If all goes as planned, the Carolina Hurricanes will have the No. 5 pick Sunday in the NHL Entry Draft, looking to choose a player who can jump into the lineup, produce immediately, excite their fans and get the Canes back in the Stanley Cup playoffs.
Whether they take a Russian winger such as Valeri Nichushkin, a Swedish center such as Elias Lindholm or a Canadian defenseman such as Darnell Nurse, the Hurricanes will have spent thousands of dollars scouting players in which they will invest millions. And millions more in revenue – in merchandise sales, gate receipts, playoff payoffs, you name it – could be at stake.
In 2010, with the seventh overall pick, the Hurricanes took Jeff Skinner. The forward would score 31 goals, win the Calder Trophy as NHL rookie of the year and become highly marketable.
Skinner’s draft choice was deemed a “home run” by management. Having missed the playoffs the past four seasons, the Canes now need to hit another one.
“The pressure is tremendous, and you feel it with every pick at the top,” said Dan Marr, the NHL’s director of Central Scouting and a former NHL scout. “You want to be right with that first-rounder. They can be the staples of the franchise as you move forward, so there is that pressure.”
In 2003, the Hurricanes took center Eric Staal with the No. 2 pick after the Pittsburgh Penguins made goalie Marc-Andre Fleury the first overall selection. Three years later, Staal was lifting the Stanley Cup. He’s the Canes’ team captain, the face of the franchise.
Then there was 2005. Picking third, the Hurricanes took defenseman Jack Johnson. He played college hockey at Michigan, rebuffed the Canes’ requests to start his professional career and eventually was traded to the Los Angeles Kings, never putting on a Carolina sweater.
“There is more pressure the higher the pick, no doubt,” Canes general manager Jim Rutherford said. “There’s more focus on it.”
In the Canes’ case, the focus also is on Tony MacDonald, the team’s director of amateur scouting.
The eventual first-round choice is made generally by committee, after meetings in the team’s offices at PNC Arena and more discussions in the days before the draft. But MacDonald is the front man, for good or bad, and senses the urgency of being right.
“The trend (in the NHL) now is these guys need to come in and make your team,” MacDonald said of the high-end draft picks. “We think we will pick a player at five who is able to come in and make our team.
“You’d like him to make a big impact on the lineup, but that’s asking a lot of someone who’s 18 years old. Jeff Skinner made a pretty solid impression in his rookie year. That doesn’t always happen. If we pick someone this year who can score 31 goals we’d be pretty pleased.”
Following an abbreviated season, the NHL will hold an abbreviated draft Sunday. Normally a two-day affair, the league will pack all seven rounds into one day at the Prudential Center in Newark, N.J.
The ‘eyeball test’
A year ago, MacDonald and the scouting staff were prepared for the No. 8 overall pick in the draft in Pittsburgh but never used it. The Hurricanes upstaged the first day of the draft, packaging their first-round pick in the trade for the Penguins’ Jordan Staal.
That could happen again Sunday. The Canes are seeking a top-four defenseman, their offseason priority, and Rutherford said the search could continue Sunday on the draft floor.
“It’s always important to make the right pick but what’s really important for us is the overall picture of what we need to do in the next 30 days,” Rutherford said this week. “Do we move down in the first round, with a trade, and pick up a player? Do we keep the No. 5 pick?
“When you have an off-year you earn the right to pick fifth. We know the reason why we’re there. Obviously we have a lot of work to do. We’ll keep an open mind right up until the time comes to pick.”
The player selection comes after much in-game scouting – the “eyeball test” – and hundreds of video reviews. It comes after scouts trek to the such events as the World Junior Championship in Russia and the 5-Nations Tournament in Sweden.
MacDonald is in his sixth year as director of amateur scouting. Former Canes forward Robert Kron heads up Carolina’s European scouting, and Rutherford said the team now “has a better handle than ever before” on the European prospects.
“It’s a big-time commitment,” said ESPN.com draft analyst Grant Sonier, a former NHL scout. “You go to games, you meet the kids one-on-one, you go to the NHL combine, the scouts get together and meet . It’s quite a process. But when you can possibly get a franchise player in the five-hole at the draft, you have to get it right.”
The NHL prospects combine was held in Toronto in late-May. MacDonald was there. So was Pete Friesen, the Canes’ head athletic trainer, who tracks all the measurables – wing span, grip strength, long jump, etc. – while trying to project a player’s body shape at, say, 24 or 25.
Friesen, for example, doesn’t remember the Russian’s name – possibly defenseman Nikita Zadorov – but he remembered the look. He was 6-foot-4 and 230 pounds, Friesen said, with low body fat and an impressive vertical jump.
“He looked like that Russian boxer in the ‘Rocky’ movie,” Friesen said.
That would be “Rocky IV” and the Ivan Drago role played by Dolph Lundgren.
“The maturity level for some is much higher than others,” said Friesen, who files in-depth reports on the prospects to Rutherford..
Friesen believes vertical jump is a good indicator of how strong a player will be on the puck, noting Eric Staal had an impressive vertical jump. Most good centers, he said, have wing spans that measure more than their height.
Seth Jones, a defenseman with the Portland Winterhawks of the Western Hockey League, had the longest wing span this year at 81 inches. Tops among the forwards was Michael McCarron (79.5).
Friesen said he and others were disappointed Jones and two other top prospects, forwards Nathan MacKinnon and Jonathan Drouin of the Halifax Mooseheads, were at the combine but elected not to go through the fitness testing. All cited long Memorial Cup playoff runs and fatigue.
“If they don’t do it, you can’t judge the others based on their benchmarks,” Friesen said.
Marr, of NHL Central Scouting, called it an anomaly. He noted former Windsor Spitfires star Taylor Hall sat out testing in 2010 – and later was the No. 1 pick in the draft by Edmonton – and added, “I don’t see it being a trend.”
MacDonald interviews players at the combine. He said 60 interviews, mostly 10 to 15 minutes in length, were held this year, which he said was more than normal.
The Canes had 11 pre-draft interviews scheduled this week at their Manhattan hotel, Rutherford said. They again are using video sessions as a way of gauging a player’s instincts and hockey acumen, as they did in Pittsburgh last year.
“We’re just trying to get inside a player’s thought process and create scenarios from real game situations,” MacDonald said. “There are no right or wrong answers. We just want to get a feel for what a player might do in game situations.”
Ron Francis, the team’s vice president of hockey operations, heads the video sessions, which were well received by prospects last year. Forward Filip Forsberg, who would be drafted in the first round by the Washington Capitals and later traded to the Nashville Predators, noted, “It was like they asked you questions to test your hockey sense.”
Marr said the final interviews give the general managers a chance to sit face-to-face with the prospects. The scouts have done their work and all the background information is in, but a prospect can make a final impression with management.
“It’s a chance to eliminate any mystery about a player,” Marr said.
Finally, it’s on to the arena. It’s draft day. The prospects sit anxiously in the stands with their parents and siblings.
“Waiting for your name to be called in the draft, that’s what every kid who grows up playing hockey dreams of,” Skinner said.
Skinner’s big moment came in 2010 in Los Angeles at the Staples Center. He slipped into a Carolina sweater and cap, looking impossibly young but very soon to be an impact player.
On Sunday, the Hurricanes will be after another.
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