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At the Draft: Identifying Realistic Options at Forward for the Hurricanes

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As something of a follow on to my "very early" draft day selections article, this piece looks at forwards that could be available in the first 4 rounds of the draft. While it may be unlikely that some of the higher-rated guys are available when we make our 1st pick, you never know what will happen on draft day. This overview will also provide some insight into the later round options.

Maybe the biggest draft in the team's life, what magic will Ron Francis pull from the hat?
Maybe the biggest draft in the team's life, what magic will Ron Francis pull from the hat?
James Guillory-USA TODAY Sports

Face it, there are guys on June 24th that we're just not going to even sniff. Auston Matthews, Patrik Laine, and Jesse Puljujarvi are off the table (unless Ron Francis does something crazy and equally out of character). My guess is Tkachuk and Dubois are long shots as well. It would also be somewhat surprising if the brain trust used one of our 1st round picks on a defender. Later in the draft, absolutely, but not in the first round. There's also the very distinct possibility that one of the two first rounders gets traded. Is it likely? I won't go that far, but it seems pretty plausible that the front office wants to insure that the Canes are more than just competitive; they want a playoff team, just not at the expense of too much of the future. Using a high pick or two and maybe a prospect might just yield a needed, young NHL scorer. But that's a topic for another time.

My guess is that we end up with a bevy forward prospects from the 1st three rounds. If a trade does go down, it might ameliorate the need for one or more of the guys on the front end. However, for the sake of argument, let's assume that the Hurricanes use all of their picks in the draft. Using my semi-scientific process, I've attempted to identify some potential forward prospects. I've tried to take into account the Peters system while also thinking about a good mix of player types - speed and size, skill and smarts, grit and toughness. While it would be great to find guys with all of these characteristics, those types are rare. I've also attempted to take into account where the picks are and the potential limitations of stuff like draft position. As you read further, my personal bias is undoubtedly going to show through.

The First Round

No need to dwell on it, but just to be clear, I don't see Francis and Co. making any sort of play for the Top 5 picks. While it might happen (rumors of picks 3-6 being in play have surfaced recently), it seems that trading the assets it would take to move up to one of those slots would just be too costly. This team and its management have stressed over and over again that they are building for the long haul. Drafting and developing is the cornerstone of that strategy. Getting more bites at the proverbial apple seems the logical approach. While it would be great to get a Top 3 pick, the losing it would require to do so isn't where the team is anymore.

For all intents and purposes there are thirteen forward prospects who will have varying degrees of availability (from long shot to good shot) when our earliest picks come around. Those prospects are:

Alex Nylander - (LW) - With all the skill in the world, Nylander is proficient in just about all the key skill areas. He's both quick and fast on his skates. A talented playmaker, he controls the pace of play and allows his vision and intelligence to dictate his next moves. His hard and accurate shot is even that much better given the lightning quickness of his release. Without a doubt, if he were to become a Cane, he'd easily rival Jeff Skinner as the most skilled player on the team. And his skating would be considered superior given his high end speed. Easily a Top 6 player to be in the NHL, he comes with a level of confidence bordering on cockiness, which is exactly what you want in a high-end skill-oriented scorer.

The down side with Nylander is his defensive game. It's not that it's non-existent, more like hit or miss. At times Alex seems disinterested, even lazy clearly taking shifts off. He can be very effective in his own zone when he uses his speed and stick work to force turnovers. He forces the opposition to make quick decisions and often they may not be well thought out. However this doesn't really describe a Bill Peters kind of player. Maybe he's never had to put in the consistent effort on both sides of the puck, but that will surely change if he is to be an effective NHLer. It will certainly change if he is to be a Hurricane.

All of this is probably moot given that one of the 7 teams that select before we do is likely to snag Alex Nylander. He's got a bright future in this league, especially if he can work on the defensive game.

