Luke DeCock

Carolina Hurricanes’ defensive prospects gathering strength

Even without first-round draft pick Noah Hanifin, who is still nursing an injury suffered this summer, the group of defensemen that will take the ice in Traverse City, Mich., this weekend is the strongest the Carolina Hurricanes have ever sent to a rookie tournament.

There have been years, many years, where the Hurricanes iced rookie teams that didn’t have a single future NHL defenseman on the roster. This year’s edition would have had three sure things with Hanifin, and still has two in Hadyn Fleury and Brett Pesce. They’ll both play in the NHL eventually, the only questions are how much and for how long.

Josh Wesley, Trevor Carrick and Roland McKeown all have a shot, and the same is true to a lesser extent of Jaccob Slavin and Tyler Ganly. All told, it’s realistic to expect four or five defensemen on this team to see time in the NHL, and probably two or three to land as top-six defensemen, with Hanifin a potential star.

This has been building for a while, thanks to a new emphasis on defensive prospects. The fruits of this investment have yet to surface in the NHL, but sending this group to this tournament is the logical next step.

The best classes the Hurricanes previously assembled were in 2009, with future NHLers Jamie McBain, Brett Bellemore, Michal Jordan and Rasmus Rissanen, and in 2011, with Justin Faulk, Ryan Murphy and Rissanen.

There isn’t a Faulk in this group, not with Hanifin hurt, but what it lacks in star power it makes up in potential and depth.

The Hurricanes have sent better groups of forwards and better goalies to rookie tournaments – 2003, with Eric Staal and Cam Ward, and 2005, with Andrew Ladd and Justin Peters, had both – but having a group of young defenseman this promising is a dramatic shift for an organization that for decades avoided drafting defensemen early and was too often burned dramatically when it did.

Under Jim Rutherford, the Hurricanes drafted defensemen in the first round only five times in 20 years. Nikos Tselios (22nd overall, 1997) played a grand total of two NHL games. Igor Knyazev (15th overall, 2001) never played a single one. David Tanabe (16th overall, 1999) was a legitimate middle-tier NHLer and Jack Johnson (third overall, 2005) refused to sign in 2006, was traded away and has been a solid player if not the superstar he was thought to be.

The jury is still out on Murphy (12th overall, 2011), who to date has shown neither the mentality nor the overall ability to be an NHL regular, although at 22, he still has a shot. This season is a pivotal one for him.

The Hurricanes had better luck in later rounds with Faulk (second round, 2010) and McBain (second round, 2006) as well as Niclas Wallin, a fourth-round pick in 2000 as an older European pro, but there weren’t enough of them to make up for the lack of first-round talent coming through the system on defense.

Rutherford’s oft-cited philosophy was that by the time defensemen were ready to contribute, they were on the verge of free agency. And for a while, the Hurricanes were able to collect enough contributors via trades or free agency (Aaron Ward, Bret Hedican, Mike Commodore, Frantisek Kaberle, Tim Gleason, Joni Pitkanen) to put together a playoff-caliber blue line. When Rutherford lost his touch (Tomas Kaberle, Josef Melichar, Ian White) there wasn’t enough in the system to fill in the gaps.

Restocking the system in that area with elite talent was a top priority for Ron Francis when he took over. He has used both of his first-round picks on defensemen, Fleury in 2014 and Hanifin in 2015. Throw in a few later-round draft picks from Rutherford’s final years who are on the cusp of the NHL, and the Hurricanes have some promise in terms of both strength and depth on the blue line.

Minus Hanifin, they’ll be on the ice in Traverse City, one step closer to the NHL.

DeCock:, @LukeDeCock, 919-829-8947