The Hurricanes are in a pretty interesting spot in the upcoming NHL Draft because although they are sitting pretty with the fifth overall pick, a large part of their draft strategy is going to depend on what the four teams in front of them do. I've discussed before how this is one of the deepest draft classes in recent memory and the Hurricanes will likely end up with a very good young player regardless of what happens. Who that player ends up being is the mystery because the draft order from 1-4 is anybody's guess at this point. Those who follow prospects closely have been periodically posting mock drafts throughout the year and the top five hasn't changed that much. That is, until the last week or so after the Memorial Cup too place.
A month ago, the general consensus was that the best player in this draft is the Portland Winterhawks' big-framed defenseman Seth Jones and a sure bet to be taken first overall by the Colorado Avalanche. Then the Memorial Cup happened and all of the buzz for the last week has been about Nathan MacKinnon, the play-making center of the Halifax Mooseheads who has drawn comparisons to Sidney Crosby. MacKinnon dazzled everyone on the big stage with 33 points in 17 playoff games and a hat trick in the Memorial Cup final. Couple that with Jones' so-so performance in the same game, and you have some people clamoring for the Avalanche to take MacKinnon first overall. The Avs new head coach, Patrick Roy, has also discussed trading the pick and now that has gotten the hockey blogosphere believing that "anything can happen" over the next month.
If there is anything I've learned from previous drafts it is that any player can drop and there will probably be a few unexpected occurrences. Some teams have one player they focus on and might pass over one or two players who scouts love. Trades can also happen, as Carolina fans know, and some teams might opt to draft to their needs rather than take the best player available, as we saw last year with a slew of defensemen going in the top 10.
So what does this mean for the Hurricanes? The team hasn't released much info on what their draft strategy will be other than they want someone who will contribute on the team next year, which indicates to me that they will take the best player available. With the team having needs across the board, both short & long-term, this is the best option, but it's still unclear who the "best player available" will be by the time the Hurricanes are on the clock.
We obviously won't know what will happen until June 30th, but after the jump, I'll give you one man's guess at what the four teams before the Hurricanes will do with their respective picks.
1. Colorado Avalanche - Seth Jones, D (Portland Winterhawks)
Yes, it's hard to pass on Nathan MacKinnon, but Jones makes more sense for the Avalanche and fits their needs better. The Avs have been one of the worst defensive teams in the NHL for years now, both in allowing shots and goals against, so they need immediate help in this department. They also need a long-term solution, as well because neither Tyson Barrie or Duncan Siemens project to be future stars while Jones is a player who they can build their defense corps around. They also don't have much to write home about on their current blue-line corps, so Jones should be able to step in as soon as next season. While it would be nice to add MacKinnon to the Colorado's center depth, the Avs have a good necleus up front with Duchene, O'Reilly and Landeskog while their defense doesn't have a lot of current roster players to build around.
As far as Roy's quote about trading the pick goes, I don't think it will happen. The Avalanche are in a position where they have to improve sooner rather than later and they could get king's ransom in return for the first overall pick. While I don't think this trade will happen, every GM is going to entertain the thought of trading a high pick just to see what offers are out there. It doesn't mean they will actually happen. In the end, I don't see the Avs deviating from the projections that much.
2. Florida Panthers, Nathan MacKinnon, C (Halifax Mooseheads)
I considered putting Jonathan Drouin because Florida has a lot of talented center prospects, but I think MacKinnon works out for them more both in the short & long term. Stephen Weiss will be a free agent this summer, which will allow Jonathan Huberdeau to take over as the first line center and MacKinnon should be able to take over the second or third line pivot role next year if they draft him. The Cats also have good wingers already on their roster in Tomas Fleischmann & Kris Versteeg, so I could see them taking MacKinnon becuase he is noted as the best player available.Florida's GM, Dale Tallon has also discussed trading the pick but I relate that back to what I said about Roy's quote. Every GM is going to discuss trading the pick, but it doesn't mean it will actually happen, although I would expect Florida to make a trade before Colorado.
3. Tampa Bay Lightning, Jonathan Drouin, LW (Halifax Moosheads)
There has been a lot of buzz about the Lightning eyeing the Russian stud Valeri Nichushkin and that they are strongly considering taking him third overall in this draft. There's is also some evidence to suggest that they will do just that. Their GM, Steve Yzerman, took a Andrei Vasielvski in the first round last year, so he isn't shy about drafting talent from the KHL. The Lightning are also in need of a sizable forward and Nichushkin could give them one to build around in the future. Their scouts have also thought very highly of the young Russian, so it's possible that they will take him with the third overall pick.
That being said, I think they will end up taking Drouin and he provides a good fit for the Bolts. He might be smaller than Nichushkin and may provide less of an immediate impact, but he could help them a lot further down the road. Martin St. Louis is 37 years old, so Tampa Bay is going to need to find a replacement for him and they don't seem to have one in their organization right now. Drouin could give them that. Nichushkin might have the same impact, but I think they will ultimately end up choosing Drouin.
4. Nashville Predators - Aleksander Barkov, C (Tappard Tempere)
Either Barkov or Nichushkin would be a great fit for Nashville, but I think they will end up taking the center in this case. They acquired Filip Forsberg at the trade deadline, so they have some long-term help on the wings, but not that much at center. With David Legwand and Mike Fisher being north of 30, the Preds it might suit the Preds well to add another center to their prospect system to go with Austin Watson and Barkov should be able to slide into a top-nine role next year if they do take him. It's also worth noting that David Poille hasn't taken a Russian prospect in the first round since Alexander Radulov, which might play a role in their decision here.
So if the top four picks were to go as such, that would leave Carolina to select Nichushkin with the fifth overall pick and I think he would be an ideal fit for the Hurricanes. I know that the last thing fans probably want is another scoring forward, but let's think long-term here. Tuomo Ruutu's contract only has a couple years left on it, Jiri Tlusty becomes a restricted free agent next season and Alexander Semin will be 30 by the time next season ends. Nichushkin may not play a top-six role on the Hurricanes next year, but he will eventually and at 6'4", the Canes don't need to worry about him being undersized.
The one thing that slightly worries me about Nichushkin is that he has stated numerous times that he will play in the NHL next year if he is going to stay in North America, which means that the AHL isn't an option for him if he struggles or there isn't enough room for him. Carolina's in the process of rebuilding their bottom-six, so there should be room for him on the third line, and that would be a fine place to start him out, but it's tough to guarantee a roster spot to a player in June. I doubt Kirk Muller is going to cater to Nichushkin's every whim and just give him a spot on the team, so he will have to earn it just like everyone else. Nichushkin will be training in North America over the summer and seems to be dedicated to making the NHL, so hopefully this isn't an issue but it's still a bit of a concern. Not enough that it should prevent Carolina from drafting him, though as his upside is just too good to pass on.
Like I said earlier, the draft order could end up looking very different from this and the Canes might end up with one of Barkov,, Drouin or someone else depending on what the four teams in front of them do. Either way, Carolina should come out of this draft with a high-end prospect and they'll just have to see how the dominoes fall to before they make their selection.