Clayton Keller - (C) - Even including Nylander, there may not be a better pure scorer left. The comparisons to Patrick Kane are eery. Similar in size and skill set, Clayton Keller is speedy while playing with an intelligence level that allows him to stay two steps ahead. In almost every description he's described as elusive. While armed with an excellent shot he tends to use it pretty selectively. He's more of a guy who makes all of those that play around him better. According to HockeyProspects.com:

"He does an excellent job manufacturing open lanes with subtle movements that throw the player checking him off, he sees the ice very well and is an excellent playmaker in all three zones. We have seen Keller make fantastic reads with the puck on his stick in his own zone, in the neutral zone, and in the offensive zone. Keller can do anything from an intelligent pass that kills the other team’s fore- checking pressure, to a neutral-zone pass that hits the weak-side wing with speed, to gift-wrapping his linemate a goal in the offensive zone."

While not tiny, Keller's size is his only real drawback. Hovering around 5'10" and shy of 170 lbs., he needs to be shifty. He'll have to put on muscle so that his wiriness allows him to compete against the big boys. He does play well in his own end using intelligence, anticipation, speed, and quickness to his advantage. His effective stick work makes him a pretty fair defender. Still, unless and until he adds a bit of bulk (he's never going to be a 200 pounder), he'll get pushed around his fair share.

In the end Keller is tailor-made for the Hurricanes' needs. He's a playmaking pivot (who would also do well on the wing) and his capabilities would be menu items for this team's needs. Personally, I believe if the team were to trade up in the draft, this would be the guy they would be targeting unless they are targeting....

Tyson Jost - (C/LW) - Even playing at the perceived lower level BCHL, Tyson Jost continually impressed all who viewed him. Perhaps a shade less skilled than Keller, he thinks the game equally well. His compete level is off the charts. At 5'11" and 190 lbs., he's a solid player who isn't afraid to initiate contact, often going up against bigger players and coming away with the puck. His body positioning makes him excellent down low and on the cycle. His vision has also been credited for giving him that sense of anticipation that all outstanding centers have. Much like Keller, he's more inclined to make the great dish, setting his linemates up very effectively. Yet, Jost has a very heavy, accurate wrist shot with a world-class release. He projects well as a scorer too. Also, his speediness, particularly his acceleration allows him to get separation whenever he seems to want.

Given his fiestiness and competitiveness he shows particularly well in the defensive zone. He's a hard worker who can both kill penalties or run your power play. As stated he's not afraid of contact and can keep his man from dangerous positions on the ice. Despite playing in a secondary league, his international play elevated his stock in the scouts' eyes. He's committed to University of North Dakota in the Fall where he'll get to hone his skill set against higher end talent and more fully grown competitors.

So, in addition to Keller, Tyson Jost seems like a guy that Ron Francis might just make a move to capture on the draft's first day. His size may make him even more desirable. There's just something about this kid that screams Bill Peters to me.

Logan Brown - (C) - The story couldn't write itself any better. Raleigh native comes back home (okay, so he left town as a baby, but work with me here). Born into "redneck hockey", the big-bodied Logan Brown represents the potential #1 center for any team that takes him. While some may have soured on our one-time captain, Eric Staal, Brown exhibits many of the characteristics that made Eric great. There are also some distinct differences. Logan apparently started the season as someone who was characterized as "disinterested" or even "lazy" (please keep the snarky Staal comments at bay). However, something clicked around late December and he put things all together.

One of the biggest differences between he and Eric, is that Brown is not just an outstanding passer, he's a pass first kind of player. However, as the season wore on he started looking for his shot more often and what a shot it is. Often described as a "laser", his goal output jumped dramatically. That had been a worry for some, but no more. Add to that a pro-level release and Brown's overall offense is outstanding. Logan protects the puck down low and plays well on the cycle with a very good ability to quickly cut to the net as needed. He'll need to add strength as that's a weakness that shows up in his defensive game which, while not bad, is still a work in progress. He's improved his skating and, as it wasn't really a weakness, his long smooth stride gives him deceptive speed.

As the season wore on and Brown's game kept getting better and better, scouts started noticing. He climbed nearly everybody's draft board and is now considered "that guy" for teams that want a big body in the middle (and whose name isn't Auston Matthews).

