Can Ron Francis and the Canes Avoid the Draft Trap?

In one of the deepest draft in years, the Carolina Hurricanes find themselves in a familiar position. Yet another missed playoff opportunity has led to yet another Top 10 draft pick. With the recent picks of Jeff Skinner, Elias Lindholm, and Hayden Fleury, Carolina should simply set up shop in the 5-7 range every year, because it appears that no matter how much the roster changes, the results will end up the same.

Not that there’s much to complain about this year. Though the team posted its worst record since the 02-03 season, it couldn’t have come at a better time. Connor McDavid and Jack Eichel have the potential to be franchise-changing players, and the 3-4 projected prospects that follow would have been considered easy 1st overall draft picks in any other draft. So regardless of who Carolina chooses, they’ll be getting a really good player.

However, there is one player considered the “safe” pick in this upcoming draft, and he falls right in Carolina’s range. How the franchise moves forward may depend on whether general manager Ron Francis takes a higher risk for a higher reward in this draft, or ultimately decides to play it safe.

An Embarrassment of Riches

The Hurricanes will either choose 1st overall, 5th overall, or 6th overall in this upcoming draft, depending on how the lottery plays out. With only an 8.5% chance of winning the lottery and drafting 1st overall, it’s not something the Hurricanes should bank on. McDavid would be a god-send for the Canes, but given the low odds of actually acquiring him, he won’t be covered in this article. Fellow THW writer Mark Scheig did a Q&A with McDavid for those who want info on “The Next One.”

After Eichel, who has an 80% chance of ending up in a Buffalo Sabres uniform, the following 4 projected players are US defenseman Noah Hanifin, skilled forwards Mitch Marner and Dylan Strome, and the physical specimen of Lawson Crouse. If the Canes draft at 5th overall, they’ll have their choice of two of those players. If they draft 6th, which only happens if a team ahead of them in the standings wins the lottery, they’ll get whichever player is left over.

Predicting the Field

Which player the Hurricanes ultimately draft will come down to the decisions made by the teams in front of them. Assuming Buffalo wins the draft and the draft order doesn’t change, the first two choices are obvious. Buffalo will take McDavid or Eichel, and the Arizona Coyotes will take whichever player Buffalo didn’t. That gives the Edmonton Oilers and the Toronto Maple Leafs the pick of the litter before the Canes get their chance.

Given Edmonton’s draft history, they almost have to take Noah Hanifin this year. After drafting a forward in the first round in seven of the past eight years, the Edmonton management would have to be off their rocker to pass up on a chance to draft a potential first-line defenseman. However, last year, the Oilers had the opportunity to draft Seth Jones, and decided instead to grab yet another center. Leon Draisaitl has developed nicely for Edmonton, but the decision was a bit mind-boggling at the time.

If the Oilers draft Hanifin, that leaves Marner, Strome and Crouse for the Toronto Maple Leafs. This pick is probably the most difficult to predict, simply because there’s no telling who the Leafs will have on their roster next year. They’ve fired their coach and general manager and rumors swirl about putting Dion Phaneuf and Phil Kessel on the trading block. Whoever they choose will be the first mark on what amounts to a clean slate. Dylan Strome, as a center, would probably be a safer bet, given Toronto’s recent failure to build around a winger.

Crouse or Other

If the picks play out as above, that leaves the Carolina Hurricanes the choice between Mitch Marner or Lawson Crouse, and the two play very different styles of play.

Marner has drawn comparisons to Patrick Kane, a shifty winger that can turn something out of nothing, while still being defensively responsible in his own zone. For Canes fans, just imagine a version of Jeff Skinner with better offensive skills and better awareness in the defensive zone. Unfortunately, like Skinner, Marner’s a bit undersized by today’s NHL standards, and given the ever-increasing presence of “clutch and grab” in the league today, his offensive tools could be hindered.

Crouse has been called “Every coach’s dream,” and for good reason. He’s big, he’s physical, and he never takes a shift off. He’s everything that Canes head coach Bill Peters described what he wants in a player when he first took the job. His offensive numbers are not quite on the same level as Strome or Marner, but his work ethic often makes up for it. He’s the safest bet to make an NHL roster of the three, simply because his all-around game will allow him to play in any role.

“The whole Strome-Marner-Crouse debate is fascinating,” one scout said to TSN. “I think they’re all going to be very good NHL players, but there’s a different question mark on each of them.”

A Tough Decision

Crouse seems like the obvious choice for the Hurricanes. With their emphasis on getting bigger, more physical, and starting games on time, he’s the ideal prospect for the Canes to nab. But it’s a trap. He’s the safe pick for a reason. If he had the same offensive potential as Strome or Marner, he could probably compete with McDavid for the 1st overall pick. He doesn’t, and could ultimately end up as “only” a 3rd line player because of it. Passing up on a potential Patrick Kane-clone to grab the safer pick could end up hurting Carolina for a long time.

Even if the lottery odds go against the Canes and they wind up picking 6th, the choice between Crouse and some defensive prospects like Ivan Provorov or Zack Werenski should give Ron Francis some pause. The Hurricanes aren’t likely to compete for a playoff spot any time soon, so the additional development time for defensemen compared to forwards shouldn’t be a major factor.

The Canes aren’t in a terrible position to be in, regardless of how the lottery plays out. The organization desperately needs talented players in their prospect pool, and it’s hard to deny that this draft is chock full of them. However, to fast track the rebuild, Ron Francis must ultimately make the tough decision of going with the higher risk players for the higher reward, passing up on the “coach’s dream” player that brings physicality at the cost of offensive numbers.