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Carolina Hurricanes 2021 Draft Recap: Rounds 2-3

The Hurricanes picked a grand total of 13 players, tying an NHL record.

2021 NHL Draft - Round One Photo by Matt Sutor/NHLI via Getty Images

Well, that sure was a draft. The theme of the draft for the Hurricanes seemed to be “trades, trades, trades,” even though those trades may not have been what the fan base wanted. The Hurricanes wanted to acquire as many draft picks as possible, and they did just that, tying an NHL record for the most players taken in one draft. Don Waddell had this to say as far as trading back was concerned:

“One of the reasons about all the picks, people asked me about trading back, this was a different year. Everything was done on Zoom. There was no live viewings of the player. A lot of the players didn’t play. Some didn’t play any games, some played a few. So it was a little bit of unknowns. We went into the draft with the strategy that we wanted to get as many picks as we possibly can, accumulate because we were going to miss on a lot of guys this year, a lot of people are, but you’re going to hit on some guys too. The more picks you have, the better your odds are that some of these guys are going to become very good NHL players, so that was a little bit behind the strategy. We went in thinking that way and it worked out for us. And we never compromised ourselves. We didn’t pass on a player that we said ‘We can’t live without this player.’ A lot of times, when you move picks, you might lose the player you were going to take, but we kept every time looking and saying ‘OK, we have three guys on our board, we’re going to move back six or seven spots. We’re very comfortable this guy’s going to be there’, and everytime it worked out for us. So it was nice to be able to accumulate extra picks to be able to do that with.”

It makes sense when you think about it. Players in the OHL didn’t play this season, QMJHL and WHL skaters had limited viewings and scouts, for the most part, weren’t allowed in the building. Almost all scouting was done virtually this season, making it difficult to get an accurate read on the majority of the draft class. Why make picks then? Why not trade these picks away? Waddell mentions that teams are going to miss on a lot of players, but you could get a handful of NHL players. Why wouldn’t you want to increase your odds of getting an NHL player?

If you’re unfamiliar with the Hurricanes’ draft strategy, let’s break it down. The Hurricanes value a player’s upside over anything else with the vast majority of their picks. They’d rather pick a player with a high ceiling and a lower floor, a stark contrast from how the team operated under Ron Francis. The Hurricanes tend to gravitate towards players with high levels of hockey sense, good skating and a good amount of skill. Not every player will have all of those qualities, but that appears to be the trend.

Heading into the draft, there were two areas that I thought the Hurricanes lacked depth in. One was a true elite prospect and the other was depth defensively. The Hurricanes have drafted plenty of elite talent over the years, but they’re all in the NHL now. The Hurricanes’ one defenseman selected in the first two rounds since 2017, Luke Martin, didn’t sign with the team. They have a few names in the system such as Anttoni Honka, Alexander Nikishin, Jesper Sellgren and more as possible NHL players, but they lack depth at the position. Six of Carolina’s 13 picks were defensemen in this draft, and while I don’t think they drafted any true elite talent, I believe that they shored up their defensive depth in a big way.

If I were to grade this draft, I would give the Hurricanes a B. Not having a first round pick would handicap a team in some drafts, but not the Hurricanes. They swung for the fences with their first three picks and picked up a lot of value in the middle rounds. The tough thing about this class is that we won’t know if many, or any, players in this draft will pan out. The Hurricanes took a lot of high-risk, high-reward players. Since the Hurricanes have such a strong NHL team and a top-10 pipeline, they can afford to take these boom or bust players and try to turn them into legitimate NHL stars.

A quick caveat before we begin. When people say that this was a “weak” draft, it means two things. First and foremost, it’s a draft that lacks game-changing talent at the top end. Sure, some of those guys will go on to become good NHL players, but not all of them have the “it” factor that could turn them into stars. Secondly, it’s a draft that has a lot of raw talent in it. There aren’t nearly as many complete players in this draft class and there’s more boom or bust potential with a lot of these prospects. Part of that is due to certain leagues shutting down or playing a limited schedule, and part of it has to do with the players themselves.

