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What If? Former Prospects Edition

Well, what if...

New York Rangers v Carolina Hurricanes Photo by Gregg Forwerck/NHLI via Getty Images

Ah, what could have been.

If you’ve been a Hurricanes fan for a while, I’m sure you remember the days of remembering failed experiments and wondering what could have been if this player had worked out the way they were supposed to. Playoffs, Stanley Cups, and more could have been possible had things turned out the way we envisioned.

So, inspired by Marvel’s What If show, I’m going to explore what could have been if some certain scenarios played out to perfection. Each scenario will operate independently of others, so if one thing happens in this universe, it’s impossible to have it occur in the other universe. Yes, there is a universe where Jeff Heerema becomes a Hart Trophy winner, but I’ve yet to find it on my journey.

What if...Ryan Murphy?

That’s right, I’m opening up the scars that Ryan Murphy left on this franchise and pouring lemon juice all over them. He’s gone, and we’ve been a playoff team for three consecutive seasons, get over it. When the Hurricanes selected Murphy, Don Cherry commented that Murphy was the best defenseman in the draft and would be a star. So what if that were true?

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before, but the Jim Rutherford Hurricanes decided to rush a prospect into the NHL only for the player to struggle and take a lot longer to develop than they probably should have. Let’s say that Murphy spends the entirety of his first professional season in the AHL, growing more and more comfortable with the pacing and physicality of the pro game while honing his defensive abilities. The next season, a much stronger and smarter Ryan Murphy makes the Hurricanes’ roster, just in time for the 2014-15 season.

Ron Francis’ first offseason with the team saw some huge splashes in fr- okay I can’t. He signed Brad Malone, Jay McClement and Tim Gleason in free agency and the team was no better than it was the season before. But Murphy is a bright spot, and after a strong start to Murphy’s career, the Hurricanes decide to trade Jay Harrison to Winnipeg. Murphy’s first NHL season ends with a 10-goal, 25-assist stat line in a full 82 games.

In the last season of his entry-level contract, Murphy scores 15 goals and adds 28 assists for a 43-point season in 82 games and the Hurricanes finish just outside of the final wild card spot in the Eastern Conference. Murphy signs a three-year contract worth $4 million per year, and over the course of that contract, Murphy scores at a career-high pace.

He becomes the legitimate offensive defenseman that Carolina has been searching for, eclipsing 50 points in all three seasons and carrying the Hurricanes to the playoffs. The Hurricanes begin to build a defensive core around Murphy and Jaccob Slavin as their top pairing, and that pairing leads the Hurricanes back to the playoffs.

In this universe, the Dougie Hamilton trade never happens. Instead of looking for help on defense, the Hurricanes find that their biggest need is at forward and trade Noah Hanifin, a first in 2019 and Janne Kuokkanen for Mark Stone. In this universe, Andrei Svechnikov likely won’t end up as a Hurricane. The team won’t be getting a top nine forward at the draft, so this trade has to happen in order for the Hurricanes to have any hopes whatsoever at the Stanley Cup. The team fails to win, but does make an appearance in the Final in 2020 thanks to Murphy’s performance in the playoffs.

What If...Zach Boychuk?

Once again, this story starts with an issue in a player’s development. Boychuk had nine points in 31 games with the Hurricanes during his rookie season, but in this universe, Boychuk spent two years in the AHL working on rounding out his game and becoming more than a pure goal scorer. As a result, Boychuk puts together a strong 2011-2012 season, scoring 20 goals and adding 25 assists for 45 points. Boychuk scores goals at a prolific rate throughout his Hurricanes career, amassing close to 150 goals and 350 career points in just over 400 NHL games from 2011-2016. As a result, the Hurricanes are able to do more with their roster in Ron Francis’ first few years as GM and even make the playoffs during the 2015-16 season, thanks to a 40-goal, 70-point performance from Boychuk.

In this universe, it became clear that the Hurricanes had two legitimate scoring threats in Jeff Skinner and Zach Boychuk, so the Hurricanes bolstered their offense and made a push for the playoffs. Sadly, the team’s defense ended up being a weak point and the Hurricanes were forced to trade Boychuk in exchange for two top-four defensemen.