Michael McLeod - (C) - Noted as perhaps the fastest skater in the draft, Mike McLeod, has the size and many of the skills that identify him as an NHL-caliber pivot. Throughout much of the season, McLeod was a Top 5 or Top 10 projection. He very well may still go in the Top 10, but a few chinks in his armor have been identified. Because of this he's slipped in many of the rating services eyes. He's considered a deft puck handler and a deft passer. His shot, however while not characterized as "weak" too often misses the mark. Maybe he can work on that or maybe he'll never be a pure goal scorer, settling in as a workman like guy who pots 20 goals or so a season. However, big centers who play the game very hard and are hard to play against are still in high demand. That's the thing, McLeod plays the game with a seriously competitive edge and at such a high pace, which makes for occasional lapses in decision-making.

He is strong defensively, but again, his pace of play can be both an asset and a burden. McLeod has been known to skate himself out of plays and he ends up chasing when he shouldn't have to. However, as has been said, his competitiveness makes for an overall solid defensive game.

If he learns to play within himself, maybe even slowing the game down a bit, he could become quite successful. He's got the skills to be even better than his early projections. But with too many missed nets and too many drives into trouble, he'll either need to turn it around near immediately or he's destined for a more pedestrian professional career. He'd not be a bad 1st round pick, especially if he's coachable, but failing that, there's a real fear that he may disappoint at the NHL level.

Kieffer Bellows - (C/LW) - Son of 4 time 40+ goal scorer, Brian Bellows, the bloodline runs strong in Kieffer Bellows. He's an immensely talented power forward who exudes skill. A bull when he wants, Bellows' lower body strength and balance make him nearly impossible to push off of the puck. Those same characteristics also make it nearly impossible to stop him on a rush to the net. His explosive speed, when coupled with his excellent puck handling, make him more than most of his peers could handle in the offensive zone. Paired with Clayton Keller on the U.S. National U18 Team, they were an offensive force few teams could match. Add in an outstanding release on a pro level shot and you've got a prototypical, goal scoring power forward who should excel at the next level. Bellows' speed and edge work put an exclamation point on that.

Kieffer is a very strong forechecker who continuously fights to win puck battles. He is a physical player who looks to initiate contact. Occasionally that can get him into trouble as he has been known to go out of his way to make the big check and thereby taking himself out of position. In general he's a capable defender but needs to work on managing his physicality and channeling it appropriately.

While he's played center, he's best served as an offensive, power winger. The left side is where he's performed well to date. I love him as a pick for the Hurricanes if they choose not to trade up or down. It would probably represent a two or three slot reach, but in the middle of the first round, there's a lot of gut feel that comes into play. As I don't think Jost or Keller will be there when we pick, Bellows would be the pick with the most potential upside. He wouldn't necessarily be the "safe" pick, but he seems to make a great deal of sense for this club based on both short- and mid-term needs. At this point in the draft it would also be hard to argue that he might be at least one of the best players available. Finally, unless somebody really reaches, Bellows is almost assured to be there when Ron Francis walks up to the podium.

Later in the Round

Luke Kunin - (C) - There are a lot of things to like about Luke Kunin's game. He's a hard-nosed, thinking man's player, who competes to the whistle. However, everybody raves about his "frozen rope" of a shot. Accurate and with a super quick release, Kunin led a rebuilding Wisconsin team in goals with 19 and was second in total points with 32. He's got very good speed and pretty good edge work which allows him to stickhandle effectively. But Luke is a "shoot first" goal scorer and despite being responsible in his own end, you're drafting him because he shoots the lights out. He also has that wonderful ability to get under the opponents skin even though he's not a typical agitator. If it's not because of his edgy, competitive play, it's because of how he breaks other player's spirits with the timely goal.

Luke Kunin, playing both left wing and center, fits the skill-needed bill in Carolina perfectly. He'd be a great snag with the 2nd first round pick.

