Hurricanes Have High Hopes For Collegiate Defensemen

Minnesota-Duluth defenseman Justin Faulk, the first of two defensemen chosen in the second round by Carolina at last summer's entry draft, has already emerged as a go-to player on the top-ranked Bulldogs’ blue line. Photo by LTD

The Carolina Hurricanes’ 2010 draft class has thus far been defined by one player: Jeff Skinner. Rightfully so, since Skinner not only made the Canes coming out of training camp, but he leads all NHL rookies with 16 points in his first 20 professional games.

But after selecting Skinner, the Canes loaded up on defense, defense and more defense. Five of Carolina's final seven picks were spent on blueliners, including two second rounders and two thirds. After passing on CHL standouts Cam Fowler and Brandon Gormley — projected top-five picks who tumbled into the middle of the first round — to take Skinner, the Hurricanes looked to the college ranks, like they did the year before, to bolster the defensive corps.

And by the sounds of it, the team couldn't be more pleased with its group of collegiate rearguards. 

In the past, Carolina has used higher picks on college defensemen, most notably taking Michigan blueliner Jack Johnson third overall in 2005 and using their first pick in 2006 — a second rounder — on Wisconsin defenseman and current Cane Jamie McBain. The list doesn't end there — Danny Richmond (31st overall in 2003), Casey Borer (69th in 2004) and Nate Hagemo (58th in 2005) were all college defensemen chosen in the first three rounds. In fact, until Carolina used their second third-round pick on Plymouth Whaler Austin Levi this past June, the Hurricanes had not used a draft choice in the first three rounds on a European or CHL defenseman since 2002, when the team selected QMJHL d-man Jesse Lane 91st in 2002.

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The acquisition of latest crop of college defenseman started last year, when Carolina took Brian Dumoulin, a Boston College-bound blueliner, in the second round in 2009. This year, they used second-round picks on U.S. National Development Team’s Justin Faulk and high-school-quarterback-turned-hockey-player Mark Alt, then the first of two third rounders on Harvard rising sophomore Danny Biega. It's those four that have Carolina excited about the future.

"Not to downplay the other guys, but this is a group that has a lot talent, a lot of ability, a lot of potential," Jason Karmanos, Hurricanes vice president and assistant general manager, said of the quartet. 

That starts with Dumoulin, a rangy, 6-4 defender who stepped right in to BC's lineup and helped lead the Eagles to an NCAA tile last season.

"Dumoulin obviously had a very good year last year, playing for a very good program," Karmanos said. "But we really like the way he’s been progressing. He’s a very smart positional defenseman."

Dumoulin was among the youngest players eligible in last year's draft, but the Maine native’s smooth skating stride and large frame made him a projected second- or third-round pick in the 2009 entry draft. At 51st overall, Carolina snapped him up. He immediately contributed with the Eagles, registering one goal and 21 assists while leading the team in plus/minus en route to the NCAA championship.

"That’s difficult jumping into college hockey [at a young age] where a lot of the players are 24, 25 years old," Karmanos said. "He made that transition very smoothly. We’re really excited about him."

His play has been solid again this season, with four assists in 12 games for the 8-4 Eagles.

"He’s obviously got great size," Karmanos said. "He jumped in at a young age and was a big contributor to BC’s success last year. Follow that up this summer by looking considerably stronger and having a very good tryout camp for the U.S. team in the late summer ... we’re hoping that he’ll find himself on the U.S. World Junior team."

Given his age — he just turned 19 in early September — and the growth curve needed for young defensemen, Dumoulin's arrival in Raleigh is a ways away. But that doesn't mean expectations aren't high.

"Just given how he understands the game, his overall skill level, which continues to improve, his shot, which continues to improve," Karmanos said. "He’s just one of those guys, in our opinion, who’s just a really good prospect. He’s got everything there for him, and the best part is he’s also a very hard-working, dedicated kid, so he’s going to get the most of his abilities."

The Hurricanes are willing to wait for a player they think will make a big impact down the road.

"We have a lot of time for him," Karmanos said. "He’s, in our minds, a top prospect.

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This year's crop of three college blueliners offers a mix of offense and athleticism.

