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Is drafting defense in the first round costing the Canes now?

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The Canes have struggled to score over the years, but is it because they drafted defensemen in the first round?

NHL: NHL Draft Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports

Last month, Tom Dundon sat down with the Triangle Business Journal and shared his views on quite a few things. One of the more interesting statements since he took over ownership of the Carolina Hurricanes came during that very interview.

We won’t be drafting defense in the first round as long as I’m here. I’ve got to have more offense, I want to lose five to four, not two to one. If we lose five to four, at least I’ll have fun.

That quote got us thinking: is drafting so many defensemen in the first round over the past decade truly costing the Canes now?

Since 2010 the Hurricanes have drafted four defensemen in the first round. We are going to take a look at their NHL production and compare that to production from some forwards drafted after those picks in the first round.


Jamie Kellner

2011: Ryan Murphy

  • Drafted: 12th overall
  • First full NHL season: 2013-14
  • NHL scoring: 174 GP, 8 goals, 34 assists, 42 points
  • Current team: New Jersey Devils (traded from Minnesota Wild yesterday)

Going in to the 2011 draft many experts had Ryan Murphy pegged as a top 10 pick. Ranked only behind Adam Larsson and Dougie Hamilton, Murphy was considered to be an elite defensive prospect who had tremendous offensive upside. At just 5’11” and 180lbs, Murphy was never able to get things going in the NHL and would go on to become a giant bust for the Hurricanes.

After bouncing back and forth between the Hurricanes and the Charlotte Checkers and never playing more than 48 regular season games in a single season, Carolina had finally had enough. They traded Murphy along with Eddie Lack to Calgary for a 6th round pick and prospect Keegan Kanzig.

Overall the Ryan Murphy experience in Raleigh was just plain bad. But who could the Canes have drafted instead of Murphy? Let’s take a look.

Who They Could Have Drafted

NHL: Anaheim Ducks at San Jose Sharks Stan Szeto-USA TODAY Sports

Rickard Rakell

  • Drafted: 30th overall (Anaheim)
  • First full NHL season: 2014-15
  • NHL scoring: 351 GP, 104 goals, 118 assists, 222 points
  • Current team: Anaheim Ducks

While Rakell has struggled this season, his 2017-18 campaign saw him post a career high 69 points helping the Ducks reach the playoffs. Originally drafted as a center, Rakell has become a quality second line winger for the Ducks posting three seasons over 40 points. Being a right shot who can score, Rakell is the type of player many teams would love to have.

NHL: Tampa Bay Lightning at Edmonton Oilers Perry Nelson-USA TODAY Sports

J.T. Miller

When the New York Rangers drafted Miller 15th overall they had hopes that he would be a top six center for them. Things got off to a rough start for Miller in the Big Apple but he got things going in 2015-16 when he put up 43 points. His following two seasons would see him put up over 55 points each year. He was traded to Tampa near the trade deadline in 2018 and is serving as a third line center on a very talented Lightning roster.

NHL: Carolina Hurricanes at New York Rangers Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

Vladislav Namestnikov

  • Drafted: 27th overall (Tampa Bay)
  • First full NHL season: 2014-15
  • NHL scoring: 327 GP, 59 goals, 84 assists, 143 points
  • Current team: New York Rangers

Namestnikov was a point per game player in juniors and many believed he could be drafted higher than he was. He only has one season in the NHL where he scored over 40 points, but he has been a quality player for both the Rangers and Lightning.


Jamie Kellner

2014: Haydn Fleury

  • Drafted: 7th overall
  • First full NHL season: 2017-18
  • NHL scoring: 79 GP, 0 goals, 9 assists, 9 points
  • Current team: Charlotte Checkers

2014 was the first of three straight seasons that Carolina would draft defense in the first round. Coming off a season that saw players like Mike Komisarek, John-Michael Liles, Brett Bellemore, and the aforementioned Murphy play significant time on defense, it was easy to see why the Canes again select a defensemen with their pick.

While Fleury has never been considered a bad pick, he has not developed nearly as quickly or as promisingly as the Hurricanes had hoped. After being drafted in 2014 he would not make his NHL debut until 2017, while being bypassed in the depth chart by guys like Jaccob Slavin, Brett Pesce, and the guy the Hurricanes would draft in 2015 - Noah Hanifin.

