Jake Bean had his work cut out for him coming into the 2020-21 season. As the presumed seventh defenseman, and with just two NHL games under his belt, the 22-year-old was tasked with infiltrating a notoriously loaded, and already established, Carolina Hurricanes blue line.
But in late January, when six Hurricanes players were held out due to COVID-19 protocol, he got his opportunity. Bean’s rust and lack of experience showed early on, as he seemed a step behind the speed and strength of opposing teams’ forwards. But naturally, as time went on, he began to regain his rhythm and get back to doing what he does best – creating offense from the back end.
Bean has been particularly impressive during the Hurricanes’ recent five-game home stretch. The Hurricanes finished their homestand 3-1-1, and although it ended with a 4-2 loss to the Tampa Bay Lightning Monday, it might have been Bean’s best game yet. With a season-high 15:00 of time-on-ice (TOI), Bean recorded a game-high seven shots and added an assist, which now gives him five assists in his last five games.
While Bean, Haydn Fleury and Jake Gardiner have been rotating as the odd defenseman out over the past month, the rookie Bean is making a strong case to stay in as a full-timer. He still has occasional shaky moments defensively, but he’s been slowly improving in that regard, and when you have a player with Bean’s offensive acumen, those mistakes become easier to forgive.
Bean was drafted 13th overall in 2016 by the Hurricanes. He got his first lick of NHL action in 2018-19, when he dressed for two games but barely saw the ice, logging just over eight minutes per game. The Hurricanes were much more deliberate with their development route the following season, where he thrived under a full season with the AHL’s Charlotte Checkers.
Bean was the top defender not just on the Checkers, but across the entire league in 2019-20. His 48 points in 59 games last season were best among defensemen, which helped earn him a spot on the AHL’s First All-Star Team. He also earned the Eddie Shore Award as the AHL’s best defenseman.
In just eight games this season, Bean has become increasingly more confident at both ends of the ice. He’s always had fantastic puck skills, agile feet and a creative instinct for playmaking, but it took a few games for him to build the courage to use his toolkit at the NHL level.
The Hurricanes have just three goals by defensemen this season. Their power play is operating at 29.1%, which is seventh in the league, but there’s still untapped potential in Bean’s ability to provide in those situations. The more he plays, the more his confidence grows, and if he’s given those opportunities, he could potentially be the X-factor the Hurricanes are missing.
Last season’s logjam on defense was a barrier of entry to Bean, but the work he put in with the Checkers the past two years has brought his game to the next level. Now that he’s established himself, it’s becoming harder to imagine taking him out of the lineup, and that can create a difficult, touchy situation for head coach Rod Brind’Amour.
Seeing as Bean is in the midst of a three-game point streak and a steady increase in ice time, it seems like there are no signs of Brind’Amour pulling back the reins. But, then you have the other end of the spectrum – the players he replaces.
Whichever side of the Gardiner fence you’re on, I’m sure you can agree – Gardiner has always been closely documented throughout his career – from being under the watchful eye of the Toronto Maple Leafs market, to his first season in Raleigh that probably didn’t go as well as he had hoped. Now, he’s in the unfamiliar territory of becoming a healthy scratch, and for a veteran like Gardiner, sitting him could do more harm than good to his psyche.
There’s also Fleury, who is no stranger to the press box, having spent years scratching and clawing his way to the NHL since he was drafted by the Hurricanes in 2014. But he took major strides last season, showing flashes of brilliance in the 2020 playoffs, and he brings a level of physicality and strength neither Bean nor Gardiner possess. So who draws the short straw?
The Hurricanes have 39 more games to play in a 73-day span, and that includes eight back-to-backs. Now that their main defensemen are in game shape, they have the luxury of giving any one of them a night off if they need a little reset – whether that be physical or mental. So while it may seem alarming that Gardiner is getting the healthy scratch treatment, or that Fleury may not have the full trust of his head coach, the real answer is that there is no short straw.
Defensemen log the highest minutes of all skaters, many of them spent fighting grueling, physical battles every shift. Being able to rest a bruised or aching player in an already demanding season is a huge advantage. And with seven hungry defensemen at the ready, the Hurricanes have the option to dispatch their strongest six on any given night. It could even benefit them to give some of their top guys like Brady Skjei or Dougie Hamilton an occasional night off to keep them healthy and energetic for the playoff push down the road.
As fun as it is to argue over who should sit and who should play, the reality is the Hurricanes are rolling in money right now when it comes to their depth. And they better enjoy that while it lasts, because things are shaping up to look very different when next season rolls around.
Not to be the bearer of bad news, but there is an expansion draft around the corner, and the Seattle Kraken will be circling the waters as they aim to take a bite out of Carolina’s surplus on defense. Assuming the Hurricanes don’t choose the more volatile choice to protect just eight skaters and one goaltender, they’ll have the option to protect seven forwards, three defensemen, and one goalie.
The ‘Canes don’t have much to offer outside of the seven forwards and one goalie they’ll be protecting, so all focus will be on their esteemed defensemen. Two are obvious keepers – as Jaccob Slavin and Brett Pesce are signed long-term on team-friendly deals, and consistently log crucial minutes for the Hurricanes.
But the emergence of Bean creates a conundrum. To the Kraken, the Hurricanes are simply showcasing his talent with every game he plays. It’s also worth mentioning Seattle general manager (GM) Ron Francis was the GM of the Hurricanes when they drafted Bean in 2016.
The Hurricanes could potentially use their third immunity on Bean, who has been one of their most prized prospects for years, but in doing so, they risk losing one of their best players and locker room favorites, Hamilton.
Hurricanes’ GM Don Waddell has said that negotiating an extension was a priority, as Hamilton will be approaching unrestricted free agency this summer. If a deal gets struck during the season, that could be curtains for Bean’s time with the ‘Canes. And if the Kraken is eyeing a similar approach to the expansion draft as the Vegas Golden Knights did in 2017, Bean, an up-and-coming young defenseman, would perfectly fit the mold.
The Hurricanes could always try to dangle a draft pick or two in front of the Kraken to take a player like Gardiner or Skjei instead, but if Bean continues to elevate his game throughout this season, draft picks just might not cut it.
Waddell has his decisions to make, but for the players in the room, they’re focused on the now. With nearly one-third of the season in the books, the Hurricanes will be pushing to reclaim control of first place in the Discover Central division. And if there’s one player to keep an eye on, who could be paramount to the Hurricanes’ future, Bean’s the guy to watch.