Hurricanes’ Mock Draft: Prioritizing Defense

The 2021 NHL Draft is officially just around the corner, and prospect nerds such as myself are foaming at the mouth with excitement. With the COVID-19 virus impacting junior hockey – especially in North America – the 2021 Draft is set to be one of the most unpredictable drafts in history. An abundance of young hopefuls were unable to show their capabilities, and therefore we’re left with a draft class full of parity from top to bottom.

Don Waddell Hurricanes
Don Waddell, Carolina Hurricanes, 2018 NHL Draft, Dallas, TX, June 22, 2018 (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

The Carolina Hurricanes – who’ve made 20 picks over the past two drafts – are currently set to make eight selections. They no longer own a fifth-round pick (it was traded away back in 2019 – for Erik Haula), but they’ve amassed an impressive total of three seventh-rounders – and could potentially add more picks before draft day. The Hurricanes have been regarded as one of the best drafting teams in the NHL as of late, thanks to tremendous work from now-assistant general managers Darren Yorke and Eric Tulsky, who’ve done a phenomenal job in the amateur scouting department over the past several years.

Only a couple of years ago, the Hurricanes were regarded as having one of the top defensive prospect systems in the NHL, but that group has severely depleted recently. Gone from the bunch are former top-10 picks Haydn Fleury and Noah Hanifin. Adam Fox was also moved, Jake Bean has now graduated prospect status, and former hopefuls Luke Martin, Roland McKeown and some others never panned out. Considering their wealth of attacking options, the ‘Canes would be wise to start rebuilding the defensive pipeline, and the 2021 Draft will have some very intriguing options to start that process. Let’s get started.

First Round

27th Overall: F Zach Dean 

Despite the need to restock the blue line, I don’t anticipate many first-round worthy defensemen being available when the Hurricanes step up to the podium at 27th overall. Carson Lambos figures to be off the board by then, and while players like Corson Ceulemans, Danil Chayka and Scott Morrow all have some first-round buzz, each of them has too many question marks surrounding their game for me to feel comfortable drafting them this high – especially with the offensive talent that figures to be available.

So that leads me to Dean, who currently plays for the Gatineau Olympiques of the QMJHL. Being from the area, I watched him in-person multiple times throughout his rookie season in 2019-20. The first time I saw him was during a 3-2 loss to the Rimouski Oceanic. I was in attendance solely to watch Alexis Lafrenière – who was playing for Rimouski – and I had no idea who Dean was at the time. By the end of the first period, he’d stood out to me more than anybody else on the ice.

Dean was only 17 at the time and blew me away with his performance – despite not appearing on the scoresheet. His blazing speed and agility command attention. He was relentless as a puck-carrier through the neutral zone, leading non-stop counter-attacks and has the vision to find open teammates at ease. His hands are quick and deceptive, and his hockey sense is evident. There’s not a lot that he can’t do as an attacker – he’s truly dynamic.

Unfortunately for Dean, Gatineau has been a very weak team during his time there thus far. He’s consistently been the driving force of his line, but due to the skill level of his teammates, his efforts haven’t translated into an explosion of offensive production as of yet. Still, in 80 career QMJHL games, he has 28 goals and 38 assists (66 points) – and was an assistant captain for his team last season.

In a few years, I’m confident that Dean will be a legitimate top-six forward with the ability to play both center and wing. He has a high offensive ceiling, and he plays a brand of hockey that will seamlessly translate into the modern-day NHL. Stylistically, he reminds me of Elias Lindholm, with elite-level elusiveness along the boards and playmaking abilities. If he’s still available when the Hurricanes make their first pick, he makes all the sense in the world for their group.

Second Round

59th Overall: D Kirill Kirsanov

The second round of this draft looks to be full of quality defensemen, so the Canes should have a wealth of options when they get on the clock at 59th overall. I assume one of those options will be Kirsanov, a 6-foot-1, nearly 200-pound Russian defenseman who’s quietly emerging as one of the best defensive defensemen in this draft class.

