Luke DeCock

Hurricanes’ NHL Draft path is clear, for once

The NHL draft is a fickle and complicated operation, tricky to negotiate, fraught with peril.

For the Carolina Hurricanes on Friday, the first round is easy. For once.

If defenseman Noah Hanifin is available when they pick fifth overall, the Hurricanes can take him and put together what is potentially a foundation blue-line trio for the future with Hanifin, Justin Faulk and 2014 first-round pick Haydn Fleury.

If Hanifin is gone, they can trade down somewhere within the top 10 with a team that wants forwards Dylan Strome or Mitch Marner, one of whom will be there if Hanifin is not, picking up whatever extra picks are available along the way.

It’s that simple.

The reasoning behind that simplicity is complex. The draft always is. But the scenario plays out something like this:

Connor McDavid and Jack Eichel will go 1-2 to the Edmonton Oilers and Buffalo Sabres. That’s a no-brainer.

Hanifin, the Boston College freshman who was the consensus top player behind those two phenom forwards for most of the season before a few other players gathered late momentum, is coveted by several teams.

The Arizona Coyotes, picking third, are relatively stocked on defense. So they might go for Strome, a burly Ontario center, or Marner, a smallish but skilled winger who has drawn comparisons to Patrick Kane. Or they might trade the pick to a team that wants to move up and take Hanifin. The Columbus Blue Jackets, picking sixth, are the main threat.

All of that is outside the Hurricanes’ control.

But if the Coyotes keep the pick and take Strome, there’s a pretty good shot the Toronto Maple Leafs take Marner at No. 4 and Hanifin falls to the Hurricanes, which would be an amazing stroke of luck – the kind they just missed when Seth Jones fell to fourth in 2013 and the Hurricanes were picking fifth. It would have seemed ludicrous in January, when Hanifin was a lock to go No. 3, but it’s definitely a realistic scenario now.

If Hanifin is gone, then two of Strome, Marner and defenseman Ivan Provorov, a Russian who has played the past two seasons in North America and who many teams rate as highly as Hanifin, will be left.

The Hurricanes don’t really need a big center, assuming they hang onto the Staal brothers, and they’re a long way from being in a position to benefit from another small, skilled winger – they have bigger, more fundamental needs to fill. (Even Jeff Skinner is a bit of a spare part at the moment, which is why the Hurricanes are quietly exploring what they can get for him.) As for a Russian defenseman in the first round, the Hurricanes have historically had certain strengths and weaknesses in the draft. Two words: Igor Knyazev. Stay with what you know.

With McDavid and Eichel and Hanifin gone, the pool of prospects gets a little shallower. The Hurricanes are likely to get a player in the ninth or 10th spot they like just as much as who’s available at No. 5, and get extra picks in the process from a team that really likes Strome or Marner or Provorov.

If all goes well, Hanifin will slide. As the Chicago Blackhawks have shown, if you have three really good defensemen, you can fill out the blue line with retreads and kids because they won’t have to play that much or in difficult situations. Faulk is there now. Fleury didn’t impress last season but still has worlds of potential. Hanifin is an elite defensive prospect for his age.

If that doesn’t work out, there’s no reason to keep the fifth pick. Some years, there just isn’t interest. But with Marner, Strome or Provorov guaranteed to be there, there will be teams wanting to move up. Moving down a few spots could bring a healthy reward.

Either way, the Hurricanes either land a potential franchise defenseman at No. 5 or they move down and pick up an extra pick or two while still landing a comparable player. For once, they can’t lose.

DeCock: ldecock@newsobserver.com, @LukeDeCock, 919-829-8947

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