If you have not checked out the Canes and Coffee summer event featuring an NCAA tourney-like bracket full of Canes greats pairing off to determine our favorites, please do. Voting for the first batch of games runs through Thursday.
Very recently, like just last summer, everyone who rates NHL teams’ prospect pools had the Canes near the bottom. The Hockey’s Future Canes report from last summer had the Canes at 28th out of 30 teams. (HF has not posted an update for this summer yet.) Today ESPN came out with its updated 2015 system rankings and had the Canes in the top half of the NHL which was a significant improvement. (No link provided because the details are behind the ESPN pay wall.) Regardless of whose rankings you look at, the Canes have significantly improved the pool of players that are the team’s future.
How has this happened?
1) Losing. Sadly, losing hockey games and winning top draft picks helps significantly, especially this past summer which one of the best years in history to pick in the top 5 (Canes picked 5th). Obviously, the prize was Noah Hanifin who is one of the best blue line prospects in the entire league. Last summer, the Canes similarly earned a #7 pick with a rough season giving them the 2nd drafted defenseman for 2014 and selected defenseman Haydn Fleury. So in the past two drafts, the Canes have added the 2nd (Fleury was 2nd to Aaron Ekblad) and 1st defenseman taken overall. That is obviously a strong start toward at least building out the defenseman category of future prospects.
2) Good selections and strong development a few years back also on defense. In the two drafts immediately prior (2012 and 2013), the Hurricanes did not use any high picks on defenseman, but development so far suggests that they did real well finding value (again often on defense) in later rounds. In 2012, the Canes picked up Trevor Carrick and Jaccob Slavin both in the 4th round. Carrick made the jump to the AHL in 2014-15, adjusted quickly and continued a development path toward the NHL. Slavin played at Colorado College where he continued to progress as well, to the point where he arguably rates as the Canes best blue line prospect behind Hanifin and Fleury. Canes management is really optimistic about his future. Both skate well and now project much higher than an average 4th-rounder just three years removed from his draft summer. In 2013 the Canes selected Brett Pesce in the 3rd round and Tyler Ganly in the 6th round. They too have progressed since being drafted. Pesce is yet another skating defenseman who seems to be on track to one day play in the NHL. Ganly maybe does not have the upside as some of the bigger names, but he already beat the odds as a 6th-rounder just by winning an entry level contract this summer. He brings, heart, grit and physicality which just maybe fits perfectly in the bottom pair after the top roles are filled by some of the names above.
When you throw in Josh Wesley who was drafted in the 4th round in 2014 and Roland McKeown who was drafted in the 2nd round in 2014 (by Los Angeles – he was part of Sekera trade) and also Ryan Murphy who is still in the mix despite all of the excitement about the new additions, the Canes are suddenly incredibly deep and talented in terms of blue line prospects. It only gets better when you consider that Justin Faulk is already an established NHL defender despite being only a couple years older than some of these prospects.
I have not seen any analyze and do prospect rankings by team by position, but I would be surprised if more than 2-3 teams (and maybe none) have a better prospect pool on defense.
3) Keeping picks. The other thing that is starting to help with the Canes prospect pool is increased depth and quality from keeping and using more picks (and also collecting a couple extras). This summer the Canes did part with their 3rd round pick (Eddie Lack track) but added an extra 4th and 5th round pick. Next summer the Canes currently have an extra 1st (Sekera trade) and 3rd (Tlusty trade) to help further stock the pool. There is a lottery ticket element to picking young players especially in the middle and late rounds, so the more picks you have the more winners you might find.
As a fan, one has to love the general trend. As a team on a budget, the path to being a consistently good hockey team is to develop players from within and benefit from strong play during their inexpensive contract years and also be able to replace them if they later leave for bigger contracts.
But what about the forward position, you might ask since the discussion above is so heavy on the defensemen? The Canes are not nearly as deep here. I recently wrote a blog that considered the possibility that at some point Ron Francis might consider trading a defense prospect or two to balance out the forward prospect pool that is a little lighter, especially at right wing. You can find that blog HERE. The short version is that the Canes have a bit of a void at right wing with only Brendan Woods even on the radar and more as a depth player. Left wing and center are a bit deeper, but the volume and high-end quality are not on the same level as defense. But a couple positives on that. First, Victor Rask (22 years old, 2nd round 2012) and Elias Lindholm (20 years old, 1st round 2013) are already part of the NHL roster and only going to get better. It is obviously better to have young players than young prospects. And Sebastian Aho seems to be trending up already from his early 2nd round selection just two months ago with a solid prospect camp in Raleigh and a solid word juniors week in Lake Placid playing on Finland’s top line. I would also expect that Francis will have a bit of a forward bias in the 2016 draft when he gets to use 5 picks in the 1st three rounds.
Here is hoping that the defensemen can continue to develop across the board setting it up to be a position of strength for the Canes very soon and also possibly a source of trade assets to fill out the roster at forward if needed.