How should Carolina approach this year’s draft?

For some people, the NHL Draft is one of the most exciting times of the year because it's a chance to get a look at some of the league's future stars. It's also a beacon of hope for some teams who may have just had a bad season and are hoping to gain an elite player from a high pick. Some teams have been in this position far more often than others (see the Oilers) but for the Hurricanes, this year will be the first time they will be drafting in the top-five since 2005. As awful as it was to endure this season, the Hurricanes should be able to bolster their organizational depth this summer since picks in the top-five have a very high chance of becoming NHL-ers and the Hurricanes farm system could really use some replenishment right about now. They have plenty of good prospects in the minors and in juniors but are lacking players who can possibly fill crucial roles on the team once they break into the next level. This draft is a chance to change that since it's been reported that this is one of the deepest drafts in recent history and the Canes have a high pick. 

There isn't a ton that I know about the players in the draft since I only have so much time available and can only see so many non-NHL games I can watch, but thanks to things like the Internet and the growth of more detailed hockey analysis, everyone can get the low down on the hottest names in the draft and their appears to be a lot of promising talents this year. Who exactly should the Hurricanes target, though? It's tough to say right now because the team has a lot of options with the fifth pick and needs all across the board in terms of prospect depth so really, adding anyone with top-tier potential would be a boost for Carolina. If that last sentence sounds familiar then it's because I said a similar thing before last season's draft when they ended up trading their 8th overall pick in the Jordan Staal deal. 

The difference between this year and last year is that the Canes have a higher pick and this year's class is much deeper than last season. If I remember correctly, last year's draft class was somewhat shallow outside of the top five or so while this year's class is projected to be the deepest draft since the 2003 season. The Hurricanes will have a lot more options for who they can use this pick on and will have a higher chance of landing an NHL player since they will be selecting in the top-five. Rutherford's track record in drafting isn't great as a whole, but the team's drafting has improved in recent seasons and this year is a good chance to continue towards improving that and giving the Canes prospect pool a much needed boost.

Before we discuss some potential targets for Carolina, I thought it would be a good idea to review some strategies the team should consider when they go on the clock this June.

1. In the first round, take the best player available

Most of the chatter around the Hurricanes is to fix their defense and while it was atrocious last season, taking a defenseman with their fifth pick isn't going to solve this. The defense needs immediate improvement and a teenage defenseman is probably best suited on the third pairing unless he is a special talent. You could make the argument here that this is exactly the kind of talent the Hurricanes need right now, but it's still a longshot for an 18/19-year-old defenseman to make his NHL debut at that age and be a contributing member. Therefore, I think the best bet is for the Hurricanes to think long-term and take whoever is the best player available.

The team's top-six might be set in stone for next season but things get dicey when you look a few years into the future. Alexander Semin and Tuomo Ruutu are both 30 years old and most forwards production tends to decline as they get older. Ruutu also has some health concerns with this hip injury that might keep him out of the lineup like it did this past year. Eric Staal is also approaching 30 and is going to need a new contract in a few years, so that is worth keeping in mind. I get the feeling that Staal will be a Hurricane for life but Semin and Ruutu are going to need to be replaced somewhere down the line and it's never too early to think about drafting someone to eventually step into that role. There are supposed to be a few high-end forwards available in Carolina's slot, so if Carolina were to take someone like Aleksander Barkov or Valeri Nichuskin with the fifth pick, then I think they will eventually have a spot on the team. It will likely be a few years down the line before that happens, but it's never a bad idea to plan for the future.

With this in mind, you can also say the same thing about the defense. Justin Faulk and Ryan Murphy are probably going to be the two players the team builds around, but they could use some help outside of that. Joni Pitkanen has only one year left on his contract and has missed at least half of both of the last two seasons and Tim Gleason, while still effective, will be in his mid-30's when his contract expires in a few years. Then you have guys like Jamie McBain, Jay Harrison, Danny Biega, Keegan Lowe and Austin Levi who are all set to be good third-pairing guys but not much beyond that. Adding a guy like Darnell Nurse or Rasmus Ristolainen to compliment Faulk & Murphy in the future could go a long way to rebuilding this defense. The problem is that it could be years before either of them are ready to contribute as a top-four guy in the NHL but it's hard to say that either of them wouldn't fill an immediate need. Whether or not drafting for need is worth passing on a potentially elite player such as Barkov is going to be the tough decision and that's why I think the Canes should go with the best player available. Whoever they take will likely be on the team in three to four years no matter what, so the issue of forward vs. defenseman isn't a huge deal to me. 

