Hurricanes draft preview: 5 potential first-round targets

The Carolina Hurricanes drafted star Jeff Skinner (center) with the No. 7 overall pick in 2010 NHL Draft.

Jerome Miron/Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

For the first time in 20 years, Jim Rutherford will not run the Carolina Hurricanes/Hartford Whalers’ draft.

With Rutherford elevated to team president and Ron Francis to general manager, Francis will have his first crack at the task after working for nine years in the team’s front office.

The Hurricanes have not made the Stanley Cup Playoffs since 2009 and while drafts are not always about finding players who will make an impact in their first pro season, the Hurricanes hold the seventh overall pick. Last year the Hurricanes took center Elias Lindholm fifth overall and Lindholm totaled 21 points in 58 games — not a bad rookie campaign.

Of course, the pick the Hurricanes will look to emulate with that No. 7 pick will be their 2010 first-rounder when they took Jeff Skinner seventh overall. Skinner scored 31 goals and won the Calder Trophy as the NHL’s Rookie of the Year that season. If Francis can duplicate that pick, he’ll go a long way towards making his tenure a successful one.

In terms of the position for which the Canes might draft, defense is a possibility — if a player at that position rates highly enough on their board. That might not be the case, though, as the board is loaded with wings after defenseman Aaron Ekblad, who is widely expected to go No. 2 overall. The Hurricanes haven’t taken a defenseman before the third round since they drafted Ryan Murphy 12th overall in 2011.

Last year, the ‘Canes had to go into the free agent pool to acquire a couple of journeymen defensemen, Ron Hainsey and Mike Komisarek, both of whom will be unrestricted free agents in July. While Andrej Sekera, Justin Faulk, Ryan Murphy, John-Michael Liles and Brett Bellemore provide a good core for next season and perhaps a few seasons beyond, the Hurricanes could still upgrade the position. Joni Pitkanen, 30, who missed all of last season with what appears to be a career-threatening heel injury, was their top defenseman in years past but is set to become a free agent. Even at that, Pitkanen issued a statement in March saying he is unsure when he will be able to resume his career.

Up front, the Hurricanes have 11 forwards who are either under contract or restricted free agents (meaning the team controls their rights). And with goalie Anton Khudobin having agreed in March to a two-year extension and Cam Ward also having two years left on his deal, the Hurricanes also appear set short-term for that position. (Goalies tend to take longer to develop than most players — rarely, if ever, playing in the NHL as 18-year-olds.) In the past three years, the Hurricanes have drafted three goalies.

With that in mind, here are five players the Hurricanes could take in the first round with that seventh pick:

This is a name that will be thrown around a lot in connection with the ‘Canes because his father Sami played for the franchise. Sami Kapanen played his first eight NHL seasons with the franchise and was on the 2000 team that went to the Cup Final. In the final NHL Central Scouting rankings, Kasperi Kapanen was rated as the top-rated European skater (non-goaltender). Kasperi is small of stature at 5-foot-11, 172 pounds, but bigger than his 5-foot-8 father, who continues to play in Finland at 40. In 2013, at the Under-18 World Championships, he totaled five goals and three assists.

If the Hurricanes do want to go the defense route, one option is Fleury, who has the size to play immediately at 6-foot-2 and 203 pounds. Coming out of the same junior program that produced Ward and former ‘Cane Brandon Sutter, Fleury tallied eight goals and 38 assists in 70 games, indicating an offensive upside. His Central Scouting rating is not high — he is the No. 9 North American skater, having slipped from No. 6 at the midterm. Any defenseman picked that high should be able to log plenty of minutes, indicating a strong skating ability.

Honka is another possibility if the ‘Canes opt for a defenseman, although mock drafts have Honka going more towards the middle of the first round. Because the draft is so loaded with wings where the ‘Canes will be drafting, one possibility is that they trade down to take a defenseman. Honka is the No. 11 North American skater, having moved up from No. 13 at the midterm. The Finland native is an offensive type who totaled 16 goals and 40 assists last season in 62 games. At 5-foot-7, he would rank among the smallest defensemen in the NHL, which could make it tough to defend big, physical forwards around the net or along the boards.

The 6-foot-2, 205-pounder had a breakout season with 34 goals and 37 assists in 58 games. In his previous two seasons, he totaled just eight goals in 59 games. He is rated the No. 8 North American skater. The problem with picking a potential first-line left wing? That’s the same position played by Skinner, 22, and Jiri Tlusty, 26, who tied for fifth in the NHL in goals with 23 during the 2012-13 lockout-shortened season. As more of a power-type wing, Perlini at least would represent a different type of player.

Here’s another left wing in the mold of Perlini. He’s 6-foot-2, 226 pounds and finished as the No. 7 North American skater. He tallied 39 goals and 74 assists and posted five goals and five assists in 11 playoff games.