The NHL Entry Draft is very important to every team, especially in this salary cap era which was created to effect a level playing field between the "haves and have nots" of the league. But this draft is more important than ever to the Carolina Hurricanes.
The Canes were the story of the draft last year when they traded to acquire Jordan Staal from the Pittsburgh Penguins, but the price was steep. Carolina gave up three important assets, former first round pick Brandon Sutter, former second round pick Brian Dumoulin, and the eighth overall pick in last year's draft.
The Pens selected Derrick Pouliot with that pick, but other highly regarded prospects, like Filip Forsberg and Mikhail Grigorenko were still available. Who would the Hurricanes have selected if they had to make the choice? We will never know, but chances are it would have been a good prospect.
All three of the above players are ranked in Hockey's Future top 50 prospects. Currently, the Canes do not have anyone rated in the top 50. Hockey's Future ranks the Hurricanes prospects 26th overall in the league.
We could say that this is just one ranking from one source and it does not matter, but last season when the injury bug bit Carolina and bit hard, the club had no answer. Management has gone on record to say that they have been disappointed by the performance of the franchise's top prospects, as few of them have really stepped up to contribute in the NHL on a consistent basis.
This needs to change if the Canes are to compete for a playoff position next season and in the future.
How important is depth and having a good prospect pool? Ask the Ottawa Senators, who faced an unseemly number of injuries last season as well. But their prospects stepped up and performed admirably, even into the playoffs.
The Hurricanes best way to improve their depth and pool of prospects is through the draft. But this year, there is talk of trading their number five pick, or trading down, to acquire a top four defenseman. The club should be very careful before doing so.
The top five or six players available this year have been rated as "special" or "elite". If the Canes trade down too far, then the club will be choosing from a lower tier of players who have a lesser chance of NHL success. The team needs a top four defenseman, there is no doubt of that, but at what cost?
One problem is that Carolina sees itself as a playoff caliber team. They are under a lot of pressure to make the playoffs next season and coach Kirk Muller's job is probably on the line. So management feels the need to improve upon the most obvious immediate weakness, which is defense.
But if the club loses a future superstar in order to acquire a defenseman who may or may not stay with the team after a couple of years, is that the best overall strategy?
In this writer's opinion, the club should keep the fifth pick, select the best rated player available, and solve the problem on defense through free agency or another trade. After losing three assets just last year, they cannot afford to keep trading away or lowering the value of their draft picks.
Joni Pitkanen will be returning after recovering from a broken heel. Tuomo Ruutu will be returning after hip surgery. Eric Staal and Cam Ward will return after serious knee strains. Does anyone think the Hurricanes will be injury free next season? The team needs quality depth.
Drafts are always interesting, but this one is very important for Carolina. Can they pull off a miracle and trade down, pick up a top four defenseman, then select a prospect who will be a game changer? We will see.