From the Carolina Hurricanes’ perspective, things could not have gone much better for them in the first round of the 2015 NHL Draft. While the top two picks were signed, sealed and delivered when Edmonton won the NHL Draft Lottery, how the rest of the top 10 would shake out was very much a mystery.
The chips fell exactly as Carolina wanted, with prized defensive prospect Noah Hanifin falling to them at the fifth overall pick. The addition of Hanifin gives the Hurricanes a pool of defensemen that should solidify the team’s blue line for a decade.
From there, Carolina focused mostly on their forward ranks, using six of their remaining eight picks on centers and wings. Throw in another defenseman and a goalie—the sixth picked by the Hurricanes in the last six drafts—and General Manager Ron Francis had his second draft in the books.
Francis continued to differentiate himself from his predecessor and mentor, current Penguins GM Jim Rutherford. That included choosing a defenseman in the first round for the second straight year and selecting three players from the QMJHL—two things Rutherford never did. He also continued to make size a priority, adding six players who measured at least 6’3.
On top of bringing in a large class—both in numbers and size — Francis used the draft to tweak his roster. He exchanged goalies, acquiring Eddie Lack from Vancouver for a 2015 third-round pick and a 2016 seventh-round pick. He also sent Anton Khudobin to Anaheim for veteran offensive defenseman James Wisniewski. By drafting Hanifin and adding Wisniewski, Francis didn’t have to pony up big money on free agents and should have his defense ready come October. Lack is expected to battle Cam Ward for starts in net.
Noah Hanifin, D, Boston College
1st round, 5th overall
Height: 6-3 Weight: 203 lbs
Hanifin was the prized defenseman in this year’s draft, so Carolina felt fortunate that they were able to add him to their stable of blueliners. Hanifin was glad to be picked by a team that was so high on him.
“From the beginning I wanted to go to a team that wanted me,” Hanifin said. “Obviously Carolina saw something in me and I’m going to work as hard as I can for this organization.”
A freshman at Boston College last season, Hanifin was named to Hockey East’s All-Rookie Team and was a Second Team Conference All-Star. He also starred for Team USA at the World Junior Championships. It was not as dominant a season as fellow top-five pick and NCAA freshman Jack Eichel, but it was enough to make him the consensus top defender at this year’s draft.
“Much like [2014 seventh overall pick] Haydn Fleury, his game is still evolving,” Hurricanes Director of Amateur Scouting Tony MacDonald said of Hanifin at the draft. “We haven’t seen the best of Noah Hanifin yet, and what we have right now is a pretty good player. The upside is significant. He has the chance to be a real horse at the NHL level for a long, long time.”
Hanifin’s first NCAA season was indeed impressive. As a first-year collegiate player, Hanifin finished with 23 points—including five goals—in 37 games. He was even better in conference play, finishing tied for 22nd among all players in scoring with 20 points in 25 games, best among all Eagles players.
The Hurricanes, for their part, are hoping Hanifin will turn pro and make the same contribution for them in the near future.
“I think his game is at a point where going back to college isn’t going to improve his game,” MacDonald said. “I think he’s beyond that at this point in time.”
Hanifin prides himself on being reliable in all three zones, but many think that despite his size (6’3, 203 pounds) and skills, his best asset might be how well he thinks the game. Hanifin does need to get stronger and play a more physical game.
Carolina thinks he still might be ready, and while Hanifin knows the jump to the NHL won’t be easy, he exudes confidence.
“Yeah, making that step, obviously it will be a huge adjustment,” Hanifin said. “There are definitely pros and cons to both, but as far as my abilities, you know, I’m very confident in myself and I feel that if I needed to go and play, I could absolutely do it.”
Hanifin said he would talk over his options with his family and advisors and make a decision in the coming weeks. MacDonald also pointed out that even if Hanifin needs seasoning before joining the Hurricanes in Raleigh, turning pro gives him the option of playing in the AHL.
“With young defenseman, it’s asking a lot to have them to come and play right away,” MacDonald said. “But I think we’d like to give him that opportunity to prove that he’s ready to go.”
Sebastian Aho, RW, Karpat (Liiga)
2nd round, 35th overall
Height: 5-11 Weight: 172 lbs
It was no surprise that the Hurricanes targeted a forward in Round 2. With Hanifin in the fold and the cupboards stocked on defense, Francis looked to Finland for the team’s second pick.
Aho is the only smallish player in the Hurricanes’ otherwise big draft, but the Finnish winger’s stick-handling skills, elusiveness and vision made him a target for Carolina.
MacDonald admitted that many of the players they were targeting at 35th overall went in the first round, but by drafting Aho they might have landed the type of smaller player that can make a mark in today’s NHL.
Aho benefits from competing against men in Finland’s league, playing in league champion Karpat’s top nine and finishing with four goals and seven assists in 27 regular season games. Karpat’s confidence in Aho—and the player’s apparent flair for the dramatic—paid off in the postseason, when Aho sealed the league title with a breakaway goal in double overtime of Game 7 against Tappara.
Aho—who shares a name with a Swedish defenseman who was also draft eligible this summer after being passed over last year—was one of the younger players in the draft and will not turn 18 until July 26.
Callum Booth, G, Quebec Remparts (QMJHL)
4th round, 93rd overall
Height: 6’3 Weight: 199 lbs
For the fifth time in six seasons, the Hurricanes selected a goalie at the draft. Unlike last year when they selected reigning OHL Goaltender of the Year Alex Nedeljkovic in the second round, Carolina went with potential instead of concrete results in drafting Booth.
Booth held the starting role for most of last season until the Remparts acquired Zachary Fucale from Halifax for the team’s Memorial Cup run. Booth finished the regular season 23-13-1 with a 3.05 goals-against average and .900 save percentage.
Booth actually wrestled a few starts away from Fucale in the postseason—Quebec lost in the QMJHL finals, but competed in the Memorial Cup as host team, winning one of three games—and should re-assume the starting duties with Fucale poised to turn pro next season.
Booth was recruited to Quebec by its former coach, current Avalanche bench boss Patrick Roy, and plays the butterfly style popularized by the former NHL goaltender. Booth is big and athletic, but needs to get in more games to polish his skills.