asked to do too much" and I think Harrison is one of those players. He is a good defenseman, but most would agree that he would not be playing 20+ minutes a night on a contending team and carry this much responsibility. It wasn't planned for him to do this much at the beginning of the year but when the players in front of him are an injury-prone Pitkanen and Joe Corvo then it's pretty clear that he is going to be asked to play a bigger role sooner or later. Harrison has an important role both on and off the ice, he just isn't someone who you want to build your defense around. I think the Hurricanes know this and will look for someone to help take some weight off his shoulders next year.
Stats courtesy of Behind the Net & Hockey Analysis