June 20th, 2008. Ottawa, Ontario. The Los Angeles Kings take the stand and make their selection with the 13th overall pick. The Hurricanes are on the clock.
The entourage of franchise brass including the likes of Jim Rutherford, Ron Francis and Peter Laviolette take the stage. With the 14th overall pick in the NHL Draft, the Hurricanes were proud to select...
Boychuk was an undersized forward at 5’9” 175 pounds and it was clear that he wasn’t immediately ready to jump into the NHL game. In looking back on his long tenure in the Hurricanes organization, it seems like he was rushed into the professional game too quickly, which definitely stunted his development in the long term. The forward never had trouble putting up points at the AHL level, but he just couldn’t replicate that success in the show.
I think it’s fair to say that the Boychuk pick was a trendy one in 2008, with the likes of Martin St. Louis flying around the ice as the game shifted into the high speed affair that favors quick hands and quick feet over physicality from a scoring forward.
In retrospect, there were still some great options on the board when the Hurricanes took the Lethbridge centerman. But, to be fair, the Canes were in the market for a top 6 center, and Boychuk was basically the best option up the middle left in that draft class. The other two centers drafted below him in the first round never even cracked an NHL lineup. (Bonus points if you could identify Anton Gustafsson or Daultan Leveille without looking it up.)
But let’s say the Hurricanes instead directed their attention to a very young looking European defenseman playing in the Swedish Elite League who ended up coming off the board just one pick later.
Erik Karlsson was a bit of a polarizing pick at the time as an offensive defenseman who didn’t play a physical game. While this type of player is commonplace now, GM’s and scouts were much more skeptical of a guy like this ten years ago. But despite that, a lot of people were really high on Karlsson, some even insisted that he was the best player in the draft thanks to his lightning speed and high offensive IQ.
So what if Rutherford had pulled the trigger on Karlsson? How different would things be today in Raleigh?
Karlsson didn’t make the transition to North America until a season later, but he jumped right in to the NHL and played 60 games while putting up 26 points. Those are pretty good numbers considering how difficult it is for a young player to adapt to smaller rinks as well as a more physical defensive experience in the NHL.
Let’s assume that his development would follow a similar path in Sweden and he’d be ready to make the jump in just one season. After the Canes’ magical run in the spring of 2009, Karlsson would be welcomed into the Hurricanes’ clubhouse and expected to jump right in and produce the next season.
He would provide the help on the right side of the defense that the Canes needed and Rutherford wouldn’t end up trading for Aaron Ward. Karlsson would be significantly better than Ward, proving himself as an offensive threat night in and night out. His fresh presence would spurn the awful 14-game losing streak as he would act as a catalyst to keep the season on track. The Hurricanes would still miss the playoffs, but it would be a narrow miss, in typical heartbreaking fashion. Even this fantasy is grounded in reality.
But still, the Canes would come out of the season with hope and sitting on one of the best young defensemen in hockey.
They wouldn’t have picked up Jeff Skinner at 7th overall in the 2010 Draft, but that’s OK - because they picked up Cam Fowler with the 12th spot. Fowler and Karlsson would go on to establish the best top pairing in the NHL for the next eight years. Their success would enrich Eric Staal’s career as a Hurricane and propel the team to becoming a perennial playoff contender.
OK, maybe all of this is a bit far fetched. But it’s very realistic to think that if the Canes did draft a new age defensemen in Karlsson, this lineup would look drastically different today. And we’d likely be in the hockey media spotlight a lot more this summer.