2. More than just the first round

All of the buzz around draft time is usually about what each team will do with their first round pick, but using your other picks wisely is also very important. Getting nice finds in the later rounds is one of the reasons why teams like Detroit, Boston, Nashville, San Jose and Chicago are playoff contenders in most years. It's also helped Ottawa a lot in the last two seasons, as they've gotten good contributions from their later round picks in addition to their star players. The Hurricanes, however, haven't had much success with drafting outside of the first round. Rutherford has hit home runs with the Eric Staal, Cam Ward, Brandon Sutter & Jeff Skinner picks but outside of the first round, the Canes haven't produced many NHL-ers. Granted, this has improved in recent seasons with Justin Faulk & Zac Dalpe showing promising futures but Rutherford's overall track record outside of the first round isn't great and I would like to see it improve.

I never know how hard I should be on GMs and scouting staffs for poor drafting outside of the first round because it seems like the draft in general is somewhat of a crap shoot in later rounds. When there is a massive pool of players available and no real definitive favorite, it's kind of hard to single out someone who would be the right fit for your organization. There's a chance that you could find a Duncan Keith, Shea Weber or Kris Letang in the second round but you're equally likely to end up with someone who won't sniff the NHL in a few years, too. This gets progressively difficult with each round and the odds of finding an NHL-er in the 6th and 7th rounds are so slim that you almost have to boil it down to luck if you manage to draft a Henrik Zetterberg or Pekka Rinne there. Some teams have had a knack for finding gems in the later rounds and I'm sure player development plays a huge role in it but for whatever reason, the Hurricanes haven't been one of those teams and I'd like for it to change soon.

Drafting is pretty crucial for a small market team to be successful because their funds aren't as deep as the likes of Toronto, Montreal and New York, so being able to draft and develop players better than they have in recent years should be a priority for the Canes, especially when you consider who they are going up against in the new division. They aren't going to be able to spend the type of money Philadelphia, New York, Pittsburgh and Washington plan to, so drafting well is going to play a key role in staying competitive with them. I mentioned earlier that the drafting has been better in recent seasons and the team recently hired a new player development staff, so improvement could very much be on the way. I really think the Hurricanes can use some of these picks to improve their defense corps in future years.

3. Keep trade talks open

Trading draft picks is probably the last thing people want to hear right now, but the Hurricanes are also in need of immediate help on defense to stay competitive next season. I still think that they should retain their first round pick since the value there is almost too good to pass up, but the odds of finding an NHL-er in some of the later rounds are pretty low, so if Rutherford gets a chance to trade one of them for someone who could possibly help the team next season, then I wouldn't be against making that move. Here's the thing with draft picks, most of them won't be contributing in the NHL until at least two years down the line and their success is never guaranteed, so it's never a terrible idea to exchange one for a proven talent. I think the trade has to be for a defenseman for it to happen, though since that's where the team needs help the most.

I would also be on the lookout for trades involving younger talents because that is typically what Rutherford does. Drafting may not be his strong point, but one thing Rutherford has done is make trades for players such as Jiri Tlusty, Bobby Sanguinetti and Riley Nash, which have essentially worked out the same way as draft picks in the sense that they added promising young players into the team's system and all three were in the NHL this year. Whether or not Sanguinetti stays with the team is unknown but Tlusty & Nash appear to be keepers and while they weren't draft picks of the team, they were developed through the Hurricanes system. Rutherford made the trades for Nash & Sanguinetti were made when Rutherford had multiple 2nd round picks to play with, so I doubt we'll see any similar trades this year but I would still be on the lookout for them. Trades involving players like Jamie McBain are also a possibility.

