2017 NHL Draft done but Canes far from finished
Posted June 25
Four centers, three defensemen, a goalie and two guys named Eetu among them. That’s the quick summary of the Carolina Hurricanes draft haul this weekend in Chicago.
From Martin Necas at the top through Ville Rasanen at the end, the Hurricanes used all eight draft picks with an obvious emphasis on the middle of the ice. Four of the first five selections by Ron Francis; Necas, Finland’s Eetu Luostarinen, Morgan Geekie and Stelio Mattheos all are listed as centers. Luostarinen is a strong skating, play maker who played in Finland’s top league as an 18-year old. Geekie put up a 90-point season for Tri-City in the WHL, playing on the same team with 9th overall pick Michael Rasmussen. Mattheos just turned 18 but is already pushing 200 pounds and plays a physical game that produced 61 points in 69 games this season.
Eetu Makiniemi might not have been the only Eetu selected by the Hurricanes, but he was the only goaltender taken by the team in the draft. Described as big, quick and athletic, we should see him with the rest of the prospects before he likely heads back to Finland to continue his development.
Before closing out their draft with Rasanen, an explosive-skating defenseman playing in Finland’s second division, the Canes took two other blue line prospects, Luke Martin (52nd) and Brendan De Jong (166th), each big, stay-at-home defenseman. Martin, coming off his freshman year at Michigan, also has USA Hockey experience having played 25 games for the U-18 team the year before he graduated High School in St Louis.
Regardless of what was added this weekend in Chicago, it’s a very good bet that none of these players will see Carolina for at least a couple of years. Even the top pick, Necas, a dynamic, skilled, center with a high compete level will almost certainly spend the 2017-18 season defending the Czech Extraliga title.
Now, comes the tricky part, adding players via trade or through free agency that will make THIS year’s team better. Because, if the Carolina Hurricanes are going to push to snap this eight year post season drought the help needed is probably not coming from within the system. That’s not to say that there aren’t players in the pipeline that could contribute to the 2017-18 Hurricanes, but in terms of players skating in a top-6 role, that would be an upset.
If you’re expecting the Hurricanes to dabble in the free agent market to satisfy any needs at the top of the depth chart I have some beach front property in South Dakota to show you. Ron Francis has publicly talked about his disdain for high-level free agents, and when you consider that Jaccob Slavin, Brett Pesce, Noah Hanifin and Elias Lindholm will all be due significant salary increases next summer, it’s important that Francis exercise financial restraint.
That doesn’t mean that the team can’t spend money on the right players. They can and, to be honest, they must. Carolina is still at least $7 million shy of the salary floor and roughly $20 million more than that before they’re capped out. The real question for Francis is whom to target around the league or through free agency.
Regardless of which route Francis chooses the most important step to take at the outset is to assess what the needs really are. So, let’s consider the depth chart and where Carolina might be able to address the issues.
If Francis can find a top-line center to add to the mix that would be fantastic. Getting one via trade, without having to give away a serious asset, however, is unlikely. And, rumor has it that the Canes are not likely to part with a top-4 defenseman in any deal. So…
Jordan Staal and Victor Rask. That’s it. Now, that's a pretty good start. Staal is one of the best defensive centers in the game -- who should be the Hurricanes next captain -- and Rask has the ability to score and play a smart 200-foot game. Of course, Victor spent most of last season searching for consistency, though the Rask who was one of Sweden's best players as the Three Crowns captured the gold medal at the World Championships would be a tremendous development for the Canes.
Tuevo Teravainen and Elias Lindholm can both play center, Lindy at a higher level than Turbo, but head coach Bill Peters has openly expressed his preference that both play on the wing, so unless something changes Carolina will have to find at least two more players who can play the middle of the ice. Options with experience from within include Derek Ryan and Lucas Wallmark, with Ryan coming off a very impressive “rookie” season in which he scored 11 goals. Wallmark played in eight games for Carolina a year ago and was arguably their best offensive player in the minors a year ago, scoring a team-high 24 goals for the Checkers.
Beyond them, prospects like Janne Kuokkanen or Nicholas Roy are likely at least a year away, though the future does appear bright for each to eventually be top-3 centers in the league.
Sebastian Aho and Jeff Skinner provide a lot of production for a team that is seemingly always in search of scoring. Aho went through the typical rookie year lulls, but shows so much upside that 60-point seasons seem as though they’ll be the low end for someone who plays bigger than his 5’10” 180 pound frame would suggest. This was unquestionably Skinner’s best season and it has less to do with his 37 goals than it does with his consistent, game-to-game performance. After that, Brock McGinn and Joakim Nordstrom could possibly man the 3rd and 4th lines.
