With the Carolina Hurricanes on the brink of missing the playoffs for the ninth straight season, there are countless ways to slice and dice the data to come up with causes.
When I work through the Hurricanes roster, the team seems deeper than it was a few years ago both at the NHL level and in terms of its prospect pool. But while the Hurricanes might be increasing their ability to fill out the bottom part of the roster, there are still gaps in the top half. In my series a short time ago, I identified holes in the top 6 forward group and also in the top 4 on defense. There are multiple avenues to fill such slots. Trades and free agent signings are a possibility, but the prices are high and the odds low of obtaining players who legitimate slot at the very top of a lineup. As proven by Sebastian Aho, Jaccob Slavin and Brett Pesce, it is possible to get top players in later rounds of the NHL draft. But the one area that offers the most promise if the first round of the NHL draft. And in terms of identifying reasons for the Hurricanes continued struggle to push up above the midway point of the standings and into the playoffs, the lack of realized production from the first round of the draft is worth considering.
Not since Jeff Skinner in 2010
Counting realized results and not potential and projections, I think it is fair to say that the Carolina Hurricanes have not netted a pure top half of the roster player with a first-round draft pick since Jeff Skinner in 2010. Elias Lindholm is in the neighborhood, but if he qualifies with his pace again for low 40s in points, it is by a small margin and definitely as a #9 or #10 player (out of 20) not a top 5. Otherwise in seven tries, the Hurricanes have yet to net a top half of the roster player.
Too low of picks? Or not the right choices?
Not getting the elite players desired in the first round can be attributed to two things. First is simply not drafting high enough. Especially drafting in the top two or three picks has a much higher probability of selecting a ‘can’t miss’. Connor McDavid, Jack Eichel, Auston Matthews, Aaron Ekblad and others made drafting easy as ready-to-go NHL stars.
The other angle is simply not getting the right players. While it is no doubt easier to get top half of the roster players in the top few picks, by no means is it impossible to get elite players much later in the first round. So while a completely horrible season or two and a top pick overall would certainly have helped, to blame the team’s draft fortunes solely on this is inaccurate.
Carolina Hurricanes first-round draft picks by year
2011 Ryan Murphy at #12
As a high upside offensive defenseman, Murphy was a bit of high risk/high reward choice who never figured it out enough defensively and never really translated his offensive upside to the NHL level and therefore was a miss. The 2011 draft has not yielded a ton of talent from the second half of the first round, so the ‘could have had ____’ regrets are minimal. But what if the Hurricanes had been a bit worse and moved up into the top 10? Any of Mika Zibanejad, Mark Scheifele, Sean Couturier, Jonas Brodin or Dougie Hamilton who were selected 6-10 respectively would have been a nice upgrade.
2013 Elias Lindholm at #5
How time flies. Elias Lindholm is suddenly a 23-year old NHL veteran who is approaching 400 games played at the NHL level. He has established himself as a capable all-around top 9 forward, but he has yet to really get anywhere close to being elite or a true first line type difference-maker. And nearing the end of his fifth full season in the NHL, the chance of significantly more upside is decreasing. The big ‘what if’ for this draft is Sean Monahan who was selected right after Lindholm. Many had Monahan rated above Lindholm, so it was clearly an either/or choice for the Canes. Especially for a team that could desperately use a true top line scoring center to complement Jordan Staal’s line, Monahan’s 137 goals compared to Lindholm’s 63 is glaring. Monahan has become the top line center that the Hurricanes hoped for in Lindholm when drafting him. To be clear, Lindholm is a good and useful player, but he just is not on the same level as Monahan as far as offensive production now through nearly five seasons.
2014 Haydn Fleury at #7
Haydn Fleury has taken a step-wise path in his development and just arrived at the NHL level this season. His rookie season has been another of step-wise progress. He has had a decent 2017-18, and it is reasonable to think that he will improve in his second season in 2018-19. But in a sport where increasingly players still at or under 20 years old often emerge all of a sudden, Fleury right now projects to be another serviceable middle of the lineup player not really the type of elite player who drives wins. Selected right after Fleury were William Nylander and Nikolaj Ehlers who both represent good young offensive forwards. Both are scoring at a clip just short of Aho and Teravainen thus far in 2017-18.
2015 Noah Hanifin at #5
In a draft that featured a generational talent in Connor McDavid and another elite NHL forward in Jack Eichel, the Hurricanes’ #5 slot was good given the depth of the draft. And from everything I remember reading around that time period, the top group of five stood out from the next group such that the Hurricanes seemed almost certain to take whichever of the big five were left. That turned out to be Noah Hanifin. Because of the near unanimous agreement among experts, I do not think one can even consider faulting the Hurricanes for taking Hanifin here. That said, now three years later, he is still a #5/#6 defenseman who has yet to reach the high ceiling envisioned for him when he was drafted. From just a few spots behind Hanifin, Ivan Provorov with Philadelphia and Zach Werenski with Columbus are two defensemen who are already a season plus deep in top 4 roles on teams that have made the playoffs recently.
2016 Jake Bean at #13 and Julien Gauthier at #21
Again going with best available over prioritizing the forward position, the Hurricanes used their first pick in the 2016 draft to add another defenseman with a high ceiling offensively but work to do in terms of rounding out physically and defensively. Just approaching two years past that draft, it is far too early for a final verdict on Jake Bean who will not even play his first professional season until next year. But it is fair to say that the Hurricanes would pay highly for a do-over. In taking Bean who was an undersized defenseman with a ton of offensive skill but work to be done defensively, the team passed on two other defensemen whose names were possible in that range. Both players rated as more well-rounded even if with less offensive upside, and both players were also more or less NHL-ready physically with good NHL size and maturity physically. Those players are Charlie McAvoy who was selected immediately after Bean and Jakob Chychrun who selected three slots after Bean. McAvoy has ascended rapidly and is playing in a top defense pairing role on a playoff-bound Bruins team. Chychrun has also established himself as a top 4 defenseman at the NHL level. If there was a mulligan to be had on the draft in the past few years, the selection of Jake Bean at #13 might be it.
2017 Martin Necas at #12
The latest hope to find an elite star outside of the top few picks in the draft is 2017 draftee Martin Necas. He looks incredibly promising and probably rates as a top 5 selection in a redraft. So the hope is there, but it is premature to declare success before he steps foot into the NHL.
Netting it out
At the most basic level, the Carolina Hurricanes first-round draft picks have not yielded enough since the selection of Jeff Skinner in 2010.
The blue line situation is most interesting. The Hurricanes have spent three recent first-round picks (Fleury, Hanifin, Bean) on top 4 defensemen, but as of yet have not netted a top 4 defenseman. Meanwhile the group of players selected shortly after them creates an impressive list of defenseman that could build a very good top 4 group by themselves. The ‘what ifs’ is Zach Werenski, Ivan Provorov, Charlie McAvoy and Jakob Chychrun are a impressive group that could help the Hurricanes build a second defense pairing.
Are some combination of Elias Lindholm, Haydn Fleury, Noah Hanifin, Jake Bean, Julien Gauthier and Martin Necas on the verge of breaking out and pushing the Canes up to the next level? With the team still stuck just below the playoff cut line, that might be what it takes to reach the next level.
What say you Canes fans?
1) Do you attribute the lack of marquee players from the first round of the draft more to not being bad enough to select higher or to just not getting the right players?
2) What do you see as the chances that players like Hanifin, Lindholm, Fleury and Bean ultimately emerge as elite players and make this analysis look completely different in 1-2 years?