Max Jones - (LW) - Jones cuts an imposing figure on the ice. He's big, he's strong, and he's fast. For a guy his size, he's also very, very agile. When he's bearing down on the opposition he's just as capable and as likely to bowl the defender over as he is to slickly deke and blow past. Blessed with a heavy shot and a very quick release, Jones has inconsistent accuracy, at times putting the puck in the only place that scores and other times going high and/or wide. His two way play is very good too. With his size and speed he doesn't lose too many board battles and once he comes out with the puck, it's off to the races.

Max Jones hits hard, he hits mean, and sometimes, he hits dirty. Early in the year I loved him, thinking he was underrated. Then later he seemed to lose his sense of perspective and just made stupid physical plays. He seemed to remedy that late in the season, but then was suspended for what was clearly a high and dirty hit. Jones plays on the edge and that's what you get with him. It wouldn't hurt the Canes to have a guy like this as long as Peters and Co. can channel that aim in the right direction.

Julien Gauthier - Back in the late Fall and early Winter Gauthier was easily considered a Top 10 pick, at times rated above fellow QMJHLer Pierre-Luc Duboise. Then the scouts started having some questions. Where early on it was believed he thought the game quite well, questionable decisions began to surface. His excellent shot became overshadowed by his seeming "me first" attitude. It was as if he didn't know or care how to use his team mates. Red flags abounded. Yet Julien went about his business putting up 41 goals (with a meager 16 assists), leading his team in this category. He's big, agile, an excellent skater, and a pretty good defender. He's a surprisingly slick stick-handler for such a big kid. A number of his goals were of the "greasy" type, proving yet again, he's not afraid of contact and hard work. There were just questions about his decision-making, not from the questioning his hockey sense standpoint, rather questioning whether he could be a team guy.

If the team that selects Gauthier can help him overcome this challenge, they will get a steal in this draft. As a later 1st round pick, I'd be very pleased to select him.

Brett Howden - (C) - The left-shot centerman has become one of my favorite players. Howden started rising in most rankings later in the season, but his play at the WJC - U18's and his outstanding playoffs for Moose Jaw sealed the deal for many scouts. He's another "pass first" center with very good size, good skating and speed, and an underrated shot. Tall and lanky, he's a skilled two-way player. Don't think, however, that limits his offensive ability. He's got a nice wrist shot that he's not afraid to cut loose when open. But his passing game is just excellent, armed with both vision and playmaking skills, there's a reason he put up 15 points in 10 games during the playoffs. And while he can play all 3 forward positions, he looks so comfortable in the middle, which fits right in as he's excellent in the faceoff circle.

If the Canes go "boom or bust" with their first pick, Howden would make sense as he's a nice blend of size, skill, and all around play. He's been characterized as "steady" and you could do worse. But then, if the team is looking for safe....

German Rubtsov - (C) - The young Russian has been called the best two-way forward in the draft. At a bit over 6' and around 180 lbs., he plays much bigger. He's got man-sized strength. Describing his attributes is pretty easy. He's a blend of skill, speed, strength, and has an accurate, hard shot Russians have become known for. Often called "a coaches dream" he gets difficult match ups and excels on defense, yet he easily and quickly transitions to a dangerous offensive player. His stock has dropped a bit because of the confusing Russian doping scandal, but most scouts aren't worried at all about that.

If you think Howden, or maybe McLeod, is the safe pick, there's probably none safer that Rubtsov. The difference is that you don't appear to be giving up any skill for that safety. There would be nothing wrong at all if the Hurricanes chose him at this juncture (second 1st round pick) in the draft.

Riley Tufte - (LW) - This kid is big, I mean, 6'5", 215 lbs. big. Another Minnesota farm boy-type cut in the mold of Nick Bjugstad, only with more skill. A MN high school superstar, he often looked like a man among boys. When he moved up to the USHL, he appeared to lack confidence and he returned to high school in an attempt to win the state championship. He didn't realize that dream but he did win Mr. Hockey in the state. Tufte is deceptively fast as he's got a long, powerful stride, but it is his superior stick-handling that gets to most people. Another guy with an excellent shot, he can get it off surprisingly quickly and in tight spaces. As he gains more strength and realizes what he's supposed to do with all of that size, he will be an even more imposing player. Look for some of that to surface over the next few years as he continues to develop at Univ. of Minnesota - Duluth.