4. Don't be obsessed with size

Far too often have I seen player's draft stocks fall because they are "too small to play in the NHL" and it really annoys me for a few reasons. First of all, most of these players are teenagers and it's not like they are going to stay under six feet and 200 pounds by the time they are ready to enter the NHL. Very few prospects are ready for this level in their draft year anyway, so their size heading into the draft is something that I don't worry a lot about unless they are notably small or big. Also, there have been plenty of smaller players who have succeeded in the NHL. It's true that size plays a role in where a player is drafted since guys like Joe Pavelski, Tobias Enstrom, Steve Sullivan, Brad Marchand and Brian Gionta were taken in the later rounds while others like Martin St. Louis & David Desharnais weren't even drafted. However, despite the concerns about their size, they managed to have great NHL careers and most of them were good bargains for the teams who drafted them in the later rounds.

I think size is something to be concerned about, but I wouldn't pass on a superbly talented player because he is "too small," especially if one is available later in the draft. One player in this year's draft who seems to fit this mold is Nicolas Petan of the Portland Winterhawks. He only turned 18 this March but has 120 points in 71 games with the Portland Winterhawks and is only listed as the 33rd best North American skater prospect on NHL.com. Supposedly his small size is what's keeping him from having scouts rank him higher, and I think some team is going to be very happy to draft him if he is available in the middle of the second round. A player's size (or lack there of) is somewhat of a red flag, but I don't think it should prevent teams from drafting a player with potentially top-level skill because there have been plenty of smaller players who have been able to succeed in the NHL. Much like there have been a lot of bigger players who have spent most of their careers in the minor leagues.

5. Be weary of goalies

Goaltending in general is something that most teams are advised to stay away from early in the draft, which is tough because it's probably the most crucial position in the game. No one will ever doubt the performance of goalies, but taking one so early is hard to justify because they take quite a long time to develop and their performance is incredibly volatile, especially at the lower levels. Justin Peters is a good example of this. The Canes took him in the second round of the 2004 Draft when he posted a .910 save percentage in 53 games. His numbers stayed relatively the same his next year in junior and then got worse the following season. His career as a professional was similar, as his numbers teetered around the .908-.917 mark over four seasons with the Hurricanes AHL affiliates in Albany and Charlotte. He was also the Hurricanes back-up goaltender in one of those years but posted a below-replacement level save percentage of .875 over 12 games and spent most of the next season in the AHL.

Peters was only 24 at the time, so it's understandable to think that he wasn't ready for the NHL at the time but you had to wonder when Peters would eventually be ready to step in as the back-up and most thought that would be this season. After being named an AHL All-Star & posting a .921 save percentage over 37 games with the Checkers, many thought that woudl be this year but it didn't turn out that way as Peters posted a save percentage below .900 over 17 games and now everyone wonders what the team will do with him next season. He is now 26 and while goalies take significantly longer to develop, what you see from players in the NHL at this age is generally how they'll perform for most of their careers. Although goalies tend to be more random than anyone else so maybe the case is different for Peters?

Anyway, the point here is that goalie performance is very random from year-to-year and they generally take a longer time to develop than any other player. The Hurricanes have three goalies in their system right now, including two they drafted last year, and we won't know how good or bad they are until many years from now. Finding a heir apparent to Cam Ward is going to be crucial in the coming years but where the Hurricanes find that player is going to be a mystery. The Predators found Pekka Rinne in the 8th round and the Rangers got Henrik Lundqvist in the 6th round, so that should tell you a lot about drafting goalies and how much of it could depend on coaching & development rather than talent alone. The Hurricanes recently brought in a new goalie coach, so we'll have to wait and see how this turns out since his current body of work isn't big and I'm not sure if he has gotten the chance to work with either Matt Mahalak, Daniel Altschuller or Collin Olson. Whether or not those players have any NHL future whatsoever also remains to be seen but I think most goalies tend to give fans headaches when it comes to following their development because of how random they can be.

Now, as far as drafting a goalie goes, I think the Canes should look for one in this draft but I'm not sure if either will be significantly better worse than the ones they currently have in their system. If they are, then it will probably be years before we know that because that's how goalies usually work unless they are truly elite. 

That covers the basic strategies I'd like the Hurricanes to follow with this draft, but there is a lot more to talk about and we will continue discussing it in the upcoming weeks.

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