Hurricanes may eye forward with fifth pick

When the Carolina Hurricanes pick fifth overall on Sunday at the NHL Draft in Newark, it will mark the highest they will have selected in eight years. 

In that 2005 draft, they took American defenseman Jack Johnson third overall but Johnson never played for the ‘Canes, as general manager Jim Rutherford sent him to Los Angeles in a deal that brought defenseman Tim Gleason to Raleigh. Johnson has produced well offensively, but in eight NHL seasons, he has never finished a season as a plus player and has not evolved into the dominant No. 1 defenseman envisioned when a team picks a player so high. 

Since then, the ‘Canes have not had too many high first-round picks, but when they have they have generally gotten some good forwards out of the draft. They took Calder Trophy (rookie of the year)-winner Jeff Skinner seventh overall in 2010 and Brandon Sutter 11th overall in ’07. 

There also have been some misses, such as Zach Boychuk at No. 14 overall in ’08. The ‘Canes waived Boychuk last season, then Boychuk was waived by two other teams before Carolina reclaimed him in March. He remains a prospect. 

Nonetheless, even when the ‘Canes have missed, general manager Jim Rutherford has been able to cut his losses and turn the situation into something positive. Carolina took left wing Philippe Paradis 27th overall in 2009 but Rutherford shipped him to Toronto for Jiri Tlusty in act of thievery. Tlusty had a break-out season in 2013 with 23 goals and 15 assists in 48 games while Paradis has yet to play in an NHL game. 

With that as the backdrop, the Hurricanes will have a number of highly-touted prospects from which to choose on Sunday. In 2011, the ‘Canes took defenseman Ryan Murphy – a player who could be on the team next season – 12th overall while 2010 second-rounder Justin Faulk has evolved into one of the team’s top defenseman already. Last year, the ‘Canes did not have a first-round pick, as they sent it to Pittsburgh as part of the Jordan Staal trade. 

As a result, it’s possible the Hurricanes could choose to go the forward route this year. According to some mock drafts, a pair of intriguing Russian-speaking forwards could fall to the ‘Canes. Having a top Russian forward on the team in Alexander Semin — he is signed for the next five seasons — could help one of those player’s transition to the NHL. 

The top-rated European skater by NHL Central Scouting is center Aleksander Barkov, who played last season for a junior team in Finland. Valeri Nichushkin, who played on a second division team in Russia last season, is rated as the No. 2 European skater. Both players have good size, as Barkov, a center, is 6-foot-2, 205 pounds and Nichushkin, a right wing, goes 6-foot-3, 196. 

Barkov’s parents are both Russian — his father coaches in the KHL and his mother played on the Russian national basketball team, which could invite comparisons to Washington’s Alexander Ovechkin, whose mother also was a national team basketball player. However, Barkov was born in Finland when his father went there to play professionally and has remained. He is said to speak English, Finnish and Russian. 

Central Scouting director of European scouting Goran Stubb, in a quote published on Barkov’s profile, said Barkov is a “consistent, cool, smart two-way center.” 

“An injured shoulder (kept) him out the remainder of the season, but that won’t hurt his high draft status,” Stubb said. “Always seems to be in the right spot at the right time. He’s a very good stickhandler with great vision.” 

While the ‘Canes would appear to be set at center on their top two lines for years with Jordan and Eric Staal, a team can never have too much depth at that position. In addition, centers are versatile enough to play on the wing, especially as young players when they break into the league. 

One positive about Nichushkin is his performance in big international tournaments. At the 2013 World Junior tournament in Russia, he scored the game-winner in overtime to defeat Canada. He also registered four goals and three assists in six games at the Under-18 World Championships last year in Russia. 

Said Stubb of Nichushkin, “He’s a big, strong player with a high overall skillset. He can score the big goals and can dominate games … he’s very skilled and talented and, by far, the best Russian available in the draft this year.” 

Other top forwards are a pair of teammates from Halifax of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League. Nathan MacKinnon, a 6-0, 182-pound center who was most valuable player of the Memorial Cup (Canada’s junior hockey championship tournament), finished second in the Central Scouting rankings among North American skaters. Left wing Jonathan Drouin, the Canadian Hockey League player of the year, finished third. Drouin is a bit smaller at 5-10, 186. (American defenseman Seth Jones, the son of former NBA player Popeye Jones, is considered the top player in the draft.) 

If they are lucky, one of those players could fall to the ‘Canes. If not, they might have to trade and move up to get one.