There’s not much the Carolina Hurricanes, fresh off their sixth-consecutive postseason miss, don’t need to improve.
GM Ron Francis has opted to begin with the defense.
The Hurricanes held the fifth-overall pick in the 2015 NHL Draft, runner-runner-runners up to the Connor McDavid–Jack Eichel bowl. There were no real consensus picks in the five or so players to follow the big two, but there was a consensus top defenseman in Boston College product Noah Hanifin.
He fell to the number five spot, where Carolina walked with his draft call and a possible franchise defenseman.
Hanifin, 18, was arguably the top NCAA defenseman in 2014-15, his freshman season. He posted a 5-17-23 line in 37 games in his first college campaign, and at 6’3, 208 pounds (as a teenager), he already has the build to play the NHL game.
Here’s a bit of Hanifin’s profile from HockeysFuture.com,
Hanifin is a smooth-skating defender with good size and acceleration who can generate some offense from the blueline but is also solid defensively. Although not a truly physical defenseman, he does not shy away form contact and will initiate it when necessary. Hanifin also has leadership qualities that could make NHL captain material down the road. Overall, he is an elite defender with few holes in his game.
It’s a tremendous break for the Hurricanes, a team that has lacked a franchise defenseman for perhaps the entirety of its time in Raleigh. There’s no guarantee Hanifin fills that role, but his early success at Boston College and in captaining the 2014 Under-17 US Team to Gold at the World Hockey Challenge bodes well for his chances.
Hanifin compares favorably to Nashville’s Seth Jones, a consensus top-defenseman who fell to fourth in his draft year. An immediate and successful jump to the NHL could also draw conclusions to this year’s Calder Trophy winner in 18-year-old Panthers defenseman Aaron Ekblad.
Hanifin may not be the immediate contributor to Carolina that Ekblad was to the Panthers, but they addressed their next-season NHL depth at the draft nonetheless, trading for well-traveled veteran James Wisniewski.
Carolina acquired Wisniewski from the Anaheim Ducks at the cost of backup goaltender Anton Khudobin. Anaheim might be as replete with NHL-level defensemen as any team in the league (they’ve since replaced Wisniewski’s salary with former Vancouver defender Kevin Bieksa), and opted to sacrifice one of them to add yet another goaltender to their fold.
In Wisniewski, the Hurricanes get a 31-year-old veteran of 551 games. Wisniewski was one of Columbus’ top defenders last season before being dealt to Anaheim, who used him only sparingly in his time there. Not that that’s much a product of his play.
Wisniewski was a reliable defender for the Blue Jackets last season before his trade — and really, not bad numbers for someone seeing significant minutes on a team that was wracked by injury like no other. Barring some kind of spending spree on Wednesday, the Canes should have an easy place for him in their top four.
The prospect pool is thin in Carolina. But it’s got a few names to lean on now.
Hanifin joins former first-rounder Haydn Fleury and trade acquisition Roland McKeown as the big names in the system. At the NHL level, the group is headlined by Justin Faulk. Faulk posted 49 points in 82 games last season, second among all Hurricanes in scoring and 12th among NHL defensemen.
Faulk might have been Carolina’s best blueliner a year ago, but not their most promising. That honor probably still belongs with Ryan Murphy, the 2011 first-rounder who was selected 12th-overall but has seen his time in the NHL limited by injuries.
In all, the Hurricanes have selected a defenseman in the first round of three of the last five drafts. At least one of them, Murphy, is already an NHL product. Fleury and Hanifin might not be immediate answers, but neither is a project to reach the NHL.
And if not within the system, the Canes always have that $20-plus million in cap space heading into July 1 to help fill out the group for the coming year.
The task remains unenviable in Carolina. The group made strides under head coach Bill Peters last season, finishing with the fourth-ranked penalty killing unit in the NHL and keeping themselves middle of the pack in terms of total goals against.
That group could still change significantly between now and next season. However it shakes out, its clear that Francis, one of the game’s all-time offensive forces, will start his franchise’s rebuilding efforts from the blue line.