Hurricanes’ 2021 Draft Class Loaded with Intriguing Talent

The Carolina Hurricanes were a major factor at the 2021NHL Entry Draft. They traded back five times throughout the draft, acquired a 2022 3rd-round pick from Chicago in the process, and made a franchise-record 13 selections. The team’s draft strategy was clearly centered around quantity and, from the look of things, they managed to get quite a lot of quality as well. 

In one of the strangest and most intriguing NHL drafts in history, the Hurricanes masterfully navigated their way through the entire process. It was a class that was largely unknown compared to previous years, as COVID-19 had a major effect on junior hockey in both Canada and the United States, which left a lot of prospects playing far fewer games than they would in a normal draft year. By repeatedly trading back and acquiring more picks, the ‘Canes had more darts to throw at the board, and therefore more chances to hit a home run.

Don Waddell Carolina Hurricanes
Don Waddell, Carolina Hurricanes, 2019 NHL Draft (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

Over the past few years, with Don Waddell, Darren Yorke, and Eric Tulsky really having their fingerprints on the Hurricanes’ drafting philosophy, analysts have immediately considered the ‘Canes as a winner after the draft, three years running. As they’ve done since taking over as a regime, the team decided to select the best player on their board regardless of size, nationality and position. That’s the formula to building a dynasty and ensuring long-term success for the group – especially with the volume of selections the team has been making in recent years. Let’s get into the strengths, areas of improvement, and long-term outlook for each of the 13 players they selected.

Second Round

40th Overall: D Scott Morrow

After trading out of the first round, much to the dismay of Hurricanes fans on Friday night, the team made their first selection at 40th overall and took American defender Morrow. He was amongst the best defensemen in this class, and his offensive instincts and strong skating ability at 6-foot-2 and 195 pounds make him a very intriguing player to develop. He uses quick changes of direction and deception with his eyes to pull defenders out of place, walks the blueline very calmly, and can find open teammates at ease.

Scott Morrow, Shattuck-St. Mary's
Scott Morrow Shattuck-St. Mary’s (Photo Credit: Shattuck-St. Mary’s)

Morrow is committed to starting his path to professional hockey at the University of Massachusetts, where he’ll play this coming season. He’ll play there alongside Canes’ 2020 selection Lucas Mercuri, and it’s a great environment for these two to develop. That same UMass program developed Cale Makar just a couple of seasons ago, and considering Morrow’s offensive skill set, UMass is a great program to aid his development. He played this past season at Shattuck St. Mary’s Prep School, where he led his team with 48 points, despite playing in just 30 games.

The biggest concern with Morrow is that his overall defensive game is a work in progress and that he doesn’t provide much of a physical presence despite having good size. That makes him a bit of a project, but he’s a very smart hockey player and that allows him to use gap control and angles to separate attackers from the puck, albeit not as consistently as you’d hope. Down the road, I can see Morrow running an NHL powerplay and impacting hockey games in transition. He’ll never be a heavy minutes player or a shutdown-type defender, but the ‘Canes won’t need him to be, and he could thrive in the proper role.

44th Overall: D Aleksi Heimosalmi

With the pick acquired in the Jake Bean trade, the ‘Canes took smooth-skating defenseman Heimosalmi, who I grew to become a big fan of leading up to the draft. He’s a solid skater and can accelerate very quickly as a puck carrier in transition. His vision is good, and he has some legitimate offensive skill, which makes him unpredictable to defend on the rush. He was named the Defenseman of the Tournament at the U18 World Juniors, with an impressive eight points in seven games against his age group.

What could hold Heimosalmi back is that he’s 5-foot-11 and only 168 pounds, so he’s a bit undersized. Adding mass to his frame will help him as he matures, and his relentless compete level gives me optimism that he can be effective at the NHL level, even as a smaller player. He’s very active physically and fights hard along the boards. With the modern-day NHL heavily trending towards speed and skill, Heimosalmi has the entire package and has a very high ceiling if he’s developed properly. His overall game reminds me a bit of Ryan Ellis. And while I do think he’s a bit of a long-term project, he has legit top-four upside and power-play ability if he can round out his overall game.

