The 2013 NHL Draft has been called potentially the best draft class in a decade, a crop that boasts five or six players who could be a No. 1 overall pick in many other drafts. In landing Swedish forward Elias Lindholm — one of the handful of players that would warrant going first in other years — with the fifth overall pick, the Carolina Hurricanes added to an already impressive stable of young and in-their-prime players that should lead them back to the postseason and hopefully into Stanley Cup contention.
But for what seems like the umpteenth straight summer, the Canes have left media pundits, fans and on-lookers questioning whether their defense can provide the support needed to justify having so many offensive weapons. Jim Rutherford & Co. believe they have shored up the blue line with the addition of Buffalo rear guard Andrej Sekera, who was acquired for Jamie McBain and Carolina's second-round pick (35th overall) and will slide into the team's top four with emerging star Justin Faulk, talented-but-streaky Joni Pitkanen, and alternate captain Tim Gleason.
The consensus outside of the Hurricanes’ front office? Not big enough, not tough enough, not good enough.
Given the expectations — that Carolina would target a rugged, top-two or high-end top-four defenseman to round out their D (see the available Braydon Coburn) — the Hurricanes failed to address their needs on the back end. Whether or not Sekera is up to the task at hand is yet to be seen. He is capable of playing big minutes (outside of averaging 17:26 in 2009-10, he has played at least 19 minutes a night five of the past six seasons, including three years in which he hovered above or just under averaging 21 minutes), but has average size and has never been an elite penalty killer.
There's still time to add such a player, but Rutherford seemed content to get the man they were after in Sekera and round out the defense with potential offensive dynamo Ryan Murphy and oversized overacheiver Brett Bellemore. Both are unproven, but they have shown promise.
As you can see, there's lots to talk about regarding the defense. And given the team’s struggles to keep pucks out of their own net, it's a worthwhile discussion. But the Monday morning discussion shouldn't be about the annual defensive do-si-do for a couple reasons.
One, the team — unlike last year — did address the defense. It may not be with the kind of player the critics expected or for the price that was paid, but Rutherford targeted a player the brass liked and made sure he got him.
Secondly, Elias Lindholm is going to be one hell of a player.
Sunday's moves and Monday's discourse should belong to Lindholm, the type of all-around Swedish forward that has anchored several teams over the past decade or so. Will Lindholm be the next Forsberg or Alfredsson? Chances are he won't, but not many are.
But if you look back at the last decade and a half or so, you'll see that Swedish Elite League players who go in the top 10 often wind up as high-level NHLers. The Sedins, Niklas Backstrom, Victor Hedman, Oliver Ekman-Larsson, Adam Larsson, Mika Zibanejad and Jonas Brodin have all gone in the top-10 since 1999. Other than the Bruins' pick in 2000, Lars Jonsson, and perhaps current Oiler Magnus Paajarvi-Svensson — who, at 10th overall in 2009, has had expectations overwhelm his production more than anything — you're hard-pressed to find a Swede who went in the in the first 10 selections and turned out to be a disappointment.
That's because most Swedes, Lindholm included, play the kind of well-rounded, hard-working game that in conducive to success in the NHL. Lindholm maybe never score 30 goals, and 10 years down the road many may think Carolina — and a few other teams — missed the boat by not taking Valeri Nichushkin. But in taking Lindholm, the Hurricanes avoided the alleged "Russian risk factor" while still landing an incredibly talented player that should be in the top-six for years to come.
You can say Carolina won the Stanley Cup in 2006 because of the one-two punch of Eric Staal and Rod Brind'Amour, or the goaltending of Cam Ward, or even the mish-mash defense that was better than the sum of its parts. But don't underestimate the contributions of Matt Cullen — a third-line center who could score and be a factor in every zone — or Justin Williams — a player who works so hard every shift that opposing players grow tired of trying to outwork him.
Lindholm could very well be like taking Cullen and Williams and fusing them together: a second- or third-line center who will add the much-needed secondary scoring coach Kirk Muller has been searching for, but will also out-will opponents into agitation.
So no, the Canes didn't add the hulking defenseman everyone wanted or make the sexy pick at No. 5. But much like in 2007 when Carolina passed on higher-rated Alexei Cherepanov and Angelo Esposito to take steady-if-unspectacular Brandon Sutter, the Hurricanes identified a character player who wants nothing more than to compete and win, and they took him.
Sutter wound up being the best of those three players — although Cherepanov's tragic and sudden death in 2008 certainly played a role in that — and Carolina thinks they again got the best guy left on the board, someone who will exceed Sutter’s accomplishments and be a centerpiece of a winning team.
Whether or not the defense has been fixed is a question for October. Now is the time to elebrate and be excited about Elias Lindholm.