As part of SB Nation’s Alternate Reality week, our SB Nation NHL Twitter account has been conducting a redraft of the loaded 2015 class.
The draft has been conducted via Twitter Poll, with fans having a choice between four players for each team. The Oilers and Sabres stood pat with Connor McDavid in the top two, and the Toronto Maple Leafs took Mitch Marner at number four, but the Coyotes at three pivoted from Dylan Strome to Mikko Rantanen.
At No. 5, the options for the Canes in the poll were defensemen Noah Hanifin (the team’s original draft choice), Zach Werenski, Ivan Provorov or Islanders star center Mathew Barzal. I voted for Barzal, and he won the poll at a whopping 60.7 percent of the votes, with Provorov coming in second at 23.4 percent.
Barzal is easily the choice of those four players, but, for the record, he wouldn’t have been my pick if I could simply choose from the pool of all players available. I’d have just taken current top scorer Sebastian Aho, the arguable steal of the draft at pick 35, 30 picks sooner. A defenseman is not nearly as necessary given Jaccob Slavin and Brett Pesce unexpectedly blooming into stars, and, with hindsight, Aho was the best forward on the board in my opinion.
You play the hand you’re dealt, however, and in this exercise, the Canes end up with Barzal, a great option to lead a forward group. So, how would that have changed the team’s trajectory? Let’s take a look:
The first obvious change is the Canes do not end up with Aho in this exercise. He goes to the Metro division rival Blue Jackets at No. 8. Losing the fourth leading scorer from the 2015 class and a fan favorite is obviously a huge blow, but Barzal is not a bad consolation prize.
He’s sixth in the class with 207 points, but actually has a slightly higher points per game percentage than Aho, averaging about 73 points per full season to Aho’s 70.
The biggest change here is the Canes don’t enjoy the dividends of the Barzal selection nearly as quickly as they did with Hanifin and Aho. Hanifin played jumped in immediately with four goals and 22 points in 79 games as a rookie, and Aho stepped in for the 2016-17 season after playing a year in Finland with 24 goals and 49 points as a rookie.
The negative here is obvious, losing that immediate production stings, and Hanifin wouldn’t have been there as a trade chip to land Dougie Hamilton at the 2018 draft.
However, is is possible losing those contributions solves one of the biggest issues for the Canes over their nine-season playoff drought? Barzal did not play at all following his draft year and played just two games in 2016-17, jumping in as a rookie 22 goals and 85 points in 2017-18, winning the Calder Trophy as the league’s top rookie.
Without Hanifin and Aho, and if they took the similar long game with Barzal, the Canes would have been significantly worse in 2015-16 and 2016-17. But would that have been such a bad thing? The team’s biggest foible during the latter years of the playoff drought was it was never good enough to make the playoffs, and never bad enough to get top draft picks. Does that change in either of these seasons?
Do the Canes pick higher than 13th in 2016 and 12th in 2017 if things play out this way? It’s likely, landing the team two top-10 (at least) picks to pair with Barzal when he arrived.
Of course, there’s no guarantee Barzal would have the same fit with Carolina he did in New York, or the same fit Aho has here. A big part of Barzal’s rookie success was John Tavares on the top line drawing the opposition’s top defenders, as that 85 points represents his current career high (though he was at 60 in 68 games when this season hit pause).
He wouldn’t have had the same chemistry with Teuvo Teravainen Aho has, and not having that pairing changes the entire dynamic of the Canes’ forward lines. Would the team still have finished in position to land the Andrei Svechnikov lottery pick in 2018? Perhaps not.
With all that in mind, it’s hard to imagine if things turn out better for the Canes in this re-draft scenario. They certainly would have been different. As I said, I’d still take Aho over Barzal if given the choice. If offered a one-for-one trade of Aho for Barzal, I’d turn it down, but this exercise showed me it’s at least a little closer than I thought.
As it all turned out, no one should want to change a thing. Three more years of pain followed that heralded 2015 draft, but that ultimately set the table for the new regime led by Tom Dundon, Rod Brind’Amour and Don Waddell, the ping pong balls bouncing their way to land a potential superstar, and last season’s magical run.
And, of course, the Canes’ original first rounder, Hanifin, netted them Dougie Hamilton, who was firmly in the Norris Trophy Conversation before being injured in January.
There are plenty of alternate realities where different decisions or outcomes could have turned out better for Carolina, but, in this case, the original timeline worked out pretty darn well for the Hurricanes.