Justin Faulk may have solidified himself as a bona fide NHL player over the past few months, but many people throughout the hockey world are still unaware of who he is and how much talent he has. As a former second-round draft pick he isn't a completely unknown commodity, but the Minnesota native certainly hasn't experienced the level of recognition that fellow rookies Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Gabriel Landeskog and several others have enjoyed.
His lack of popularity notwithstanding, Faulk is putting together one of the best rookie campaigns in franchise history. And even though he remains a long shot for the Calder Memorial Trophy, he certainly deserves to be a part of the conversation.
Faulk currently leads all first-years in average time on ice (22:34) and shifts (28.6), taking on a role typically reserved for much older, more experienced players. As the Hurricanes have turned their fortunes around in recent months, Faulk has often times been the team's most valuable defenseman.
He's skating on Carolina's top power-play unit, killing penalties and is usually matched up against his opponent's top line. At just 19 years old, the kid does it all.
"A lot of teams may not know about him, but this kid, for Rookie of the Year, he has to be mentioned," coach Kirk Muller said last week. "To me, for a 19-year-old defenseman to do what he does—it's impressive."
"His confidence has really grown," Hurricanes captain Eric Staal said. "He has been given opportunities to grow that confidence, and he has arguably been our best defenseman all year.
"He has been real solid...Any time you get into talk about the Calder and other awards, they want the points and goals, but as far as his overall game goes Justin should be considered, no question."
The strongest aspect of Faulk's game is, and always has been, his offensive instinct. Very few blueliners his age have the ability to jump into the rush and create scoring chances, but that quality is something that comes natural to the University of Minnesota-Duluth alumnus.
However, what's defined Faulk's rookie season has not been his production on the score sheet. It's his development as a defenseman that's made him such an important part of the Hurricanes organization.
Faulk seemed to be in over his head in the fall, and it didn't take an expert to see he wasn't ready for the NHL at the time. He turned the puck over far too often, made ill-advised passes and was constantly caught out of position.
His early-season struggles earned him a trip down I-40 West to Charlotte, where he was demoted to the Hurricanes' AHL affiliate. And when he returned shortly after, Faulk's game evolved at an unexpectedly fast rate.
It typically takes defensemen more time to progress at the professional level than forwards, but Faulk has been a rare exception to that belief. Now in the home stretch of the 2011-12 season, he's playing far beyond his years. He's comfortable, poised and making all the right decisions with and without the puck.
Simply put, a completely different player than we saw in October.
And when one takes into consideration that he spent the past few years playing college hockey rather than in one of the superior major junior leagues in Canada, his swift adjustment to the professional game becomes even more remarkable.
Still, Faulk has kept his mind off any and all awards, and considering his odds, that's probably a good thing.
"I'm not even expecting to be nominated or anything like that," he said. "I'm not paying any attention to it. It's not something I'm worrying too much about. It doesn't affect how I'm going to play or anything—just going to keep going out there every day. If it ended up coming up, it'd be an honor, but right now I'm not really focusing on anything along those lines."
Jeff Skinner won the Calder Trophy last season, the first member of the Hurricanes franchise to do so. And as someone that knows a thing or two about dealing with pressure as a teenager, Skinner was quick to praise Faulk for how he's played as of late.
"What Justin has done has been impressive," Skinner said. "Being a defenseman in this league, at that age, is tough, and especially the minutes he's playing. I didn't play nearly as many minutes last year and didn't face the top lines as much as he has.
"He's getting some recognition, and especially lately with the All-Star stuff, and he deserves it."
Unlike Skinner, Faulk will undoubtedly be a long shot for the Calder. The truth of the matter is that he has way too much going against to have a realistic shot. For starters, his position puts him at an immediate disadvantage. Barret Jackman and Tyler Myers are two defensemen that were named Rookie of the Year in recent history, but they're the only ones to earn the honor since 1997.
That being said, awards don't mean very much, at least not in the big picture. What's more important is that the Hurricanes have yet another established young player to accompany Skinner. It's vital for small-market teams like the Canes to be able to develop home-grown talent like Faulk, even more so given how inflated the salary cap has gotten in recent years.
And even though guys like Nugent-Hopkins and Landeskog are the ones getting face time on television and attention in the papers, performance isn't based on popularity.
Lack of attention aside, Faulk is one of the game's most promising young talents—just not many people know it yet.
Andrew Hirsh is a contributor for Bleacher Report and a credentialed member of the Carolina Hurricanes media. All quotes were obtained first-hand unless noted otherwise. For updates on the Canes from the locker room and press box, follow him on Twitter: @andrewhirsh.