For years, Jim Rutherford sat at the head of the Carolina Hurricanes’ table at the NHL draft, Ron Francis by his side.
But much has changed this year. Francis has replaced Rutherford as the Canes’ general manager, and Rutherford now is GM of the Pittsburgh Penguins. Friends, but foes.
Both have hired new head coaches – Francis bringing in Bill Peters, and Rutherford making Mike Johnston the Pens’ coach. For the next two days at the NHL draft in Philadelphia, the two GMs again have business to conduct, needs to address.
“While it’s different, a lot of the things are the same for me,” Francis said Thursday. “It was always a busy, active time, and I’ll again be talking to a lot of people. The difference is I’m the point person, not the support person.”
The Canes, coming off a 13th-place finish in the NHL’s Eastern Conference, have the No. 7 pick in Friday’s first round at Wells Fargo Center. Francis said he doesn’t foresee any major trades being made by the Canes during the draft and won’t look to move up in the first round, yet he didn’t rule out Carolina moving down.
The Canes could be targeting a forward with size – Nick Ritchie (6-foot-2, 226) of Peterborough of the Ontario Hockey League – or could simply follow the best-player-available approach so many GMs espouse.
“In a perfect world everyone wants size,” Francis said. “But not at the sacrifice of a good player. We’re looking for someone with size, speed and good hockey sense, but with the seventh pick you take the best you can get.”
In 2010, the Canes had the seventh pick and selected forward Jeff Skinner, who made the jump from junior hockey to the NHL, scored 31 goals as an 18-year-old and won the 2011 Calder Trophy as the NHL’s best rookie.
Can the Canes again find an impact player at No. 7?
“That’s what we’re hoping for,” Francis said. “But this draft, in all the years I’ve been involved, has been difficult to peg in the first round.”
Most agree on the top five picks: defenseman Aaron Ekblad (Barrie, OHL); and forwards Sam Reinhart (Kootenay, Western Hockey League), Samuel Bennett (Kingston, OHL), Michael Dal Colle (Oshawa, OHL) and Leon Draisaitl (Prince Albert, WHL). But then things can get dicey.
“This may not be as good a draft as some others – in the depth in the top 15 – but it’s still pretty decent,” said Tony MacDonald, the Canes’ director of amateur scouting. “The top four or five probably will not change much. If we could get another Jeff Skinner at No. 7 we’d be pretty pleased, of course, and there will be quality players available. You never know who might fall through.”
Francis has expressed his preference for bigger, stronger players, and Ritchie would be just that – a winger who moves well but whose game-to-game consistency has been questioned.
Jake Virtanen, a 6-0, 208-pound forward from the Calgary Hitmen (WHL), is another power forward type the Canes might consider along with winger Brendan Perlini of Niagara (OHL). Virtanen scored 45 goals this past season despite a bad shoulder that required offseason surgery.
But some smaller forwards could be enticing – one being the son of former Canes winger Sami Kapanen. Kasperi Kapanen, 17, is the No. 1-ranked European skater by the NHL’s Central Scouting, has good skills and speed at 5-11 and 180 pounds, and has competed against the men in the Finnish Elite League.
Nikolaj Ehlers of Denmark might be taken by the time the Canes are on the clock. Called a “dynamic offensive force” by MacDonald, the 5-11, 162-pound left winger had 49 goals and 104 points in 63 games for Halifax of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League.
The Hurricanes generally have passed on defensemen and goalies in the first round in recent years, although they did take defenseman Ryan Murphy with the 12th pick in 2011. Another player on the Canes’ radar could be Haydn Fleury of Red Deer (WHL), generally considered the best defenseman after Ekblad in the draft.
Francis said the Canes planned to hold a “boatload” of interviews with prospects – between 10 and 15 – in Philadelphia.
It will be interesting to see if the Canes use one of their draft picks on defenseman Josh Wesley of Plymouth (OHL). Wesley is the son of former Canes defenseman Glen Wesley, Carolina’s director of defensemen development.
The draft concludes Saturday with rounds two through seven. Other players with North Carolina ties who are draft eligible and could go on Day 2 are defenseman Trevor Owens of Raleigh (Jersey, USPHL), goalie Logan Halladay of Cary (Janesville, NAHL) and right winger Bryan Moore of Indian Trail (Sault Ste. Marie, OHL).
Francis said Thursday he was not being besieged with phone calls from other GMs.
“It hasn’t been as busy as I expected,” he said. “But it’s always hard to predict what will happen.”
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