RALEIGH — The crown jewels of the 2019 NHL Draft class are two dominant forwards: American center Jack Hughes and Finnish power forward Kaapo Kakko.
The New Jersey Devils, who hold the first overall pick thanks to a fortuitous ping pong ball bounce that moved them up two slots, is seemingly going to get a star player regardless of who they choose between Hughes and Kakko.
Hughes has long been considered the prize of the 2019 draft, and with good reason. Despite his slight frame (5-foot-10, 171 pounds), Hughes is considered a can’t-miss star thanks to his skating, skills and smarts. Kakko, on the other hand, has already proven he can play against men by putting up big numbers in Liiga. He further starred at the World Juniors, helping Finland to gold, and then scored six goals in 10 games in the World Championships to earn another gold with his native country.
The Carolina Hurricanes — like the Devils and Rangers this year — benefitted from the lottery last June, selecting Andrei Svechnikov with the second overall pick after moving up in the draft lottery. But after their run to the Eastern Conference Final this spring, the Hurricanes are set to draft 28th overall in the first round on Friday in Vancouver, the lowest the team has picked in Round 1 in franchise history (Carolina traded its first-round pick in 2006, which ended up 30th overall, to get Doug Weight). The final six rounds of the draft will be held Saturday.
Team owner Tom Dundon has already decreed that the team will not use first-round picks on defensemen, but with three second-round picks (36th, 37th — both acquired by trade — and 59th) and 10 picks total, Carolina has plenty of draft ammunition to restock its prospect cupboards or use its extra picks to make roster improvements.
North State Journal’s annual NHL Draft Guide ranks the top 100 prospects and spotlights a few players the Hurricanes could target or are worth keeping an eye on.
Peyton Krebs • C, 6-0, 183 pounds
A couple weeks ago, we wouldn’t have bothered talking about Peyton Krebs (NSJ’s No. 10 draft prospect) as a possibility for the Hurricanes to select at the end of the first round. Unfortunately for the Kootenay Ice center, he suffered a skate laceration to his Achilles tendon that required surgery and will certainly impact his draft status.
That’s terrible news for the 18-year-old who had 19 goals and 49 assists in his second full Western Hockey League season, but it does mean he could slide down teams’ draft boards. Is the injury enough to drop him to the bottom of the first round? It’s impossible to know, but Krebs was once a consensus lottery pick and now may not be.
Krebs is the type of player the Hurricanes tend to target: hard-working, shines in the biggest moments and a leader on the ice.
Spencer Knight • G, 6-4, 193 pounds
Spencer Knight is the clear-cut top goalie in this year’s draft. The Connecticut native and Boston College-bound netminder (NSJ’s No. 28 draft prospect) starred for the U.S. National Team Development Program this past season, and he owns everything talent evaluators look for in a young goalie. Size? Check. Athleticism? Got it. Technique? Wise beyond his years.
All that said, projecting goalies is the toughest part of the scouting business, and there are more first-round flameouts than success stories.
The Hurricanes took goalie Jacob Kucharski in the seventh round a year ago and have drafted at least one in every year since 2014 (when they picked Alex Nedeljkovic in the second round).
If Knight falls down to Carolina, it’s possible they could take him — particulary if he slides all the way down to their 36th of 37th overall pick in the second round.
Connor McMichael • C, 6-0, 182 pounds
London Knights center Connor McMichael exploded in his second Ontario Hockey League season, going from 16 points a year ago (split between London and Hamilton) to 72 points this season, including 36 goals.
But what may interest Carolina most about McMichael, NSJ’s No. 31 draft prospect, is his play away from the puck.
The Ajax, Ontario, native can put up points, but — like Hurricanes second-round pick Jack Drury last year — he is also a responsible two-way player who can be relied on to play in any situation.
London has been a factory for high-end players (Mitch Marner, Matthew Tkachuk, Evan Bouchard, to name a few), and the Knights also seem to get the best out of their roster. The question is whether McMichael is another Max Domi or Bo Horvat, or another Cliff Pu.
38 Ryan Johnson • D, 6-0, 170 pounds
The Hurricanes have done well with American-born defensemen in recent years. Justin Faulk, Brett Pesce and Jaccob Slavin were all NCAA blueliners the team drafted and developed into top-four defenders.
Johnson, NSJ’s No. 38 draft prospect, fits the mold.
The smooth-skating, California-born defenseman doesn’t turn 18 until late July and won’t go to the University of Minnesota, where he’s committed, until 2020.
The son of former NHL forward Craig Johnson — one piece that came back to the Kings when they traded Wayne Gretzky to St. Louis in 1996 — the younger Johnson hasn’t shown off great offensive skills yet, but that could still come as he matures.
Antti Saarela • C, 6-0, 190 pounds
Finland’s Antii Saarela won’t get selected until the draft’s second day, but it’s worth talking about the brother of Hurricanes prospect Aleksi.
The younger Saarela, NSJ’s No. 100 draft prospect, split time between the top and second Finnish league with Lukko last season, registering two goals and eight assists in 24 games against the men in Liiga.
Unlike his older brother, who possesses a top-flight shot that allowed him to score 55 goals with Charlotte over the past two seasons, Antti is more of a rounded player without any standout attributes. He skates and thinks the game well, and he’s sturdy enough to hold his own in his end.
He’s performed well in international play, which is a big plus for any overseas player when they are being evaluated.
Hurricanes draft picks
The Hurricanes have 10 picks heading into this weekend’s NHL Draft, including five in the first 90 selections. Carolina’s first three draft choices will be taken in a 10-pick span — the team’s first-round selection is at No. 28, followed by consecutive picks at 36th and 37th that were acquired in trades with the Sabres and the Rangers, respectively. The Hurricanes own second-round pick is No. 59.
Carolina then has its own draft choices in the third (90th), fourth (121st), fifth (152nd) and sixth (183rd) rounds. The Hurricanes also have Calgary’s sixth-round selection, the 181st pick, that they acquired in a trade with the Flames that included their own 2019 seventh-round sent west. Carolina also has Boston’s seventh-round draft choice, acquired from the Rangers in exchange for the Hurricanes’ seventh-rounder last year.