Five years ago, the Carolina Hurricanes all but brought the 2012 NHL Entry Draft to a halt on the first night in Pittsburgh.
The Hurricanes traded for Penguins center Jordan Staal, giving up center Brandon Sutter, their first-round pick in the draft and defensive prospect Brian Dumoulin.
The arena, then called Consol Energy Center, was abuzz that Friday night. It also was Staal’s wedding day, and among those in Thunder Bay, Ont., a thousand miles away, was Pens captain Sidney Crosby and other Pittsburgh teammates.
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All but overlooked the next day, when the draft ended with the final six rounds, was a fourth-round pick by Carolina. It was the kind of pick that can define a draft for a team, that can define the work of its scouting staff, its decision-makers.
NHL Central Scouting’s final rankings of North American skaters in 2012 listed 210 players. Jaccob Slavin was not on the list. But the Hurricanes made the defenseman from Colorado the 120th selection of the draft and today have a player who’s 23, a fixture on the blue line and could be on the brink of stardom.
The Canes had taken forwards Phil Di Giuseppe and Brock McGinn with their two second-round picks, and goalie Daniel Altshuller in the third round. Carolina then had three fourth-round picks, two via trades, and took Swedish forward Erik Karlsson at No. 99 and defenseman Trevor Carrick at No. 115.
What to do at No. 120? There was talk at the Canes’ draft table and Slavin’s name brought up.
“He was one of the under-the-radar types,” said Tony MacDonald, the Canes’ director of amateur scouting. “Could we have waited another round on him? Maybe we could have. But Bert Marshall was a big Slavin guy, carrying his flag …”
Good player, bad team
Bert Marshall is one of the Canes’ amateur scouts and has been at it a long time – more than 30 years, with the New York Islanders and New Jersey Devils, then the Canes. Now 73, he’s a former NHL defenseman who was known for his tough, rugged play in the 1960s and ’70s.
“Bert does a good job identifying defensemen, and he was pushing hard for Slavin,” said Canes general manager Ron Francis, the team’s vice president of hockey operations in 2012.
Marshall had 10 scouting reports on Slavin, who had played for the Chicago Steel of the U.S. Hockey League in 2011-12.
One of the reports, Marshall said, was from a 7-1 loss to Dubuque. Slavin, he noted, had a minus-2 rating after the first period.
“And got high marks for his play,” Marshall said. “Whatever he did was the right thing. Whatever he did was what should have been done. He just couldn’t do enough to keep the puck out of the net.”
Slavin, in Marshall’s mind, was the classic example of a good player on a bad team. The Steel would finish with a losing record, and nearly every player had a minus rating. Slavin was a team-leading plus-6.
Not that he was a big, imposing guy. Slavin was 6-1 and maybe 170 pounds, with a big mop of hair.
“Yeah, he was a rail, but you could tell he had the right instincts for the game, and I’m a firm believer in that,” Marshall said. “If you don’t have a good feel for the game, you can’t play. The game is so fast. Make a mistake positionally and it can be a two-on-one against. You need that headiness.
“The good players, it’s part of their DNA. With Jaccob, you could see it. He had it.”
Another of Marshall’s reports was on a Steel game against the team from the U.S. National Team Development Program, then based in Ann Arbor, Mich. Among those who played for the U.S. team that season were defensemen Jacob Trouba and Seth Jones.
“You look at the Ann Arbor kids on the U.S. team and in my mind Jaccob was just as good or better,” Marshall said.
That went into a report and was filed away.
‘We better grab him soon’
Marshall, who lives near Tacoma, Wash., and the other Canes scouts met in Raleigh before the NHL draft. The reports on the prospects were read, digested and the draft list prepared.
It was on to Pittsburgh, and on the Friday of the first round, Jim Rutherford, then the Canes general manager, met with Ray Shero, then GM of the Penguins. The Staal deal was completed just before the draft began and quickly became the talk of the draft, talk of the town.
The Penguins took defenseman Derrick Pouliot in the first round with the eighth overall pick obtained from the Canes. With their own first-round pick, No. 22, they took another defenseman, Olli Maatta.
The next day, the pace quickened as the rounds rolled on. After the New York Rangers took defenseman Calle Andersson of Sweden in the fourth round, at No. 119, Marshall made the comment, “We better grab him soon.”
“We were at the spot in the draft when we wanted to take a look at defensemen,” MacDonald said. “We knew with (Slavin) he was one of those players that was a raw talent, that we had not seen the best of yet. He was in a program that was not one of the stronger ones at the time, but he was starting to come into his own where we were thinking he was a pretty good prospect.”
The Hurricanes took Slavin at No. 120. He was the 41st defenseman drafted.
“The draft is such a crapshoot,” Marshall said. “We felt he was a pretty good hockey player. With guys you take in the third or fourth rounds, they can be good prospects and have NHL potential but you may not know for two or three years.”
An inner drive to succeed
After another full season with the Steel, Slavin spent two years at Colorado College. Among those helping him develop was R.J. Enga, an assistant coach for the Steel and then at Colorado College.
“Players develop at different rates and Jaccob was something of a late bloomer,” Enga said. “He has such great hockey sense and a high hockey IQ, and the ability to process things on the ice at a high pace. He’s a perfectionist, always working on something. He has that inner drive to be better.”
Enga said Slavin, an Erie, Colo., native, excelled in the 2012 World Junior A Challenge in Nova Scotia as the U.S. team won the gold medal. In 2014, Slavin was selected for the U.S. team in the World Junior Championship in Malmo, Sweden.
“He really began to develop then,” MacDonald said. “His skating became better, he became stronger. You hate to use the term ‘pleasant surprise,’ but he’s a player who probably ended up exceeding our expectations.”
Slavin now is 6-2 and 205 pounds, agile and active, showing the instincts of a smart, heady defenseman. He was plus-23 this past season for the Canes, tied with defenseman Brett Pesce for the team high in plus/minus.
Pouliot has played 67 NHL games for the Penguins. Andersson, that 119th pick by the Rangers, has never played an NHL game.
Slavin, No. 120, has played 145 games for Carolina the past two seasons, with a plus-24 rating.
It’s interesting how things work out. The Hurricanes traded forward Alexei Ponikarovsky to the New Jersey Devils in January 2012 for a minor-league defenseman, Joe Sova, and the Devils’ fourth-round pick in the 2012 draft.
That fourth-round pick became Jaccob Slavin.
2017 NHL Entry Draft
When: Friday and Saturday
Where: United Center, Chicago
Year GP Goals Assists Points Plus/minus
2015-16 63 2 18 20 +1
2016-17 82 5 29 34 +23