In the 2013 NHL Entry Draft, one player, Seth Jones, stands alone at the top. He is the only franchise defenseman, and, unfortunately for the Carolina Hurricanes, the only player that will assuredly not be wearing the sightless eye this fall.
It’s been no secret that the Hurricanes have been lacking a true No. 1 defensemen for years. While Joni Pitkanen is a very good player, he has missed 10 or more games a year for the last five. But Jones — born in Texas, but having spent most of his childhood in Denver — to the Colorado Avalanche seems all but a lock.
And the Florida Panthers will surely not pass up the opportunity to add the draft’s best forward, center Nathan MacKinnon.
That’s not to say that a great player won’t be available at #5. This year’s draft has been compared to 2003 in terms of talent, and that one is thought to be among the greatest ever. But while it looks highly unlikely that a defenseman will be the selection, the Canes should come away from the first round quite pleased.
Drafts are all about “tiers”, and this one looks like it has a top five.
LW Jonathan Drouin
A teammate of likely top-two pick MacKinnon, Drouin has done well to show that he is not just a product of his talented center, unlike Sidney Crosby’s winger Dany Roussin in 2005. Drouin is a bit undersized–think Jeff Skinner when he was drafted–but still supremely talented. He scored over 2 points a game, aiding the Halifax Mooseheads to the Presidents Cup, awarded to the QMJHL champions.
While he’d join a stable of “softer” forwards, a likely recipe for disaster should they make the postseason, he does bring something to the table that seems to be in short supply in Raleigh — the ability to make plays from the wing. While Alex Semin was quite productive in that role this past season, his assist totals were far higher than his career average and should normalize next season. Drouin could slot along side Jeff Skinner and Jordan Staal, giving that duo the added vision they seem to need.
Falling to Carolina would be considered a huge steal, however, and him getting by the Tampa Bay Lightning at No. 3 and Nashville Predators at No. 4 could be tricky. Tampa seems to value undersized forwards and Nashville needs offensive talent in the worst way.
C Aleksandr Barkov
Though not in dire need of centers, you can never have too many and Barkov may be the best player on the board when Carolina goes up to the podium for their pick.
Barkov is already 6’2’’ 205 lbs., and, when combined with the two Staal brothers who are each 6’4’’, would provide considerable size down the middle. As he progresses, the team could have a bit of versatility, moving him up to the second line and finally uniting the Staals.
Having spent the last two seasons playing in the Finnish Elite League, he’s already used to playing against guys his own size. He not only held his own in 2012-13, he ranked first on his team in points-per-game as a 17-year-old and looks to be able to make a seamless transition to the North American style.
The Canes like their pedigree picks, and Barkov’s father spent some productive years playing for the same team his son now plays for. If he can get by Nashville and their lack of an elite first line center, Carolina will have to strongly consider him.
LW Valeri Nichushkin
Perhaps the most intriguing pick — and arguably the most talented after the top two — is Valeri Nichushkin. Initially, Nichushkin suffered from the inability to get out of a KHL contract that he had been committed to, indicating that any team drafting him may have to wait until 2015 at the earliest to add him to their lineup. But recent reports seem to have contradicted that and he could be headed to North America sooner than expected.
Nichushkin plays a power forward game reminiscent of a young Rick Nash or Alexander Ovechkin. His physicality is something the Canes have severely lacked with opposing teams often taking liberties with the smaller Skinner. Like Barkov, he already has NHL size and already has experience playing against “men”.
If the reports are true, Tampa may covet him. Martin St. Louis isn’t getting and younger and the team has no winger prospect anywhere close to the talent of Nichushkin. Should he fall to Carolina, a line of Nichushkin — J. Staal — Tuomo Ruutu would be an absolute nightmare to play against.
However, selecting Nichushkin would require Hurricanes general manager Jim Rutherford to do something he hasn’t done in 12 years–select a European in the first round.
Trading The Pick
In the past, Rutherford has not been shy about moving up to get the player he wants, or moving the pick in general. This year, however, with so many talented forwards available and so many assets unavailable, it makes little sense to trade up to get a specific player.
Trading down seems equally unlikely. In fact, it’s something the team hasn’t done with its first round pick in over 15 years. While trading down five spots or so would land them in an area ripe with defensemen and provide them with additional assets and an opportunity to restock the prospect pool, it drops them out of the “first tier” of players. In a draft like this, the difference can be quite large.
Though Rutherford could trade the pick outright–like he did last year in a package for Jordan Staal–the Canes are approaching the cap ceiling with so much money tied up in the top six. Entry level deals are what “small market” teams thrive on, and the team simply cannot afford to bypass another first round pick.
Whatever the team decides to do with the pick, it’s clear that it could be a huge turning point for the team. While it’s too much to say they can’t make a wrong choice, a reach beyond the top five would be just that. Whomever the Canes add to their lineup, fans could seeing that player on Raleigh ice as soon as September.