Who They Could Have Drafted

NHL: Boston Bruins at Philadelphia Flyers Eric Hartline-USA TODAY Sports

David Pastrnak

  • Drafted: 25th overall (Boston)
  • First full NHL season: 2014-15
  • NHL scoring: 304 GP, 122 goals, 140 assists, 262 points
  • Current team: Boston Bruins

Only one first round pick from the 2014 draft has scored more point in the NHL than David Pastrnak and that is Leon Draisaitl (3rd overall). Pastrnak has become the top right winger for Boston and exploded for 20 points in 12 playoff games for the Bruins last season. With his scoring ability as a right shot, Pastrnak is a player every team would love to have.

NHL: Toronto Maple Leafs at Tampa Bay Lightning Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

William Nylander

  • Drafted: 8th overall (Toronto)
  • First full NHL season: 2016-17
  • NHL scoring: 206 GP, 49 goals, 93 assists, 142 points
  • Current team: Toronto Maple Leafs

Drafted right after Fleury, Nylander has been the multiple forward from the 2014 draft to become a very impactful player in the NHL. During his recent contract holdout, the Hurricanes were rumored to be pursuing Nylander as he has the makings of a great second line center in the league. It is easy to see why many people think Nylander has not even reached his potential yet despite coming off two straight 61 point seasons.

NHL: Winnipeg Jets at Toronto Maple Leafs John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Sports

Nikolaj Ehlers

  • Drafted: 9th overall (Winnipeg)
  • First full NHL season: 2015-16
  • NHL scoring: 276 GP, 84 goals, 105 assists, 189 points
  • Current team: Winnipeg Jets

Ehlers has been a big part of the Jets’ surge up the NHL ladder. Scoring over 60 points each of his last two seasons and on pace to do it again this year, Ehlers is a high end winger who can play with the best. Slotted as a left winger, Ehlers has the potential to become a big name in the NHL for a long time.

NHL: Detroit Red Wings at Edmonton Oilers Perry Nelson-USA TODAY Sports

Dylan Larkin

  • Drafted: 15th overall (Detroit)
  • First full NHL season: 2015-16
  • NHL scoring: 293 GP, 77 goals, 111 assists, 188 points
  • Current team: Detroit Red Wings

Quickly working his way up to Detroit’s number one center, Larkin has continued to improve every season. Larkin put up 63 points last season and is on pace to score over 70 this year while winning 54.6% of his face-offs. Because he plays on a woeful Red Wings team, Larkin is often overlooked as one of the best young centers in the game today.


Jamie Kellner

2015: Noah Hanifin

  • Drafted: 5th overall
  • First full NHL season: 2015-16
  • NHL scoring: 290 GP, 22 goals, 86 assists, 108 points
  • Current team: Calgary Flames

Just as when the Hurricanes drafted Fleury, the defense was still in bad shape by the time the 2015 draft rolled around. Pesce and Slavin had yet to make their way to the NHL so attempting to get another franchise defenseman early in the draft to go with Fleury made sense at the time. Of all the defensemen drafted by the Canes in the past decade Hanifin was by far the best. Only four players drafted after him in 2015 have scored more points in the NHL (at any position) and one of those is Carolina’s very own Sebastian Aho.

Hanifin entered the NHL right away in 2015 and quickly became a go to guy on the back end. In his final season in Carolina he was an All-Star and his offensive upside is only getting better as time goes on. When he was traded to Calgary along with Elias Lindholm in exchange for Dougie Hamilton, Micheal Ferland, and Adam Fox many fans had mixed reactions. He is thriving in Calgary this season and looks like he will be in the NHL for a long time.

Who They Could Have Drafted

NHL: Colorado Avalanche at Toronto Maple Leafs Dan Hamilton-USA TODAY Sports

Mikko Rantanen

  • Drafted: 10th overall (Colorado)
  • First full NHL season: 2016-17
  • NHL scoring: 215 GP, 72 goals, 124 assists, 196 points
  • Current team: Colorado Avalanche

Behind Connor McDavid and Jack Eichel, Rantanen appears as of now to be the third best player drafted in the first round of the 2015 draft. With 196 points in just 215 games, Rantanen is a big bodied offensive star for Colorado. The young Finnish forward is on a fast track to being one of the best players from the 2015 draft and he will only continue to get better as he is only 22 years old.