You’ll hear me talk about a prospect and say “gee, I don’t know if he’ll work out.” That’s why the Hurricanes drafted 13 players in this draft class. They wanted to have as many shots at drafting NHL players as they could, because there’s a decent chance that some of these players never pan out. That’s the nature of the draft, though.

With their 13 picks, the Hurricanes selected six defensemen, four forwards and three goaltenders. It’s a stark contrast from the forward-heavy classes from 2017-2020, so it felt like a nice change of pace. Let’s break down each pick, shall we?

Scott Morrow, 40th overall

Scouts seem divided on Morrow due to the fact that he played at the high school level this past season rather than the USHL. Morrow has tremendous upside given his ability to control the game in the offensive zone and create offense with his above average hockey sense. There’s a lot to like about Morrow in transition and he’s one of the better defensemen in the draft in terms of offense.

In all honesty, it feels like he could have been in a similar discussion as Owen Power if he were 6-foot-6and a little better defensively. Morrow is more dynamic than Power and can truly take over a game, making him a potential home run pick for the Hurricanes. There are concerns about Morrow’s skating and whether or not he’ll be able to be creative enough to be a top offensive defenseman in college, but Morrow is smart enough to adapt to a higher level of competition. He’ll be able to adjust to the college ranks perfectly, and if he establishes some consistency in the way that he defends, I could see him in Raleigh sooner rather than later.

I’m thrilled that he’s heading to UMass next season because Lucas Mercuri, picked 159th overall in 2020, will also be a freshman there next year. I’ll get to watch two of Carolina’s prospects play against a number of other prospects, as they’ll be playing in the same conference as Cade Webber, Domenick Fensore and Aidan Hreschuk.

Hurricanes Assistant GM Darren Yorke on Morrow: “Probably one of the most skilled players in this draft, and that’s not just including defenseman. Real high offensive upside, the ability for him to transition the game from the defensive zone to the offensive zone. It was great to see him go from Minnesota high school hockey to the USHL in the playoffs going against Chicago. To see his game transfer as quick as it did was really impressive and solidified what we thought of him. We’re thrilled to add one of those hardest-coveted positions in a big offensive right-handed defenseman.

Aleksi Heimosalmi, 44th Overall

The Hurricanes knew that they lacked defensive depth heading into the draft, so naturally, they went ahead and took two high-upside players in Morrow and Heimosalmi. This pick is more of a slow cook, though. Heimosalmi has certain tools that made him a top prospect in this draft class.

First, it’s his skating ability. He’s quick and can walk the blue line with ease, making for a player that can be dangerous in transition. He’s quicker than Morrow and doesn’t shy away on the defensive side of the puck as much as an offensive defenseman tends to. He also has the ability to dazzle you with his puck handling and offensive skills, occasionally taking teams by surprise and scoring highlight reel goals.

The problem is that it feels like there’s a switch in Heimosalmi’s game. When it’s flipped on, Heimosalmi is the best defenseman on the ice and an absolute treat to watch. You don’t know what he’ll do next and he can dazzle you with a variety of tricks. When it’s off, however, Heimosalmi can disappear and be a bit of a liability. All of this can be worked on in Finland, however, and he’ll be playing on the right team to do it. Assat is a weaker team that could use depth defensively, so it’s possible that Heimosalmi gets decent minutes in his rookie year in Liiga. Tim Gleason, the Hurricanes’ defensive development coach, is going to have to work with Heimosalmi to bring out the best in his game. Heimosalmi’s skill set could make him a top four defenseman on the Hurricanes and a power play staple. The question is whether or not he can build on more than just his offense and stick in a lineup.

Darren Yorke on Heimosalmi: “He came on right from the beginning in Finland. Another similar offensive defenseman, but in saying that, for a 5-foot-11 defenseman, the ability for him to gap up and play strong defense against the rush. Even along the boards, it’s his smartness and how he uses his body to win battles. Again, we’re thrilled to add another offensive defenseman who doesn’t sacrifice any defensive play.”