What If...Sergei Tolchinsky?

In this universe, we’ll be exploring what could have happened if Sergei Tolchinsky became the next Pavel Datsyuk. That’s right, everyone’s favorite prospects camp goal scorer is getting the Datsyuk treatment. Tolchinsky becoming Datsyuk would have been a best case scenario, and while he’s doing great things in the KHL, it was clear that he wasn’t cut out for the NHL. But what if he was?

Tolchinsky could easily have put together 30-goal seasons and dazzled on a nightly basis due to his impressive stickhandling and skating. The Hurricanes could still be reaping the rewards of an impressive free agent signing, giving them a legitimate scoring option and a player that could draw a crowd. Imagine Sebastian Aho centering a line with Sergei Tolchinsky and Seth Jarvis in 2021. Goals on goals, am I right? The Hurricanes would have an even more exciting team than they do now, which is hard to believe given the pace and intensity that they play at right now.

Tolchinsky’s style of play would almost certainly work in today’s NHL, but only on a few teams. His size and lack of defensive responsibility wouldn’t fly under Rod Brind’Amour, but I’m sure a team like Edmonton could find a use for him. Had he played a more responsible two way game without sacrificing any offense, it’s entirely possible that Tolchinsky would still be a Hurricane.

What if...Adam Fox?

That’s right, I’m opening up a far more recent wound here. Had Adam Fox signed with the Hurricanes back in 2019, I firmly believe that the Hurricanes could have won the Stanley Cup. Instead of adding Jake Gardiner for $4M, the Hurricanes would have spent that salary on adding another scorer and moving out one of Brock McGinn or Warren Foegele. The Hurricanes’ right side on defense would have been the best in the league, and Fox would have won the Norris after helping the Hurricanes’ mediocre power play achieve greatness.

We all know that Fox didn’t want to sign anywhere but New York, and there’s no use getting upset about it now. The Hurricanes understood the risk when they acquired him. Had he changed his mind, however, the Hurricanes’ 2019-20 and ‘21 seasons would have been very different. We likely would have seen Fox emerge as the top defenseman on the Hurricanes’ roster, with Fox quarterbacking the Hurricanes’ power play and providing solid two-way play.

What if...Gregory Hofmann?

I feel that any time Johnny Gaudreau does something good, someone has to bring up the fact that the Hurricanes picked Hofmann one pick earlier. Most draft picks look worse in hindsight, but what if Hofmann became the player that Gaudreau did? It’s interesting to think about. Hofmann tore up the Swiss league for a long time, consistently finishing as one of the league’s top scorers throughout his time as a Hurricanes prospect. There was a little hope that we’d finally see Hofmann in the NHL after he was invited to training camp back in 2017, but that hope was snuffed out for good when he was cut and sent back to the Swiss league.

So what if the Hurricanes were able to sign Hofmann early on and develop him properly? If Hofmann became the elite offensive talent that Gaudreau became, the Hurricanes could be looking at another top scorer capable of 70+ points in a season. Hofmann could have been the face of the franchise and a household name around the league instead of some guy that Columbus acquired for a 2022 seventh round pick. Hofmann has the talent to be a bottom six forward on some teams in the NHL, but it would have been exciting to have him work out as the Hurricanes likely had hoped he would.

So with those five scenarios on the board, I now have questions for you, the reader. If you could only pick one of these scenarios to work out, which one would you choose? Would you choose Murphy becoming a Norris-level defender, Boychuk becoming a perennial 30-goal scorer, Tolchinsky becoming the next Datsyuk, Fox signing in Carolina, or Hofmann becoming Gaudreau?

My next question is if you could pick one player out of the 2011 draft to pan out like we had hoped, who would it be? We’ve already talked about Murphy and Hofmann, but what about Victor Rask? Just something for you all to think about. Even with these players not working out, it’s clear that the current Hurricanes team is headed in the right direction both on the ice and in terms of drafting and development.

It’s a great time to be a Carolina Hurricanes fan, folks.