Each NHL Draft is unique. Some are remembered for their depth. Other times, a generational talent garners all the attention. Yet, no matter what happens, the draft inevitably leads to analysis — both in the immediate aftermath and for years to come. The stakes are too high to ignore how the right pick — or the wrong one — can shape the careers of general managers, coaches, and entire franchises. With all that in mind, let’s take a trip back to the 2008 NHL Draft and wonder, “what could have been” for the Canes.
But before we soar into the heights of this alternate reality, we must lay a solid foundation. To do this, we’ll make a fundamental assumption. We’ll assume all players in this counterfactual scenario will post the same career stats — regardless of which team drafts them. In the real world, this doesn’t work (see The Butterfly Effect), but for this exercise, it’s just easier (and more fun) to imagine everything stays the same. So let’s venture back to June 2008...
June 20th, 2008 — The Carolina Hurricanes are two years removed from hoisting their first Stanley Cup. The Hurricanes hold the 14th overall pick in the draft — courtesy of a heartbreaking 2007-2008 campaign where the team missed the playoffs by two points. General manager Jim Rutherford has multiple priorities to consider.
First, let’s examine what Rutherford and the Canes had going into the draft. The 2007-08 team recorded 92 points, scored 252 goals (fifth in NHL), and conceded 249 (25th). They were led by Eric Staal (38g, 44a), Ray Whitney (25g, 36a), and Erik Cole (22g, 29a). It was one of the league’s oldest teams. Of the team’s top 10 point scorers, eight were age 29 or older. Only Staal (23) and Justin Williams (26) would be under 30 at the start of the next season.
Of particular concern was building depth at center. The Canes had drafted Brandon Sutter with the 11th overall pick in the 2007 draft, and the 19-year-old Sutter would go on to play 50 games with the Canes in the 2008-09 season. Yet, the front office was concerned that another young center was needed to deepen the player pool and provide an insurance policy for the 38-year-old Rod Brind’Amour and the 31-year-old Matt Cullen.
Along with a centerman, the Canes needed to add to the back end. On defense, Rutherford had to contend with the departure of two key components. Original Carolina Hurricane (and former Hartford Whaler) Glen Wesley had retired in the first week of June. Meanwhile, 38-year-old Brett Hedican appeared unlikely to re-sign with the Canes. Hedican would enter free agency on July 1st (signing with the Anaheim Ducks for his final year in the NHL).
Perhaps already in the back of Rutherford’s mind was the move that he hoped would address the loss of Hedican and Wesley. On the first day of free agency, July 1st, Erik Cole would be traded to Edmonton in exchange for Joni Pitkanen.
Along with the Pitkanen trade, Rutherford had what looked to be an ace up his sleeve. In February of 2007, Rutherford was forced to send Ukranian defenseman Anton Babchuk to the Albany River Rats due to the activation of Frank Kaberle from injured reserve. The agitated Babchuk refused to report to the AHL, and the Canes suspended him for the remainder of the 2006-07 season.
Babchuk played the 2007-08 season overseas, but appeared willing to patch things up with the Canes’ front office (Babchuk would sign a one-year deal with the Canes the same day of the Cole/Pitkanen trade). Only two weeks away from securing the 24-year-old Babchuk and the 25-year-old Pitkanen, Rutherford went into the draft confident he could focus on drafting a center.
But two things undermined Rutherford’s plan. One he could not have predicted, the other he probably should have seen coming.
At first, the Pitkanen trade did what it was supposed to do. Pitkanen was an absolute beast in 2008-09. He scored seven goals, added 26 assists, registered a plus-11 rating, all while logging an incredible 24:48 average-time-on-ice. He added another eight assists in the playoff run that took the Canes to the Eastern Conference Finals. Yet, after the 2008-09 season, Pitkanen was hobbled by nagging injuries. His NHL career was ultimately ended by a broken heel suffered during an icing scenario in 2012-13.
And while Pitkanen’s freak injury four years in the future could never have been foreseen, the Babchuk scenario played out the way many people expected. Babchuk returned for the 2008-2009 season, had a fantastic year (16g, 19a), but then signed with the KHL following a contract dispute. He would play the 2009-10 season overseas, then re-sign with the Canes in July 2010. After only 17 games in the 2010-11 season, he was traded to Calgary.
Ultimately, the Pitkanen/Babchuk plan failed because both players failed to deliver long-term benefits. The on-again-off-again relationship with Babchuk never allowed the Canes to lock down the RD position. In response, several draft picks over the next few years would be spent trying to address the need (Justin Faulk 2010/2nd Rd/35, Danny Biega 2010/3rd/67, Ryan Murphy 2011/1st Rd/12). Some (Faulk) worked out, others (Murphy) not so much. Furthermore, the sudden loss of Pitkanen to a career ending injury, crippled the Canes. The Canes struggled to find a replacement until Jaccob Slavin emerged as the franchise left D within the last three seasons.
So, it is accurate to say that the Pitkanen/Babchuk plan was a big part of the Canes’ 2008-09 run to the Eastern Conference Finals. Yet, it’s also somewhat to blame for Canes’ failure to make the playoffs for the following 10 years. By 2014, Rutherford would depart the organization, and another five years would pass before the team returned to the postseason.
This is the way things happened. But is it the way things had to happen?
In the second part of this series, we’ll examine three choices that Rutherford could have made. Choices that might have changed everything...