Ville Koivunen, 51st overall

The Hurricanes love to take players that I love, and that’s why covering their prospects is so darn fun. Koivunen is easily one of the most dynamic forwards in this draft class from an offensive standpoint. His hands are silky smooth, he works hard, his offensive upside is through the roof and he’s one of the smartest players on the ice at any given moment.

The downside to Koivunen’s game is his poor skating and it’s one of the reasons why he fell all the way to 51st. Koivunen was one of the best skaters in the Finnish U20 league last season and has tremendous amounts of skill that can make you overlook the below average skating.

With the way he works and with how darn fun he is, he will easily become a fan favorite if he ever makes it to the NHL. The fact of the matter is that if Koivunen can improve on his skating and keep up at the NHL level, you’re looking at a player that could play like a diet version of Sebastian Aho. Defensively there are some issues that could be ironed out. Again, if you’re patient with Koivunen’s development, there’s a very real possibility that he could become a 50-60 point NHL player. Karpat is going to be appointment viewing next season with Tuukka Tieksola and possibly Koivunen on their roster.

Darren Yorke on Koivunen: “This was another exciting player. I know we went back-to-back with Finns this year. To get somebody who as high of a compete as anybody in the draft with the same kind of offensive skills. Probably one of the smarter offensive wingers in this draft. We know the Karpat system, someone that Harri Aho just raved about his character. To see his growth from one year over to the next was great for us and really exciting.”

Patrik Hamrla, 83rd overall

I’m getting some serious Petr Mrazek vibes from the way Hamrla plays. I’ve only seen a few minutes and highlight clips, but my goodness is he entertaining. He’s a big goalie that moves well and has some explosiveness to his style, very similarly to Mrazek. He has happy feet, however, and can tend to drift and get himself out of position. In fact, it can be pretty comical at times.

Still though, watch these next few highlights and tell me you don’t see a younger Petr Mrazek.

The positioning can be worked on and you can help Hamrla work on allowing fewer goals from range, which The Athletic’s Corey Pronman mentioned as an issue with his game. Hamrla has solid upside, however, due to his size and athleticism. Hamrla is reportedly going to the QMJHL next season, where he’ll play with Rimouski.

Darren Yorke on Hamrla: “Big, athletic goalie. A player who played in Czech and is going to the QMJHL next season. He’s very athletic and his ability to show the power to go side-to-side is really something you can’t teach, especially at his size. He’s someone that both (Paul Schonfelder and Jason Muzzatti) were really excited about and led to the trend for the other goalie selections.”

Aidan Hreschuk, 94th overall

Hreschuk is such an interesting defenseman. Five-foot-ten defensemen usually gravitate towards the offensive side of the game, but I view Hreschuk as more of a two-way defenseman. Sure, he has the skating and transitional skills of an offensive defenseman. He plays at a good pace and is responsible defensively, which is what makes him atypical for an “undersized” defenseman. Obviously, the concerns for him are his size and the fact that he leaves much to be desired in terms of offensive potental.

His hockey sense is also average at best, meaning that you’re likely only going to get third pairing minutes from a player like him. But if you can develop him into a physical two-way defenseman, that could turn into a valuable pick. Yorke states that Hreschuk plays the way the Hurricanes like to play, so there’s a fit for him here. If Hreschuk was a forward, I’d view him as a grinding winger, a player that can play the body and knock the opposition off the puck. He’ll wear you down and be a pain to play against. It’ll take time for Hreschuk to develop, however, so he’ll need at least three or four years at Boston College to develop.

Darren Yorke on Hreschuk: “One of the smarter players for the US team in how he defends. Really, for our system and how we like to play, you have to be able to skate and play fast. The ability for him to end plays in the neutral zone and quickly transition the puck is something that gravitated to us with him.”

A recap of rounds 4-7 will be out later this week.