51st Overall: F Ville Koivunen

Drafted from the same Karpat program that produced Sebastian Aho, the Hurricanes selected winger Koivunen 51st overall, much to the delight of draft analysts. He is a typical “Hurricanes” type player – a guy who has a ton of raw skill and hockey sense, with fantastic playmaking ability and a ton of creativity to his offensive game. He’s a hard forechecker, he goes to the front of the net and fearlessly cuts to the middle of the ice. He’s also got a very quick release and can beat goaltenders cleanly with his wrist shot. It seems like he’s also a fan of Andrei Svechnikov:

The consensus on Koivunen is that he has first-round talent, but his skating was a bit too much of a concern to draft him that high. That makes this a serious upside pick for the Hurricanes, with home run potential. If Koivunen can add a step – a definite possibility for an 18-year old skater who’s just 6-foot, 165 pounds – then the ‘Canes could have a legitimate top-six winger on their hands here. I absolutely love this kind of pick. He dominated at the Finnish U20 level last year and came highly recommended by Sebastian’s father – Harri Aho – who’s the general manager of the Karpat team. Moving forward, Koivunen will likely move up permanently to Liiga this fall, and it’ll be interesting to track how his overall game translates to the pro level.

Third Round

83rd Overall: G Patrik Hamrla

The first of three goaltenders they took in the draft was athletic goaltender Hamrla. The last Czech goalie the Hurricanes had was just some guy named Petr Mrazek, so it’s safe to safe to say they made a nice selection here. His goaltending style is actually quite similar to Mrazek’s as a whole. He’s very athletic and has a lot of belief in his ability to play the puck and wander out of his goal. He’s very aggressive, and he can make desperation saves look fairly routine:

The biggest points of growth for Hamrla will come with maturity and experience. Sometimes he’s overly aggressive, and in turn, compensates too much with his angles and gets caught out of position. He can also get into trouble when he leaves his net to play the puck and will need to learn to pick his spots a little better. He has prototypical size and reflexes for the position, making him a very promising option down the road. We won’t know for at least five years if this kid will be a player or not, but drafting him was a good swing to take from the Canes’ side of things, and, with patience, he could develop into an NHL option in due time.

94th Overall: D Aidan Hreschuk

I think this pick may have been the strongest “value” pick of the draft for the Hurricanes. Hreschuk has a lot of characteristics that clubs covet in a modern-day NHL defenseman. He’s a phenomenal skater from the back-end and can carry the puck through all three zones looking to create offense. He’s aggressive on the point when he needs to be and has no problem pinching to hold the puck in the zone. His passes are crisp and his vision is strong, and while I don’t think he’s a natural creator, he has a very accurate wrist shot which makes him unpredictable.

He’s also a competent defender. He’s pretty rugged for a smaller player (5-foot-11, 187 pounds) but uses his skating ability and physicality to disrupt oncoming attackers, and he doesn’t take unnecessary risks with the puck. All things considered, I have no idea how Hreschuk fell all the way into the late third round. He doesn’t have many holes in his game at all, and while he might lack a “defining” trait, he’s all-around really solid and fits the mold of a prototypical NHL defender. I don’t see first-pairing upside here, but this is a player who looks like he could be a reliable NHLer if his development stays on track.

Fourth Round

109th Overall – RW Jackson Blake

Blake will be hoping to follow in the footsteps of his father Jason – who played 871 NHL games, most notably for the New York Islanders and the Toronto Maple Leafs. It’s hard to imagine a better mentor for Jackson than his dad, who overcame being undrafted and carved out a long NHL career. He is a shifty, creative winger who uses his high-end skill and quick release to create havoc offensively. His brain is flooded with hockey sense, and he impressed scouts with his ability to scan and create plays before they develop. He willingly takes the puck to the front of the net and can convert chances from in close:

However, there’s a long road ahead for Blake to develop into an NHL-level player. He’s listed at just 5-foot-10, 148 pounds, and is set to play for the Chicago Steel of the USHL next year, which isn’t exactly elite competition. After that, he’s committed to North Dakota for the 2022-23 season, which will be a phenomenal program to oversee his development. UND has been pumping out NHL players for fun in recent years, and Blake will be in great hands there. It’ll be a long journey and we’re years away from having a legitimate read on him, but he has all the tools to become a creative top-9 winger at the pro level.

Fifth Round

136th Overall: C Robert Orr

Bobby Orr? No analysis needed, this one just speaks for itself.

OK, time to get serious – this was a fantastic pick. Orr has the makings of the prototypical Rod Brind’Amour style player. He’s fearless, and he’s relentless as he tracks up and down the ice. He’s physically engaging and welcomes contact on the forecheck. His smarts allow him to find open space, and he attacks the front of the net. He’s not a gifted offensive player, but he has enough skill to finish the opportunities he gets.

Orr was one of the youngest players in this draft class, and most scouting agencies had him as a top-100 talent. He may never become a true impact player at the NHL level, but he has the drive, determination and relentless motor that could help him become a reliable bottom-six option down the road. I mean – the kid’s name is Bobby Orr. I wouldn’t bet against him!