NHL: All Star Game Stan Szeto-USA TODAY Sports

Mathew Barzal

  • Drafted: 16th overall (New York Islanders)
  • First full NHL season: 2017-18
  • NHL scoring: 133 GP, 36 goals, 94 assists, 130 points
  • Current team: New York Islanders

Barzal is only in his second full season in the NHL but is the defending Calder Trophy winner and, this year, an NHL All-Star. At just under a point per game player, Barzal is now the face of the Islanders franchise with John Tavares gone. He scored 85 points in his rookie campaign and even though he was a first round pick, one could argue he has been the steal of the entire draft. Although Mr. Aho may have something to say about that.

NHL: Vancouver Canucks at Calgary Flames Sergei Belski-USA TODAY Sports

Brock Boeser

  • Drafted: 23rd overall (Vancouver)
  • First full NHL season: 2017-18
  • NHL scoring: 109 GP, 49 goals, 45 assists, 94
  • Current team: Vancouver Canucks

Boeser is another right shot winger that every team would love to find in the draft. In just 109 games he has put up 94 points and while he had battled against some injuries he is still playing at nearly a point per game pace this season. Boeser has a feel for how to score and if he can stay healthy he will be a driving force for the Canucks for the foreseeable future.


Jamie Kellner

2016 - Jake Bean

  • Drafted: 13th overall
  • First full NHL season: N/A
  • NHL scoring: 2 GP, 0 goals, 0 assists, 0 points
  • Current team: Charlotte Checkers

The Hurricanes had two first round picks in 2016 and they used their first one on Jake Bean. This pick felt very much like a best player available pick and not a pick made by what the organization needed. Much like Murphy, Bean came out of juniors with high offensive expectations. He scored 64 points for the Calgary Hitmen before being drafted.

Slavin and Pesce both broke on to the scene during the 2015-16 season and it was clear they were going to be the back bones on the back end which made this pick, along with having just drafted Fleury and Hanifin quite perplexing. At this point Bean seems to be stuck in a logjam within the Hurricanes system as the NHL roster is full and he is still behind Fleury in the depth chart. He has put up a respectable 29 points so far this year for the Checkers so there is still a lot of promise for Bean but only time will tell if that is with the Hurricanes or if they trade him for a NHL ready forward.

Who They Could Have Drafted

NHL: Florida Panthers at Pittsburgh Penguins Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

Henrik Borgstrom

  • Drafted: 23rd overall (Florida)
  • First full NHL season: 2018-19
  • NHL stats: 22 GP, 4 goals, 3 assists, 7 points
  • Current team: Florida Panthers

The 2016 draft so far has not been a good year for prospects. Aside from those taken in the top 10, no other forwards from the first round have made much of an impact in the NHL. Borgstrom is starting to make waves in south Florida as the young center appears ready for the big leagues. After being over a point per game player at the University of Denver, Borgstrom appears ready to take the next step and the Panthers need him to do just that.

NHL: Anaheim Ducks at Dallas Stars Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

Sam Steel

  • Drafted: 30th overall (Anaheim)
  • First full NHL season: N/A
  • NHL scoring: 13 GP, 1 goal, 2 assists, 3 points
  • Current team: San Diego Gulls

Steel is another one of those forwards who scored a ton of points in the WHL but hasn’t quite gotten there in the NHL. Putting up 131 points for Regina in 2016-17, he was a top prospect on paper. Currently Steel is playing for a very good San Diego Gulls team having scored 23 points in 34 games. His potential is bright and he could be a late first round steal in a few years.


Verdict

The Carolina Hurricanes in their current incarnation struggle to score. They have a few scoring forwards like Aho, Teuvo Teravainen, and Andrei Svechnikov but they need more. Failing to draft high end offensive players and instead drafting defensemen in the first round over the past decade is certainty costing them today.

Think about what a player like David Pastrnak or Mathew Barzal would add to the Hurricanes roster. One can rationalize why the team chose the defensemen they did but they should have chosen forwards instead. As Dundon alluded to, you can buy defense but you have to draft good offense. Martin Necas looks like he will be a good first round offensive talent but he isn’t quite ready. Svechnikov is the only forward drafted by the Hurricanes in the first round currently on their roster, and that simply isn’t a recipe for success.

Will Dundon hold his word and never draft defense in the first round? We’ll see. But one things seems for sure: the theory that drafting defensemen in the first round is costing the Hurricanes now is absolutely true.