McGinn played very well when paired with Staal and Lindholm for a while as the Hurricanes flashed a big, physical line for a stretch. Valentin Zykov is an interesting player to keep an eye on, as he plays a physical game with a nose for the front of the net. Phil DiGiuseppe could also figure in on the left side, though he can play both. Aleksi Saarela is another option, but after a blistering start to his pro career in America he suffered a shoulder injury and it remains to be seen how and where he fits given his condition. If healthy, the team believes he is an NHL player who can play the wing or the middle.
Lindholm, Teravinen and Lee Stempniak should all give the Canes production from the right side of the ice. The Lindholm that played the last two-thirds of 2016-17 was a force, playing with an edge, winning face offs and consistently putting up points while also showing a 2-way game that we hadn’t seen from him in the past. DiGiuseppe has tons of speed and has shown the ability to play on his off-wing. At the very least, he should be able to provide energy to a fourth line, but the former 2nd round pick has more ability than that.
Julien Gauthier had 51 points in 43 games in his final season of Junior Hockey and will get to show the Charlotte fans what he can do. Still raw, he’s huge and fast and plays with a flare that will excite some and annoy others and that’s great. How long it takes to harness all that into a productive hockey player will determine how long it will take for him to figure in the top nine in Raleigh.
Barring a trade, or should I say another trade, with the acquisition of Trevor van Riemsdyk from Vegas after the expansion draft, this is a position that seems most easy to forecast. Jaccob Slavin, Justin Faulk, Brett Pesce and Noah Hanifin are the top four in some combination. Slavin and Pesce were each plus-23 on a minus team and did so without piling up a lot of points. Hanifin was struggling for most of the season, likely due in part to playing with an array of borderline NHL defensemen, but turned it around entirely after the trade of Ron Hainsey. Hanifin’s stat line read 2 goals, 14 assists and a minus-21 through the end of February playing less than 17 minutes per night. However, over the final two months, playing with either Pesce or Faulk in a top four role, he was a plus-2 with 13 points in 23 games in 20:30 per game.
The third pairing, a major issue for Carolina last year, should be an upgrade with 26-year old van Riemsdyk on the right side. The left will either be Klas Dahlbeck, signed to an extension after last year so he could be exposed in the expansion draft, or 2014 first round pick Haydn Fleury. Make no mistake, though the veteran Dahlbeck played well at times last year, this is Fleury’s job to lose. The 7th overall pick three years ago had a strong second half for the Checkers as they rallied to make the AHL playoffs and the expectation is that he will take the next step this year. Only way he doesn’t is if he suffers an injury or has a poor training camp. Other players in the mix would be Roland McKeown, Trevor Carrick or Jake Chelios, who is coming off his best pro season at age 26.
Okay, I guess I shouldn’t completely ignore that Ryan Murphy is still under contract. But, for all of his skills, it just hasn’t happened for him here in Raleigh and in some fashion, either via a trade or waivers, I would expect Murphy to be elsewhere by the start of the season.
Scott Darling, come on down! You’re the latest heir apparent for the Hurricanes. Francis tried that with Eddie Lack two years ago and it just didn’t work. They tried to milk another two years out of Ward as part of a starting tandem and that didn’t work. Darling, who’s been the primary back up in Chicago to Corey Crawford was signed to a 4-year contract that will pay him more than $4 million annually. This is HIS job. With Ward and Lack vying for the number two spot it will be interesting to see if Francis moves one in a trade or if Lack ends up this season playing — and hopefully reestablishing his value — in Charlotte.
Alex Nedeljkovic is coming off a terrible year in which the Checkers had to search outside the organization for a goaltender when Michael Leighton suffered an injury that ended his season. There are some who even believe that the former starter for the USA World Junior team has been passed by junior prospects Jeremy Helvig or Callum Booth. Nedeljkovic’s highlight came when he backed up Ward in a game in Columbus and stopped all 17 shots he faced after Ward was pulled in the 2nd period.
The Hurricanes are far from a finished product for 2017-18. There will undoubtedly be deals made and there is money that HAS to be spent. Some of these players will be used in trades, some will continue developing in the AHL. But, it’s clear that the biggest void is at center, where the team needs at least one NHL top-3 player.
Free agency begins on July 1, so I would expect trades and any signings will happen over the next 10 days as the roster takes shape for the start of the season. There will be a significant addition, there has to be based on money that has to be spent. How it happens is yet to be determined.