147th Overall – C Justin Robidas

Another son of a former NHL player – His father Stephane played 937 games (a majority of which were for the Dallas Stars) – Justin will also hope to follow in his father’s footsteps. While his dad was an undersized defenseman, Justin is instead an undersized forward. Extremely undersized – he’s just 5-foot-7 and 172 pounds, which was undoubtedly the reason he was available at this stage of the draft. He was considered by many to be a second-round talent, but his size definitely scared many teams off. But his skill speaks for itself. In the clip below, Robidas skates through an entire team and lays off a perfect pass leading to a tap-in goal:

So, what exactly did the Canes get in Robidas? He’s naturally a fluid skater who has a very vivid and creative offensive mind. He’s an intelligent player on the ice and finds the right areas to be an outlet while plays are developing. He admittedly models his game after Brayden Point – who fell to the third round of the 2014 draft because of the same size concerns that Robidas has. While overcoming his stature won’t be the easiest of tasks, he plays bigger than he is and his effort level can always be relied on. He’s currently listed as a center, but I guess that he’ll likely transfer to the wing when he turns pro and has legitimate middle-six upside in the future.

Sixth Round

170th Overall: D Bryce Montgomery

Montgomery is already an absolute mammoth of a player, standing at 6-foot-5, 220 pounds as an 18-year old. He didn’t play a single game during the 2020-21 season due to the OHL season being canceled because of the risks of COVID-19. So it’s safe to say that Montgomery is still a bit of a mystery. This kid is very raw. He’s only played 33 OHL games across two years thus far and isn’t known for being an overly great skater or puck carrier. The hope is that, with some serious patience, Montgomery can evolve into a physical, stay-at-home defender at some point in the future. He’s the ideal type of talent to use a sixth-round pick on.

187th Overall: G Nikita Quapp

Quapp your hands for Nikita, who was the second goaltender that the Hurricanes selected. The most intriguing thing about Quapp is that he’s only 18 and is already playing in the top men’s league in Germany – the Deutsche Eishockey Liga (DEL). While he had some mixed results, it’s an encouraging sign that he has already earned his coach’s trust at that level at such a young age. Scouts say that he needs to work on both his angles and his assertion in net, but he has all the time in the world to figure it out. This selection was basically just throwing another dart at the board.

Seventh Round

200th Overall: G Yegor Naumov

The final goaltender they selected, all I can say about Naumov is that he had a .888 save percentage in nine games for Krylia Sovetov in the Russian junior league this past season. It’s hard to find information on Naumov, and it seems that not many scouts had him on their radar. I assume that Oleg Smirnov – who’s the Canes’ Russian-based amateur scout – had a lot of influence on this pick. Darren Yorke admitted that it was very tough to scout players live during this year’s draft process, so I think it’s safe to assume that very few teams had boots on the ground deep in Russia scouting minor leagues. So as with all goaltending prospects, we won’t know what Naumov’s NHL potential is until years down the road, but it’s possible that the ‘Canes unearthed a hidden gem here.

209th Overall: C Nikita Guslistov

Another Russian-based talent, Guslistov, was the first over-age player selected in this draft by the Hurricanes. After being passed over in 2020, Guslistov made the jump up to the KHL in Russia – and in the process, became both the youngest player ever to captain his KHL team and the youngest player to ever score a hat-trick in that league. Check it out:

That’s definitely an achievement worth being excited about. And while Guslistov may be a longshot, he’s scored goals at every level in Russia – including the KHL. He has some legitimate skill – soft hands and a very quick release on his shot. He’s a volume shooter who puts the puck in the net at ease. What it comes down to is the two huge question marks surrounding him. One, he’s really small at just 5-foot-9, 170 pounds. Second, he’s playing for Cherepovets Severstal, which is his hometown team. Simply put, you have to wonder if this kid ever plans to make the trip overseas – which is likely a major reason he was taken so late.

219th Overall: D Joel Nystrom

Last but not least, the Hurricanes finished up their class with Nystrom, an undersized defenseman playing in Sweden’s top league. He’s an explosive skater – a must at his size (5-foot-10, 163 pounds) – and has strong puck-moving capabilities. He’s got great hockey sense and is a fluid puck-mover in transition. There’s high upside here for a seventh-round pick.

Final Thoughts

Analyzing this draft class from top to bottom, it’s hard to find many flaws with the haul that the Hurricanes came away with as a whole. While it’s true that they didn’t really add an elite-level prospect, this year’s draft class was minimal on those types of sure-fire high-end players. This was the kind of draft where scouts really earned their salaries, having to pick through a class with a lot of parity throughout and more questions than answers surrounding most eligible prospects. The Canes’ strategy of “the more, the merrier” by trading back and stockpiling picks was a strong one and figures to benefit them in the long run. They drafted for upside, making it’s very plausible that they get some impact NHLers from this class down the road.

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