The Carolina Hurricanes have a rosy outlook for the next several seasons. They have one of the best defensive teams in the league, they have a young nucleus of cost-controlled stars (Sebastian Aho, Andrei Svechnikov, and Jaccob Slavin), and their farm system is loaded with top prospects, like Ryan Suzuki, Jake Bean, and Dominik Bokk. General manager Don Waddell has spent responsibly and isn’t afraid of pulling the trigger on trades.
However, as good as they were defensively this season, they were league-average in a few important offensive categories, including goals for and converting chances close to the net. If Waddell wants to address this weakness in the 1st round of the NHL Entry Draft, here are the 5 best forwards who they can target at No. 19 overall (in alphabetical order).
NHL Central Scouting Final Rank: 22
The Hockey Writers Top 400 NHL Prospects for May: 21
Waddell is not averse to acquiring small players. Some of the Hurricane’s best prospects are under 6-feet tall: D Domenick Fensore, 5-foot-7; D Anttoni Honka, 5-foot-10; RW Tuukka Tieksola 5-foot-10; C Jamieson Rees, 5-foot-11. At 5-foot-10, Mavrik Bourque uses his low center of gravity to maintain balance and finish shots even during contact. His anticipation in the attacking zone allows him to wrist it and score from any angle or through the tightest window.
He dominated the QMJHL this season, tied for the team lead in points (71) despite playing 14 fewer games (49) than his teammate, Xavier Bourgault (63). His two-way game suffers from inconsistency, but there are flashes of greatness sprinkled his defensive play. He has the tools to develop into a “set it and forget it” player on an NHL scoring line.
NHL Central Scouting Final Rank: 12
The Hockey Writers Top 400 NHL Prospects for May: 36
Khusnutdinov is a dark-horse candidate at No. 19 because there are so many quality North American forwards who are good enough for this draft slot, but I think Khusnutdinov deserves more attention. At 17 years old, he already has elite skating ability and plays in all situations.
His creativity with the puck – especially behind the net – is reminiscent of Pavel Datsyuk. Like Datsyuk, he’s an excellent two-way forward and already has elite skating ability. In its Nov. 2019 NHL Draft preview, the analytics website Scouching.ca described Khusnutdinov’s game as dynamic:
Every time Khusnutdinov steps on the ice so far when I’ve seen him, he’s awesome…He’s playing exceptional two-way hockey, he sets up behind the net to make a play beautifully. He’s a player I know you could grab in the 2nd, but I’m a big, big believer in him, especially considering his age. He pushes pace, gets fantastic results, and if he can get stronger with better linemates and finishing ability on his own, he could be a steal.
This season he was among the youngest on his team (SKA-1946 St. Petersburg in the Moscow Major Juniors, or MHL), playing among 19- and 20-year-olds and finished 6th in scoring with 38 points in 44 games. In early Feb. 2020, he captained the Russia U-18 team in the Five Nations Tournament, seeing ice time on the power play and the penalty-kill.
NHL Central Scouting Final Rank: 13
The Hockey Writers Top 400 NHL Prospects for May: 19
Lapierre is the quintessential high-risk/high-reward type of player in contact sports. During his rookie season in the QMJHL (after being selected No. 1 overall in the 2018 “Q” Draft), he suffered 3 concussions in 10 months, dating back to Feb. 2019. His final diagnosis was a spinal injury. Said to be healthy now and looking to come back even stronger when he rejoins the QMJHL, Lapierre offers refined two-way play with elite vision.
He needs to improve his even-strength scoring, which is a better predictor of NHL success than scoring with the man-advantage, but there’s hardly a better reward than selecting a top-10 talent at pick No. 19.
NHL Central Scouting Final Rank: 10
The Hockey Writer’s Top 400 NHL Prospects for May: 20
Lapierre’s teammate on the Chicoutimi Saguenéens, Dawson Mercer split time between Chicoutimi and the Drummondville Voltigeurs this season, scoring 60 points in 42 games. His season was cut short by injury, but it won’t keep him off the ice if the season continues after the COVID-19 hiatus.
Related: The 5 Greatest Hockey Players Ever
One NHL comparison that ‘Canes fans will appreciate is to Vincent Trocheck. Like Trocheck, Mercer plays in every situation and is polishing his two-way game. In an interview with NHL.com in 2011, Trocheck’s coach (Todd Watson) with the OHL’s Saginaw Spirit had this to say about him:
He’s become more dominant this year than last year,” Watson said. “This year he’s a player that’s playing in all situations and being dominant in those areas. … He’s our first line centerman, power play, penalty kill, 4-on-4, 6-on-5, 5-on-6 — every situation, he plays in.”
In March 2020, NHL.com draft analyst Mike. G. Morreale had similar thoughts on Mercer’s abilities:
Mercer…is a right-hand shot capable of playing all situations. He’s a smart, heads-up skater who finishes checks and is strong on the power play and penalty kill.
No question that Mercer has the talent to develop into an NHL asset, but his stats this season may cause him to fall in the 2020 NHL Draft. He started off well, scoring 27 points in the first 17 games (1.59 points-per-game), but scored just 33 points over the next 32 contests (1.03) until an injury forced him out of the lineup in late Feb. 2020. This includes the World Junior Championships in Dec. 2019 when he was kept off scoresheet.
Mercer doesn’t have the same injury concerns as Lapierre so he may not fall to Carolina, but I expect him to provide great value for any team outside of the top 10.
NHL Central Scouting Final Rank: 28
The Hockey Writers Top 400 NHL Prospects for May: 14
Mysak is only 17-years old and doesn’t have a full season of North American hockey under his belt yet, but early returns on him are promising. The scouting reports on him over the past year cite his “smart game” and “smooth hands,” which are often assets of European skaters. He has the tools, but he will need time to develop and adapt his game to the physicality across the pond, but he’s a top-six forward prospect.
His stick work at high speed makes him look like a smaller Datsyuk. I’ve seen him ranked in the early teens all the way down to the mid-20s in mock drafts, and the Hurricanes will have a lot of competition to draft him.
Which Way Will the Wind Blow?
The longer teams have to perform due diligence on players leading up to the 2020 Draft, the less likely it becomes that prospects with recent injury histories like Mercer and Lapierre will be available for Carolina. But this draft is so deep that organizations will find 1st round talents in the 2nd round.
Related: THW’s 2020 Draft Guide
Fortunately for Carolina, they have a lot of flexibility. With two picks in the 2nd round, the organization has three options. They have the ammo to trade up to acquire talent if their targeted player starts to fall closer to them. Secondly, they can stay at No. 19 and hope to land a future top six forward; and last, they can trade down in the first round and accumulate future picks in later rounds or in next season’s draft.
It’s been shown that it generally costs a 2nd-round pick to move up four spots between No. 10 and No. 25, so I don’t expect any major draft-day deals from Waddell. However, even if they miss big on their 1st round pick, there’s a good chance they’ll land a viable NHL prospect with at least one of their 2nd round picks.