Justin Faulk has been in the NHL for two short years, and in that time he’s evolved from a raw, relatively unknown commodity into one of the most skilled young players in the world. But just how valuable is the kid from South St. Paul, Minnesota? Let’s take a look.
In 2013, Faulk’s second professional season, he was far and away the Hurricanes’ best blue liner. He ate up more minutes than anyone else on his club (24:00 TOI/g, good for 25th in the league) and was out there in virtually every situation, seeing lots of ice time at even strength (18:22 TOI/g), on the power player (2:38 TOI/g) and on the penalty kill (2:59 TOI/g).
If you’re wondering what a dynamic defenseman looks like, just watch some tape of No. 27.
“Faulk is our rock,” Jay Harrison told me back in February. “He’s just a kid, but you’d never know that from his play, you know? As far as I’m concerned, he’s a veteran out there. No one in this locker room views him as a kid.”
Despite his lack of experience, Faulk faced opponents’ top lines more than any other Cane in 2013. And even though he clocked so many tough minutes, he remained consistent and effective all year long (a short stint on the IR notwithstanding).
One scout I spoke to this spring said “it’s not a matter of if, but when” regarding Faulk’s future Norris Trophy candidacy. Another said “when building a defense for the future, there’s only a handful of guys out there I would take over Faulker.”
According to the fine work done by Corey Sznajder over at ShutdownLine.com, Faulk’s quality of competition was absolutely ridiculous this season:
As you can see above, Faulk was matched up against the opponent’s top line more than 80 percent of the time. How many D-men in history can say they had the capacity to do that at such a young age? Not many. Sznajder explains:
Justin Faulk is the back-bone of the entire defense corps. He was matched up against the opponent’s first line in all but six of his games and had to take on some tough territorial assignments on top of that. The fact that he is taking on this kind of workload in his early-20′s is amazing and gives the Hurricanes defense some hope for the a future.
(Tim Gleason was pinned against a top line the second most on the Canes, but that happened less than 70 percent of the time — done almost exclusively when paired with Faulk or during Faulk’s time on the IR).
Even though Faulk skated against the opponent’s top goal-scorers on a regular basis, he managed to finish the 2013 campaign with a positive plus/minus rating (plus-1). The only other defenseman on the Canes to finish with a plus was Joni Pitkanen (plus-2), though he played in just 22 games.
While Faulk’s Corsi and Fenwick numbers weren’t great — which you can view here – there are several factors to take into account in this situation regarding shots on goal. First and foremost, the Canes as a team gave up a lot of shots (32.2 SA/g), and it’s unfair to pin all of that on Faulk given the players around him. Second, as stated above, Faulk almost always skated against the other team’s top talent, so naturally he’s going to be on the ice for a good amount of S/A.
Also, and most importantly, if you review the film of Faulk’s play this year, you’ll see that he gives up a lot of low-percentage shots against. The one major flaw in the Corsi and Fenwick statistics, as outlined here by Daniel Wagner at theScore, is that they only take into account the quantity of shots — not the quality. Next time you get a chance, watch the way Faulk approaches a one-on-one situation, and you’ll notice how well he does forcing his man to take poor, ill-advised shot attempts. We can credit his high hockey I.Q. and history of good coaches for this.
Opponents may take a lot of shots when Faulk is on the ice, but at the same time he’s preventing them from driving to the net, finding good position and getting strong scoring chances. As those old Devils teams coached by Jacques Lemaire will attest, a lot of bad shots against are better than a few good ones.
While Faulk may not have racked up eye-popping offensive numbers in 2013 (5 G, 10 A in 38 games) the Hurricanes were certainly a more effective goal-scoring club when he was on the ice. During 5-on-5 action, Carolina scored 2.94 goals per 60 minutes when Faulk was on the ice; conversely, the Canes scored just 2.64 even strength goals per 60 minutes when Faulk was off the ice. There may not be a stark contrast here, but 82 multiplied by 0.3 equals 24.6, so with a full season sample size, Faulk’s effect in this regard becomes evident. Again, keep in mind that almost all of Faulk’s even strength TOI came against the opponent’s top-six.
Based on what we saw from him in his rookie season, many expected a higher offensive output from Faulk in 2013. 0.39 points per game is hardly worth writing home about. But based on the conversations him and I had, the conservative play he displayed made a lot of sense. As he took on a greater responsibility and started seeing lots of time against elite talent, it was imperative for him to focus on his defensive game. “It’s more important for me to be keeping the puck out of our net right now than anything else,” he told me back in March. “The offense — it will come with time. But we have a lot of skilled guys up front, I need to be able to take care of my No. 1 job right now, and that’s playing defense.”
Once Faulk becomes fully comfortable in a top pairing role, we’ll see him drive to the net more and take more shots. But for a team that struggled so much at preventing goals, his defensive growth was far more important this year.
Speaking of defense, Faulk finished the year 12th among NHL blue liners in takeaways with 24, doing so despite playing in just 38 games. If we quantify this with takeaways per game (TkA/g), which I think is a more fair and accurate look, Faulk was sixth in the league among D-men who skated in 20-plus contests:
Mark Giordano: 0.72 TkA/g
Travis Hamonic: 0.71
Matt Hunwick: 0.7
Andy Greene: 0.67
Jeff Petry: 0.67
Justin Faulk: 0.63
Faulk was also one of the most disciplined players in the league this season, taking just five minor penalties all year. He also proved that he’s capable of dropping the mitts when necessary, as seen here against Stephen Weiss:
So, going back to our original question — how valuable is Faulk? — I think it’s safe to say that his long-term worth is only matched by a few other D-men in the league. There’s Karlsson, Subban, Kris Letang and Drew Doughty, but as far as putting together a foundation, there are few other (if any) guys out there I’d pick over Faulk to build a team around. The numbers and the eye test back up this sentiment.
Next winter we’ll see Faulk join Team USA for the 2014 Winter Olympic Games, and I believe it will be during that tournament when the hockey world sees just how good this kid is.
Photo credit: Brace Hemmelgarn-US PRESSWIRE, Andy Martin Jr.