The first time I saw Kirsanov play was at the 2020 World Junior Championships, whereas an 18-year old, he showed real poise on his Russian team. He’s a fluid skater for his size, and he’s a very smart player defensively. He already has legitimate strength as a teenager and can be an overpowering presence, and when you combine that with strong positional awareness and a calming demeanor on the puck, he’s a kid that has real upside as a shutdown defender.

His maturity allowed him to play in 29 games at the KHL level this past season as an 18-year old, which was the highest total out of any Russian draft-eligible prospect. Even more impressive was that he played those games for SKA St. Petersburg, who are habitually one of the strongest teams in that league. He’s shown growth well beyond his age and would likely be a first-round talent if his offensive game was more rounded.

He doesn’t have elite puck moving ability and his shot isn’t spectacular by any means, but his smarts allow him to be effective in transition. He’s patient and he doesn’t rush his decisions, and his passes are crisp. He’s not a guy that’s going to run a powerplay at any level of pro hockey, but he’s also not the type of defenseman that handles the puck like it’s a live grenade, which makes him a relatively safe pick with high upside.

Kirsanov would be a great addition to a defensive group that lacks true shutdown-type players. Along with fellow countryman Alexander Nikishin, he could develop into a player that could provide the Hurricanes’ defense with a stabilizing presence beside an offensive-minded player like Jake Bean and Anttoni Honka in the future. Regardless, I would expect Carolina to take a defender in this spot, and Kirsanov will be one of the best available if he’s still on the board.

Third Round

91st Overall: LW Danila Klimovich

I didn’t know anything about him beforehand, but Klimovich is a player that I fell in love with during the 2021 U18 World Championships. He stole the show with six goals in just five games during that tournament and really won scouts over with his potent blend of size, speed, compete level and character. At 6-foot-1 and 190 pounds, he has ideal size, and he’s a coveted right-shot sniper.

The reason why there isn’t a whole lot of buzz on Klimovich is that he played in the Belarusian second-tier league, which made exposure for him difficult to come by. However, he scored 28 goals and 52 points in just 37 games in that league, which led all U18 players in points-per-game. Following up that with a dominant performance at the U18 WJC, Klimovich really made scouts take notice, and he’s now soaring up draft boards.

One scout who was blown away by Klimovich’s performance at the U18s was Dan Marr – the current Director of NHL Central Scouting. He had super high praise of the player:

“The size, the skills, the hockey sense are all there for him to be an offensive producing player and he’s consistent in his approach. He’s got NHL speed and competes hard.” said Marr. “Now, he does have a flair for the dramatic at times, but that’s good. It means he’s confident, but, every shift, he’s first on pucks, always going to the net and he’s got that knack to be open and available to get that shot off. …. he’s [always] one of the first forwards coming back on the play. [And] I think the thing that’s impressed me most is that he showed he’s a real leader by example. That’s not always something you get to see in the league games as a younger player or even be able to recognize just by watching on video.”

Dan Marr (NHL Central Scouting) on Danila Klimovich.

Marr admitted that he had a fourth-to-sixth-round draft grade on Klimovich before the tournament but anticipated raising his ranking after watching him live. He also said that Klimovich has no real holes in his game that need to be fixed and that he’d love to see him make the trip overseas to Rouyn-Noranda of the QMJHL next season – after they selected him in the 2020 CHL Import Draft. The jump to North American ice would be big for him, so he can begin to adapt his playing style to the smaller ice surface.

For the Canes, he makes a ton of sense. He’s a gritty, hard-nosed forward with a rapid release. By all accounts, he has great character, which is an area that Rod Brind’Amour-coached teams puts a ton of emphasis on. With proper development, he can become a real force in the NHL somewhere down the road. In my limited viewings, I see many similarities to Brock McGinn in terms of his work ethic, but he’s also proven to be a legitimate goal scorer, which makes him a super enticing option at this stage of the draft.

Fourth Round

123rd Overall: D Aleksi Malinen

Malinen is a player that I had the pleasure of watching a few times throughout the season, as he played for the same team – JYP – as Hurricanes prospects Patrik Puistola and Honka. With his late-May birthdate, Malinen is one of the youngest players in the 2021 Draft, and that makes his success as a 17-year old defenseman in Liiga all the more impressive.