As the definition of the boom or bust type of player, you select a guy like Tufte if you're fairly sure you've got an NHL winner with your first pick. Regardless, he'd be an interesting risk to take.

Vitalii Abramov - (LW) - About the size of Clayton Keller, he also shares Keller's ability to put up points. In his first game in the Q, he put up 4 points and ended up tied for 5th in the league in scoring with 93 points. He's speedy, he's quick, he's got that European small guy thing where he can stickhandle his way out of a bear trap, and he's got a very quick and accurate shot. Praised for his hockey IQ, he can either slow the game down or make the call to drive toward the net, usually cutting into the slot to get off his shot. Because he anticipates so well, his playmaking abilities are often undersold. Vitalii will have to get somewhat stronger and work on his defensive game, but he's not an embarrassment in his own zone.

If it is skill that Carolina wants, they could do much worse, and not a whole lot better, than drafting Abramov with their second 1st rounder.

The Second Round and Beyond

In my mind the next two rounds are often where the draft can be won or lost. The Hurricanes have done well as of late with picks like Aho, Pesce, Nedeljkovic, Althshuller, and Foegele. The team needs to continue to find gems like those as they transition to a team that can consistently make the playoffs.

Regardless of the emphasis of this article, my preference would still be to pick at least another forward in the 2nd round. While picks could be traded as part of a package, there are a number of guys with high upside that should be available when the team takes the stage on the 2nd day. Again, I wouldn't doubt that at least one guy on the blueline is taken in the 2nd or 3rd round. A goalie might also be snagged. But good forward options still abound like:

Adam Mascherin - (C/LW) - Hovering between 5'9" and 5'10", Adam Mascherin does not play small. Part of it is because he plays with a rare fierceness and part of it is because he tips the scales at around 205 lbs. Boulder or, maybe more appropriately, beer keg comes to mind. He's a huge scorer with an even bigger shot, tying for the scoring lead on his Kitchner team. I really like how EliteProspects.com characterizes him, "He plays a fast, heavy game and isn't afraid to battle against tougher opponents." There's always room for a guy like that on a winning team.

Cameron Morrison - (LW) - Another high scoring forward from the USHL, he was the beneficiary of a lot of Red Wings' property, Chase Pearson's passing. Morrison is a big kid who scored a lot of goals from in close as he battles well in the high danger areas. He's got a quick release and an accurate shot. While his skating could use some improvement, he's probably still better than average. He seems to think the game well, is poised, and shoots well while moving. He will be attending Notre Dame this Fall where he can get even better defensively while improving his overall skating. He projects to be a fine 2-way forward in the NHL.

Henrik Borgstrom - (C/LW) - Coming off of a growth spurt, this second year eligible player has really put it all together this year. Playing at the highest Finnish Jr. level, Borgstrom put up 55 points in 40 games. He's got good vision and outstanding playmaking abilities. But he's also got a very good wrist shot which he gets off in tight spaces well. As he grows into his body his skating continues to improve. He's become a good faceoff guy and will be heading to University of Denver in the Fall. The only rap on the guy is that he "looks" like he's not going all out. One has to wonder if looks can be deceiving.

Joey Anderson - (RW) - Joey Anderson was the right wing on the high scoring Keller - Bellows line. He has a powerful shot and deceptive speed. While not a big guy, he is solid, can work effectively down low, and positions himself in the high scoring danger areas, keeping that position consistently. His upside is as a scoring winger on a 2nd line or a very solid all around player on a good 3rd line.

Janne Kuokkanen- (C/LW) - Coming off of a monster year with Karpat's U20 team Janne was more than a point per game player. He showed exceptionally well in international competition. He even scored 2 goals in his lone game for Karpat in Liiga competition. Super smart and an excellent skater, his superior playmaking often masks his excellent shot. One can only hope that while the powers that be were in Karpat watching Sea Bass, they got some good views of this kid. He's going to be something special.

