Last time, we stepped into the shoes of Hurricanes GM Jim Rutherford on the morning of June 20, 2008, hours before the NHL draft. He has two main priorities, adding at least one center, and bolstering his defensive unit.
As we discussed, Rutherford planned on re-signing Anton Babchuk and had likely laid the groundwork for a trade involving Joni Pitkanen and Erik Cole. But none of that was set in stone yet. He could have done something else. What were his choices? Let’s take a look:
1) Draft Erik Karlsson
Yes, I know. This is the draft where the Canes drafted Zach Boychuk instead of Erik Karlsson. So if you’re expecting a long article about how that was a bad idea, fear not. That article has already been written. You can read it here.
While it’s easy to mock Rutherford for taking Boychuk over Karlsson (literally the next player drafted), you have to take a step back and remember two things.
First, the Canes wanted a center in the draft. Second, Boychuk was very highly rated. The final central scouting rankings placed him eighth among North American skaters (Karlsson was fifth among European skaters).
In fact, it probably seemed to Rutherford like Boychuk at 14 was a steal. Six of the first 13 picks had been defensemen, and several of the forwards taken were rated below Boychuk in the final central scouting ratings (e.g., Colin Wilson, Mikkel Boedker). Rutherford passing over Boychuk, and then taking the “seventh best defenseman” would have meant sticking his neck out for a player that he probably knew wouldn’t play in the NHL for at least another year.
And indeed, Karlsson wouldn’t play in the NHL for another year. But of course, once he did...
Two-time Norris trophy winner, eight-time all-star, etc.
So yes, in hindsight, taking Karlsson would have changed the Canes’ fortunes dramatically over the next decade. They would have gained a perennial Norris candidate that would have given Rutherford the flexibility to build a defensive unit around. And while Karlsson has never been known as a shutdown defensive player, his skating and puck-moving certainly would have relieved some of the pressure Cam Ward would face over the next few years.
2) Trade up and draft Doughty/Pietrangelo
Going into the 2008 draft, it was clear who the first pick would be. Steven Stamkos was the star and was going to be drafted first overall by the Tampa Bay Lightning.
But after Stamkos, there was much debate. Don’t believe me? Check out this mock draft.
They had Karlsson falling to 28th, the Canes taking Tyler Myers, and Zac Dalpe going 29th to THE ATLANTA THRASHERS.
What everyone did agree on was that there were talented defensemen on offer. Drew Doughty, Zach Bagosian, Alex Pietrangelo, Luke Schenn, Tyler Myers, even current Cane Jake Gardiner all went in the first 20 picks.
If Rutherford was uncertain about taking the sixth or seventh-best defenseman midway through the first round, perhaps he could have traded up? While we’ll never know what the Canes would have given up, the prospect of drafting Doughty or Pietrangelo seems like it would have been worth it.
In addition, the types of deals that usually involve a team moving up also tend to throw in the type of help the Canes needed at that point. Something along the lines of:
Canes give up: 1st Round (14), 2nd Round (45), two late-round picks, top-six forward
Canes get: 1st Round (4), AHL Center or NHL Veteran Center with a lousy contract
While the devil is always in the details, Rutherford probably could have made it work by giving up one of the Canes’ forwards. By the 2011-12 season, Erik Cole, Ray Whitney, and Justin Williams would all be gone. At least this way, the Canes would have gotten a franchise defenseman in return.
3) Trade down and draft Carlson, Henrique, Stepan, and Holtby
I have to admit; this is my favorite. If you’re going to re-imagine the past, why not do it in a way that not only benefits you, but cripples your rivals?
Thus, the trade-down strategy.
I know what you’re thinking. Trade down? That’s absurd. The Canes didn’t even have a high pick (14).
Yet, there is some compelling statistical evidence to suggest that trading down is the best strategy. All of the time. In every type of draft. No matter what.
This article lays out the argument. It goes something like this:
All draft picks have value. The first draft pick has the most value, and the last has the least value. So far, that makes sense.
However, where things get tricky is in evaluating the trades that are made before the selection. Once you account for the trades, it turns out that general managers tend to overpay for high draft picks and undervalue low draft picks.
The conclusion? Organizations tend to do better by trading down and receiving 1) undervalued low draft picks and 2) undervalued compensatory players.
In other words, general managers tend to throw away valuable assets (late-round draft picks and developed players) chasing after the shiny new faces on offer at the draft.
So getting back to our imaginary 2008 draft, how would this have played out?
Perhaps Rutherford reaches out to, say, the New York Rangers. The Canes agree to swap first and second-round picks with the Rangers — moving down from #No. 4 to No. 20 and from No. 45 to No. 51. In exchange, the Rangers send the Canes two third-round draft picks (No. 75 and No. 91).
With the 20th pick, the Canes take John Carlson. With the 51st pick, Derek Stepan. With the 75th pick, Adam Henrique. And finally, with the 91st pick, Braden Holtby.
All of those players were drafted in roughly the same spots in the actual draft. It illustrates how trading down can not only benefit your team, it can deny your rivals key players.
So much has changed since June 2008 for the Hurricanes. There’s a different owner, a different general manager, a different coach, and an entirely different set of players. But the impact of that draft remains, if not in the Canes locker room, then in the locker room of some of their opponents.