"Really all these guys are great athletes, and that’s one thing that certainly helps," Karmanos said. "If you have that athletic ability it’s going to take you a long way."

That starts with Faulk, a Minnesota-born player who is in his first year at Minnesota-Duluth after playing in Ann Arbor, Mich., for the U.S. NTDP.

"He’s another guy [like Dumoulin last year] who’s jumped right into a very good team in Duluth," Karmanos said. "He just has a great shot, some great offensive ability. Not a real tall kid, but he’s very thick and strong. He goes back and gets the puck in a hurry, [and is] very good skater [and] moves the puck well. Our guys really, really liked this kid coming out of the U.S. program."

And he is living up to that promise early is his college career. Known for his heavy shot, Faulk has already become one of the WCHA's top power play weapons, scoring three extra-man goals in 10 conference games. Overall, he has four goals and seven assists through 14 games, making him the Bulldogs top scoring defenseman. Minnesota-Duluth, the No. 1 team in USCHO.com’s rankings, sits atop the WCHA standings with an 8-1-1 conference record and 11-1-2 overall mark.

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Mark Alt, a freshman defenseman at Minnesota, was one of the more intriguing players in this year's draft. Alt is the son of John Alt, an offensive tackle for the Kansas Chiefs for more than a decade in the 1980s and '90s, and was recruited by several college football programs as a quarterback. At 6-3, 194 pounds, Alt is not only ideal size for a quarterback, but also for a defenseman. In the end, Alt chose hockey — and the Gophers — over a less promising football future.

"Alt is a great athlete, and to a certain extent he has maybe the longest road in terms of understanding the game at a higher level," Karmanos said. "Because of his athletic ability and where he played last year, you’re able to get away with a lot of things you can’t get away with at a higher level when you play high school hockey like he did, especially when you’re as big and as strong as he is."

But like Faulk and — Dumoulin before them — Alt is making a smooth transition to playing college hockey.

"Jumping in to Minnesota, where they’re a fairly young team especially on the blue line, in the early going he has us pretty excited," Karmanos said. "You can see the athleticism when you watch him. He moves the puck well. He has hard, accurate passing, which is key at the pro level. For a guy jumping in to the WCHA at a young age, right out of high school playing a difficult position, we think he’s doing very well. We’re excited about him."

In 11 games so far this season, Alt — who was a finalist for Minnesota's Mr. Hockey last year — has registered two assists. He also had a team-high three blocks in both the Oct. 15 game against Nebraska-Omaha and Oct. 30 at Colorado College. His 19 blocks are third on the Golden Gophers, who are 7-4-1 so far this season.

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While Faulk and Alt transition into the college game, third round pick Danny Biega is already in his sophomore campaign at Harvard. Plus, hockey is a family affair in the Biega family.

Brother Michael plays alongside Danny for the Crimson and is a senior. The oldest Biega, Alex, played with them last season and is now in the AHL with the Porland Pirates, the affiliate of the Buffalo Sabres who drafted him in the fifth round in 2006.

But Danny is the most promising of the lot.

"Biega is another great athlete," Karmanos said. "Even though he’s not a tall kid, he’s built like a truck. He shoots the puck very well, has very good skating ability. He and his brothers have been a big part of Harvard lately."

Biega is currently tied with two other players — including brother Michael — for the Harvard scoring lead with four points (one goal, three assists) through six games for the 2-4 Crimson. His combination of offensive talent, strength and propensity for making big hits has already raised eyebrows.

"He showed a lot of great tools this summer at the conditioning camp," Karmanos said. "He showed great strength — he’s stronger than a lot of guys right now in the NHL. So physically, even despite the fact he’s just a 6-foot defenseman, he makes up for that with tremendous strength that he’s worked hard to have as part of his game."

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With Carolina's corps of professional defensemen like Brett Carson, Casey Borer and Bobby Sanguinetti all reaching points in their career where it becomes make-it-or-break-it time, the next wave of players is in place. CHL prospects like Levi and Rasmus Rissanen have potential to grow into shutdown defenders, but it's in the college ranks where the Carolina front office thinks they have their best defensive assets. And Karmanos couldn't stress that enough.

"That group of four is a group of young defensemen we’re excited about."

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