He’s a very mobile skater, with nice edgework and really strong recovery speed. He’s not particularly large at 6-feet, 185lbs, but he has time to continue developing his frame and add strength. One thing that stands out about him is his defensive positioning. He always seems to be in the right spots, and although he wasn’t consistently able to take advantage of that in the games I watched, it’s still a very positive sign. He has a high hockey IQ, which bodes well for his progression as he matures both physically and mentally.

Malinen would be another “upside” pick for the Hurricanes. He’s got the skating ability to be an effective player and he makes smart decisions. However, he’s raw physically and he doesn’t offer a ton offensively right now, which makes him a bit of a project – but he has the tools to be an NHL defender sometime in the future. At his ceiling, he’s probably a second-pair player who specializes in killing penalties and transitioning the puck up ice with his legs.

Sixth Round

187th Overall: G Rasmus Korhonen

Drafting and developing goaltenders in the NHL is basically equivalent to playing darts – you throw as many as you can at the board and hope you land a good one. The Canes have some solid prospects at the position, including Pyotr Kochetkov, Eetu Mäkiniemi and Jack LaFontaine. Still, they don’t have a bona fide elite talent in their system as of right now, and they’d be wise to continue investing assets at the position.

A worthy goaltender to take a late-round flier on is Korhonen, who has coveted NHL size at 6-foot-5, 200 pounds, and was one of the top goaltenders in Finland’s U20 league this past season. Korhonen is set to make the jump up to the Mestis league on loan next season, which is Finland’s version of the AHL. Like most goaltenders at his age, he’s a long-term project, but he has good measurables that are worth a shot at developing.

Seventh Round

200th Overall: D Yevgeni Kashnikov

Kashnikov is a towering, 6-foot-4, 200-pound defenseman who uses every bit of his size out on the ice. I’m not sure if scouts have a draftable grade on him or not, but he’s another player I was able to watch live in Gatineau on multiple occasions, and I always came away impressed by him. He’s not a particularly strong skater, but he’s smart defensively, plays tight gaps and he’s an imposing physical presence out on the ice. I think he’s the perfect type of player to take a late-round flier on.

209th Overall: D Gustavs Ozolins

Another player who really stood out at the U18 World Championships, Ozolins, has many of the qualities that the Hurricanes covet in a defenseman. He’s a great skater, he handles the puck well and he’s outstanding in transition. He’s a smart pincher, and he competes hard for an undersized player at just 5-foot-10, 180 pounds. He played in the Latvian Men’s league last year and was one of the top scorers in that league amongst defensemen, which is really impressive considering he was only 17 years old. He’s committed to play for Bemidji State University in 2022-23 – an NCAA school – which is a positive step for his long-term development in North America.

219th Overall: RW Owen Pederson

I was mildly surprised when Pederson was passed over in last year’s draft, considering he’s a big (6-foot-3, 205 pounds) power forward who proved that he could finish – with 28 goals in 61 games for the WHL’s Winnipeg Ice during the 2019-20 season. He took another step forward this past year – 31 points in 24 games – and his combination of size and strength is intriguing, despite him not being a strong skater.

Pederson has proven to be especially effective on the powerplay, as he uses his frame to his advantage while providing a net-front presence. He gets himself to the paint, takes away the goaltender’s eyes, and has enough skill to capitalize on loose pucks around the crease. He a perfect fit for what the ‘Canes need, and although he’s definitely a work-in-progress, at this stage of the draft, you’re just looking for some intangibles to work with, and Pederson’s measurables make him a worthy candidate to develop.

Recap

When it comes to the modern-day Hurricanes regime, the one thing that they’ve repeatedly proven is that they aren’t afraid to draft players that other NHL teams “red flag” because of their flaws. Their eagerness to draft the best player available on their draft board has led to them selecting players such as Noel Gunler, Honka, Alexander Pashin and Zion Nybeck far later than scouts had projected them to go and have built an extremely deep prospect group thanks to that. I expect that trend to continue in the 2021 Draft, and there’s no doubt in my mind that the Canes will come out of it with another strong class.


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