After a nearly eight-hour marathon Day 2 of the NHL Draft, a weary Darren Yorke — the Carolina Hurricanes director of player personnel — was quick to credit the months of work his scouts and staff put in to give the team the intelligence it needed to select its latest crop of teenagers.
What were the scouts charged with looking for?
“We’re going to have a common thread, and it’s going to be hockey sense,” Yorke said of the eight players taken over two days at the virtual event.
That started at the top with Tuesday’s choice of forward Seth Jarvis (NSJ No. 15) with the 13th overall selection and carried through until the 208th pick, defenseman Ronan Seeley.
So attributes that were red flags in years passed — like picking four players under 6 feet and five Europeans — were nonfactors when it came to making decisions from the Hurricanes locker room that served as Carolina’s war room.
“It’s so hard to identify and select great players that we think that are going to be able to take the next step,” Yorke said of concerns about choosing three Russian players — something Carolina had never done before. “I don’t think we’d be doing our jobs if we were to bypass or add another variable into the equation.”
And Yorke made it clear that the No. 1 variable was hockey sense.
After Tuesday’s selection of Jarvis, it continued with Swedish right winger Noel Gunler (NSJ No. 27), the 41st overall pick who the Hurricanes see as a second first-rounder.
“I know it sounds cliche when teams say they don’t expect the player to be there, but we really didn’t,” Yorke said of Gunler. “So for us to get a player that has the speed and skill and hockey sense in the second round wasn’t something we expected.”
Gunler, a 6-foot-2, 174-pound needed right-handed shot, had four goals and nine assists in 45 games with Lulea last season playing against men in the low-scoring Swedish Hockey League. One concern with Gunler is a reputation of having some attitude issues, something Yorke brushed aside.
“Jesper Sellgren (a Carolina 2018 sixth-round pick) has played with Noel Gunler,” Yorke said. “We have done our research on him, we’re thrilled to have him, and we don’t think any of those reports or anything like that are justified.”
Gunler, who turned 19 on Wednesday, said he’s both a scorer and playmaker, but he is also committed to a 200-foot game.
“I think I’m pretty good that two-way player, can play in both ends,” he said, “but the offensive zone is, for sure, my biggest thing.”
The Hurricanes used their next second-round pick on the first of three Russians, selecting forward Vasily Ponomarev (NSJ No. 44) 53rd overall. Ponomarev, who came to North America last year and plays for Shawinigan in the QMJHL, had 18 goals and 49 points in 57 games last season.
“This is a player that knows how to play from an offensive standpoint, knows how to play from the defensive standpoint, and as he transitions to the pro game, it’s going to be a pretty easy step because of how smart he is,” said Yorke, who pointed out that Ponomarev — 5-foot-10, 180 pounds — has been deployed both in defensive and offensive roles in his young career.
Ponomarev, who noted that former Hurricanes player and current director of forward development Sergei Samsonov is from his hometown, has high expectations for his Carolina career.
“I’m a hard worker,” Ponomarev said, “and I will help you to win the Stanley Cup.”
In the third round, Carolina took the first of two defensemen, selecting Alexander Nikishin (NSJ No. 97) with the 69th pick.
Nikishin played 29 games in the KHL last season and has a reputation as a big hitter, but the 6-foot-3, 196-pound blueliner is really in the mold of Carolina’s current defense — a puck-moving defender who can contribute in all three zones.
“For an 18-year-old going against men and, probably, the best league outside of the NHL, he’s able to hold his own,” Yorke said.
Yorke also mentioned that Nikishin, like Ponomarev, has had the opportunity to play in both offensive and defensive roles — experience that the team believes will help his path to the NHL.
“We think about the transition for young kids as they go from the KHL or the MHL (Russian junior league) to the NHL, he already has a leg up because he’s able to play that defensive roll with some offensive element against the really tough competition.”
With the 115th pick, Carolina selected left wing Zion Nybeck (NSJ No. 53) in the fourth round. The knock on Nybeck is obvious — he’s listed at 5-foot-6. But that didn’t keep one scout saying dealing with the 18-year-old Swede is “like trying to tackle a tree stump.”
“Unfortunately, everyone, when they look at him, they look at his size,” Yorke said. “And that’s really unfortunate because of how smart, how skilled he is. … (Nybeck) has the ability to take the puck from the neutral zone and get into the offensive zone. He’s able to do it through skill, he’s able to do it through speed, he’s able to do it from a hockey sense perspective and understand how to read spacing.”
Nybeck had 66 points playing in Sweden’s second league last year and has moved the SHL this year.
“I think I’m a pretty smart player,” Nybeck said, “and I think I’m just growing more and more and in my game.”
After trading down and gaining an extra seventh-round pick for 2021, Carolina chose Lucas Mercuri (not in NSJ’s rankings) out of Des Moines of the USHL at No. 159 of the fourth round.
Unlike Nybeck, there’s no size concern with Mercuri, a 6-foot-3, 191-pound center from LaSalle, Quebec, who is committed to UMass-Amherst for the 2021-22 academic year.
Like other late-round project picks by the Hurricanes in recent years (see David Cotton and Steven Lorentz in 2015), Mercuri is a big body who will have plenty of time to see if he can pan out since he’s not scheduled to complete college until 2025.
“Lucas Mercuri is another one of these smart players that that can transition the puck,” Yorke said. “To have the hands that he has at 6-3 is pretty impressive.”
Armed with two picks in the seventh round, Carolina selected Russian right wing Alexander Pashin (NSJ No. 64) and Seeley (NSJ No. 116), a Canadian defenseman.
In Pashin, the Hurricanes got one of the biggest fallers in the draft with the 199th pick. Ranked as high as a second-round pick by several scouts, the 5-foot-8, 154-pounder played with Ponomarev internationally last year, and the duo clicked.
“He and Ponomarev played together at the Ivan Hlinka, and Ponomarev was able to feed Pashin just to score goals,” Yorke said.
Pashin’s slide from possible second-rounder to the draft’s final round can, like Nybeck, be attributed to his size. Again, it didn’t concern Yorke and the Hurricanes.
“He’s still able to bring that high-end skill level while competing against men,” he said of Pashin’s play in the KHL.
As for Seeley, the 6-foot, 176-pounder from the WHL’s Everett is another three-zone defender who needs to round out his game to earn a pro contract down the road.
“Extremely, extremely fast skater … with Ronan, he’s able to get up in the play, he’s able to hold tight gaps, he’s able to play the style that we love here in Carolina,” Yorke said.
He had 32 points a year ago with the Silvertips, more than tripling his output from the year before.