When I wrote about who the Hurricanes should select with with fifth overall selection in this summer's draft, I said that they should take the best player available. Defense might be their biggest need right now, but thinking long-term, the Canes are going to have to replace Alexander Semin, Tuomo Ruutu and possibly Jiri Tlusty so taking a forward isn't the worst thing you can do. It's a lot more appealing to take a forward early because a lot of the forwards at the top of this draft are some of the best prospects the draft has seen in quite some time. Drafting for needs is an advisable route to go, but you also want to get the most value out of your picks and the Hurricanes could pass on a potentially elite player if they choose to take a defenseman at fifth overall.
It's okay to be skeptical of any player in this draft because there's always the potential that one of them might be a bust or not work out in the NHL, but when you look at how good the top of this draft is, it's hard to not get excited about adding one of these prospects to your organization. How good are they, though? Going by their statistical performance, some of them are the most promising young players to come out of their respective leagues in years.
Out of anyone in the draft, if you were to ask me who the Hurricanes should take, the answer would be Seth Jones. He is considered the best defensive prospect since Chris Pronger, has great size, is a physical player and can produce offensively. Jones fits all of Carolina's needs and is good enough to play in the NHL as soon as next season. Unfortunately, there is less than a 1% chance that Jones is available by the time Carolina selects because any team above Carolina would be foolish not to select him. Therefore, it's likely that Carolina will have their choice of one of the top forwards available and none of them are bad picks when you look at their track record in juniors and European leagues.
I'm not going to pretend that I know everything about these players because I've seen maybe a total of five of their games as a whole, but going by their scoring stats along with what I've read in scouting reports, most of the forwards at the top of the draft have incredible skill. Two who have received the most hype are Nathan MacKinnon and Jonathan Drouin. Both play for the Halifax Mooseheads of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League and MacKinnon is considered by some to be the most impressive because of how well he has performed at such a young age. Last year, he had a 70 point season as a 16 year old and there have only been a few players in the QMJHL who have done that recently, the most notable name being Sidney Crosby.
Since the millennium, the only players under 17 in the QMJHL who have put up numbers similar to MacKinnon are Angelo Esposito, Pierre-Marc Boudhard and Sidney Crosby. He put up similar numbers as a 17-year-old this past year and is still very young, so it's pretty easy to see how good of an offensive talent MacKinnon is. Some people have considered him the best QMJHL prospect since Crosby and could possibily be selected first overall if the Colorado Avalanche like him enough.
While MacKinnon is a special talent, there is another player in the QMJHL who also had a terrific season and that player is his teammate Jonathan Drouin. As a 17/18-year-old, Drouin recorded 105 points in 49 games and has displayed some phenomonal puck-handling and play-making skills along with a lethal shot. He is considered to possess an elite skill-set and many are pegging him to be an All-Star caliber forward at the NHL level. Statistically, he is in elite company for the QMJHL as there has only been one player under 18 years of age who has been able to produce at his level since the millennium.
Going by points-per-game, Crosby is the only QMJHL player this century who has produced at a level higher than Drouin before turning 18 at the beginning of the season. This isn't to say that Drouin will be the next Crosby, but he, along with MacKinnon, are the best prospects to come from the QMJHL since Sid the Kid. That puts them in elite company. The one thing that puts MacKinnon slightly ahead is that he was able to score at a high level during his 16-year season while Drouin had 7 goals, 29 points in 33 games. There's going to be a lot of GMs falling in love with Drouin's stat-line from this most recent season but it's possible that MacKinnon could be the better player if you go by their career numbers. Although both appear to be fantastic players and I'm sure Carolina would take either one if they are available.
Drouin and MacKinnon are easily at the top of the class when it comes to Canadian forward prospects, but there are also players from across the Atlantic who would also make terrific additions to Carolina's prospect pool. One who I've had my eye on for quite a bit is Aleksandr Barkov of Finland. Barkov spent this past year in Finland's professional league, SM-Liiga, and you wouldn't know that he was only 16 when the season started going by his stat line. Barkov had 48 points in 53 games, which placed him second on his team. Remember, this is a teenager playing in an adult league, so Barkov being able to produce at this level is unheard of for a kid his age.
Minnesota Wild prospect Mikael Granlund has been the only player under 18 to produce at a rate higher than Barkov in the SM-Liiga. Barkov also scored at a pretty respectable rate for a kid his age the season before, so this speaks a lot about his ability to transition to the NHL since he already has experience playing against adults. Barkov possesses a pretty big frame at 6'2" and 194 lbs. so that has probably helped him make it in the Finnish league and will no doubt be an asset for him in the NHL as he gets older. It has also been said that Barkov is the best Nordic prospect since Peter Forsberg if you go by his statistical performance, so that should tell you a lot about how impressive his numbers are. I would expect Carolina to not hesitate in selecting him with the fifth pick if he is available then. He is one of the most promising Finnish prospects in years.
As we move to Finland's neighbor to the west, we find another very promising teenager playing in a professional league in Elias Lindholm. There hasn't been a lot of talk about Lindholm being a top-five pick because of how good this draft is, but Lindholm's numbers in the Swedish Elite League speak for themselves.
Lindholm has scored at a higher level than any other player under 19 to play in the Swedish Elite League. He's kind of small compared to Barkov, so that's probably hurt his stock a little but it's hard to not be impressed with how much he has performed so far. The fact that he has produced at a higher rate than Backstrom, Josefson and Kopitar did when they were his age should say a lot about his talent and some team is going to be very happy to get him in the top ten even if it isn't the Hurricanes.
Why I think Lindholm would be a great pick for Carolina, the player who they will probably target more is the young Russian stud Valeri Nichushkin. There isn't a lot that I know about Nichushkin because I haven't seen him play and he hasn't played many games in the KHL either, which means that there isn't much statistical data available for him. However, just about every reputable scouting source has had nothing but good things to say about him. Hockey Prospectus' Corey Pronman says that Nichuskin has the makings to be an elite power forward at the NHL level and that he is one of the best skaters in the draft. Nichuskhin is also a pretty big guy at 6'4" and 201 lbs. so he might be the guy Carolina is looking for if they want a combination of size and skill. The one red flag on him is that he has a contract in the KHL to fulfill for at least next season, but I think he will eventually be in the NHL after he is drafted since most tend to make the jump. Nichushkin is the player that a lot of mock drafts have Carolina taking and based on what I've read, he would be a great fit.
The underlying point with all of this is that the Hurricanes are in a pretty good position with this draft because they are going to have a choice of taking a potential star forward no matter what. They could always reach for a defenseman but it would be hard to justify that move when you look at what each of these prospects have done at the lower levels at such a young age. The Hurricanes are in need of an elite young prospect who they can groom to take over for one of their veteran forwards once their time in Carolina is up and they have a very good chance of landing one this summer. I don't like preaching the future in times like this, but it's hard not to be excited about this draft.
Stats taken from Elite Prospects