Canes’ unexpected playoff run affects their NHL Draft strategy

Andrei Svechnikov, center, of Russia, poses after being selected by the Carolina Hurricanes during the NHL hockey draft in Dallas, Friday, June 22, 2018.
Andrei Svechnikov, center, of Russia, poses after being selected by the Carolina Hurricanes during the NHL hockey draft in Dallas, Friday, June 22, 2018. AP

Tony MacDonald has spent most of the past 25 years looking for home runs, trying to avoid strikeouts and seeking out a few hidden gems for the Carolina Hurricanes come NHL Draft time.

That’s what the draft is all about, in a sense -- hits, misses, gambles, surprises. For the Canes, Sebastian Aho was a home-run pick. Philippe Paradis was a strikeout. Jaccob Slavin was one of those gems uncovered by MacDonald and the Canes’ amateur scouts.

This year’s NHL Entry Draft, which begins Friday at Rogers Arena in Vancouver, will be the last for MacDonald. The Canes’ director of amateur scouting the past 12 years plans to retire afterward.

The Canes could be very active -- again -- at the draft. They have a league-high 10 picks, if they elect to use them all, and the first is the 28th selection of the first round.

“I think it’s a little deeper draft than we thought it would be initially,” MacDonald said this week. “Even picking later in the draft there’s still some pretty good options there for us.”

A year ago, there was no first-round guesswork. The Canes went to Dallas for the 2018 draft with the No. 2 pick and had decided on Russian forward Andrei Svechnikov well in advance. No second-guesses, either. Svechnikov was in the lineup on opening night.

“He was a great fit and he looks like he has the ability to be a star player for years to come,” MacDonald said.

The Canes have not picked this late in the opening round since 2009, which is understandable. That was the last year they made it to the playoffs before breaking through this season and again reaching the Eastern Conference finals.

That’s also the year they made Paradis, a forward from Normandin, Quebec, the 27th overall selection.

Paradis was a big kid with a heavy shot out of Shawinigan of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League who appeared to fit the bigger-is-better criteria that former general manager Jim Rutherford had going into the 2009 draft. The Canes parted with him quickly, however. He was traded in December 2009 to the Toronto Maple Leafs for forward Jiri Tlusty.

Paradis, now 28, has never played an NHL game.

“But Jim (Rutherford) did get good value out of Philippe in the trade for Jiri Tlusty,” MacDonald noted.

All that is hard to predict. As longtime Canes scout Bert Marshall said, “The draft is such a crapshoot. They can be good players and have NHL potential but you may not know it for two or three years.”

Case in point: the 2014 draft. The Canes had the seventh overall pick that year and took defenseman Haydn Fleury from the Red Deer Rebels of the Western Hockey League. Also taken in 2014: goalie Alex Nedeljkovic and forwards Warren Foegele, Lucas Wallmark and Clark Bishop.

“You make your decisions based on the information you have and hope that it works out,” MacDonald said.

It worked out. All five played and contributed for the Canes this past season -- Nedeljkovic winning his only start in January against the Canucks in Vancouver while being named the American Hockey League goaltender of the year with the Charlotte Checkers, the Canes’ AHL affiliate.

Tony MacDonald
The Carolina Hurricanes Tony MacDonald, director of amateur scouting, talk to the media about the upcoming NHL draft during a press conference held at PNC Arena in Raleigh on Thursday, June 9, 2016. Chris Seward

In 2012, the Canes took Slavin in the fourth round, with the 120th pick, and have seen him develop into one of the best young defensemen in the NHL. Then there was Aho, an NHL All-Star this past season at center and the 35th pick of the 2015 draft, a second-rounder with first-round talent.

“There were size limitations that a lot of people had concerns about,” MacDonald said of Aho. “We weren’t concerned about it and neither was he. You could tell it never entered his mind when he was playing. The skill level and his burning desire to succeed were always apparent.”

The Canes’ draft planning had to be adaptable this season. In December, with the team struggling, there was a chance the Canes might be slotted in the top 10 in the 2019 draft depending on their finish in the regular season.

Then they started winning. They moved up the standings. The scouting focus shifted with it, and potential picks.

“After Christmas you usually have a ballpark idea of the range you’re going to be picking in,” MacDonald said. “When the team kept getting better and better it was apparent we’d be a little further down.”

Then, the Canes made the playoffs. “That’s when you know there’s always the chance things could change and you could get into that top-four ballpark, which we did,” MacDonald said.

And wound up at No. 28 in the first round, and with lower picks in the following six rounds, which will be held Saturday. Carolina added two second-round picks in trades with the Buffalo Sabres (Jeff Skinner) and New York Rangers (Adam Fox), and have an extra sixth-round pick from a 2017 trade with Calgary (Ryan Murphy, Eddie Lack).

“It was the byproduct of a successful season and playoffs, so you take it gladly and hope you make the picks work,” MacDonald said.

For Canes fans and the media, it’s all a guessing game for now, the stuff of mock drafts. Some of the players mentioned as the possible first-round pick by the Canes include Jakub Pelletier of Moncton of the QMJHL, Bobby Brink of Sioux City of the USHL, and Nicholas Robertson of the Peterborough Petes and Connor McMichael of the London Knights, both in the Ontario Hockey League.

All are forwards. A year ago, Canes owner Tom Dundon surmised the team wouldn’t be using its first-round picks on defensemen, so that’s a draft guide from the top until something changes.

The Canes can keep one thing in mind about having the 28th pick: Justin Williams, the Canes captain, was the 28th selection in 2000 by the Philadelphia Flyers. That was a home run.

2019 NHL Entry Draft

Friday-Saturday, Rogers Arena, Vancouver, BC

Carolina Hurricanes selections

First round -- No. 28

Second round -- 36, 37, 59

Third round -- 90

Fourth round -- 121

Fifth round -- 152

Sixth round -- 181, 183

Seventh round -- 216

In more than 30 years at The N&O, Chip Alexander has covered the N.C. State, UNC, Duke and East Carolina beats, and now is in his 11th season on the Carolina Hurricanes beat. Alexander, who has won numerous writing awards at the state and national level, covered the Hurricanes’ move to North Carolina in 1997 and was a part of The N&O’s coverage of the Canes’ 2006 Stanley Cup run.