Whenever Jake Bean is a topic of conversation, my mind goes back to the 2016 NHL Draft.
Right on the heels of using first-round picks in consecutive years on left-handed defensemen, the expectation was that then-general manager Ron Francis and company would use their first of two 2016 first-rounders on a forward.
After a run of forwards that saw Clayton Keller, Alex Nylander, Tyson Jost, and Logan Brown all come off the board, the leading candidates at Carolina’s spot were Kieffer Bellows, Luke Kunin, and German Rubtsov, among others.
Instead, the name called at number 13 overall was that of the slight, offensive-minded, left-handed defenseman.
A lot has changed since then, especially within the Hurricanes organization. The franchise has gone through a complete overhaul from the executive offices to the on-ice product. One thing hasn’t changed, though.
Not knowing for sure if Bean was the right pick.
I’d be lying if I said that 2021 would definitely be the year that we gain some much-needed clarity, but we do know a bit more about Bean now as he enters the final year of his entry-level contract.
In his 2018-19 rookie season in the AHL, Bean was an instant impact player, compiling 13 goals and 44 points over the course of 70 regular-season games and earning a spot on the AHL All-Rookie team. He helped fuel a Calder Cup championship run for the Checkers after getting a brief NHL call-up in November of that season wherein he dressed for two games and didn’t eclipse nine minutes of ice time in either of them.
Charlotte underwent quite the roster turnover ahead of the 2019-20 season, putting a lot of pressure on Bean to step up in his age 21 campaign.
He did that and then some last season. He went from a .63 point-per-game player to a .87 point-per-game player while taking on an even larger role on Charlotte’s blue line. He won the Eddie Shore Award for the AHL’s top defenseman after leading all defenders in points.
At this point, there’s really nothing left for Bean to accomplish at the AHL level. He’s a champion, an all-star, and he’s been acknowledged as the league’s best player at his position. The only thing left for him to do is put that league in the rearview mirror.
His game has grown by leaps and bounds over the last two years, to the extent that it’s shocking that he’s still just 22 years old - because he certainly doesn’t look like a young player anymore.
Everything that was suspected of Bean when he was drafted has held true to this point. He’s a dynamic puck-mover with a deadly shot and excellent instincts. One of the best parts of his game is still his ability to deceive opponents with his eyes and hands when moving the puck.
There isn’t much of a question as to whether his offense will translate to the NHL. He’s too good for it not to. The real question now is, and stop me if you’ve heard this one before, whether he will be able to keep pace with and defend against NHL players.
Especially last season, Bean took massive strides forward defensively. He just looked so calm and composed in all areas. Unfortunately, we never saw him get an opportunity at the NHL level, so until he gets that chance, he will remain a big question mark among the ever-growing group of talented defensemen that the Hurricanes notoriously hold near and dear.
Therein lies the biggest hurdle in Bean’s way - the sheer number of defensemen that this team has and there only being six spots available. Jake Gardiner and Brady Skjei project to occupy the left side of the second and third defensive pairings, and they combine to take up $9.3 million in cap space per season through 2022-23 - that’s 11.4% of the NHL’s current $81.5 million salary cap.
I’ve been asking this question for the better part of a year now - at what point is it just more logical to remove one of those players and replace them with Bean? How much of a downgrade could he possibly be to, say, Gardiner. If Gardiner is getting 12-15 minutes per game, I don’t see how it is worth having him over Bean, especially given the clear lack of trust the coaching staff showed in his game last season.
It’s difficult to make an argument for a number five defenseman carrying a $4+ million cap hit. The Hurricanes can get away with it for now, but if they need to add a piece at the deadline, being so close to the cap ceiling will be a hurdle. And they will certainly be in trouble when Dougie Hamilton and Andrei Svechnikov start taking up $15 million in combined cap space starting next season.
Perhaps the long game here is to eventually bring Bean into the fold after a defenseman is sent off in the expansion draft. Or maybe he will just be the odd man out.
The 2021 season will be unique in its challenges for everyone, but hopefully, we finally see Bean get a real chance. He has absolutely earned it. We can all project and predict whether he will be a legitimate top-four NHL defenseman or a fifth defenseman power-play specialist or something else. Still, until he gets the opportunity to play, those are all moot points.
Will this be the year of Jake Bean? With the Canes’ logjam on defense, the expiration of his ELC looming, and the Seattle expansion draft due up later this year, I feel very confident saying that the answer is...