Vladimir Kuznetsov - (LW) - A tank of a player who came over and played with Arcadia-Bathurst in the Q. The knock on him is his skating, but he gets into good position, can't be moved, and uses his big, heavy shot well. He works well down low as one would expect and has soft hands for a big man. He works best paired with a playmaker as he won't create much on his own.

Matt Filipe - (LW) - Big, strong, and fast, Filipe doesn't need much room to get off his shot. He plays with an edge and uses his body quite effectively. For a big man his hands are extra soft, easily receiving passes and quickly getting them on goal. He will need to improve his overall decision-making, however, if he hopes to be more than a 4th liner who puts up a few points. Still with the "all the time, all the way" effort he puts into every game, there's little doubt that he can continue to develop.

Jordy Stallard - (C) - Another in a line of big bodies, Stallard is excellent in the faceoff circle and plays a strong 2-way game. He's got very good speed, especially for a guy his size, works the boards excellently, and with his competitiveness he never cheats you out of a full game's effort. He's got a nice shot, but his overall offensive skill set will need to continue to develop. Still, driving the net or planted in front of the net, Jordy Stallard gives a defense all it wants to handle.

Eetu Tuulola - (LW) - A hulking Finn, Tuulola has a very quick release on a great wrist shot. He's got great hockey sense and plays pretty physically. His soft hands are a bonus. He will need to improve his skating, however, to get a serious look at the next level. Yet, many scouts felt that they saw improvement in that area throughout the year. If there is a big negative, the common sentiment was that he needed to work on staying in shape.

Rem Pitlick - (C) - Another 2nd draft eligible guy, Pitlick led the USHL in scoring. In an earlier article focusing on the Canes overall draft, I had him as a later round selection. However, he's grown on me quite a bit as his playmaking, quick release, and hard accurate shot are something special. He added 25 lbs. for this season and that strength has made him a stronger skater and more difficult to knock off the puck. The coach of Muskegon moved him to center to get the puck on his stick more and his production took off. He has a chance to be another 3rd/4th round winner.

Kyle Maksimovich - (LW) - Maybe more of a late round pick-up,  Maksimovich is super fast, super shifty, and very elusive. He makes his own offensive opportunities and has historically focused on playmaking. But his underrated shot is a producer as well. He was the 4th leading scorer on a powerhouse Erie team and several scouts had viewings where they touted him as superior to the more highly rated Alex DeBrincat. He's got Top 6 upside, but will have to work hard to get there.

Other options to consider: Wade Allison, Linus Lindstrom, Trent Frederic, Mitchell Mattson, Brayden Burke, Maxime Fortier, William Lockwood, Otto Koivula, and William Knierim

Final Analysis

After a number of viewings and reading more scouting reports, some of my previous preferences have slightly changed. Plus some of the players have either risen or fallen in the minds of the rating services that I like. Still, guys like Tyson Jost, Kieffer Bellows, and Max Jones are on this list and the team would do fine if they ended up with one or more of those three.

There are other guys who I whom I think highly of, but now a variety of factors are conspiring against us. I've grown to really like Charlie McAvoy and his work. But we're very unlikely to take a defender with either of those first round picks and I believe McAvoy will be gone before the 2nd round begins. Pascal Laberge and Tage Thompson have fallen just enough that I think there are better options at pick #21. Neither of those guys will likely be there when we select at #43. Taylor Raddysh, Boris Katchouk, and Carl Grundstrom are in that "no man's land" between pick #31 and pick #40 and will probably also be gone by the time we take our first 2nd round pick. Plus these guys are just not the type of players I'd trade up to snag. Besides, I'm happy with some of the other options.

Ron Francis and Bill Peters will have numerous choices in Buffalo in a couple of weeks. Let's hope they don't overthink some of these picks, but come out of there with a prospect cupboard full of goodies.