Carolina GM Jim Rutherford has made it clear in the past that he prefers not to use his first-round picks on defensemen. His logic – and many would agree it is sound – is that by the time a defenseman has grown into becoming a reliable NHL blueliner, the player has become eligible for free agency.
But when highly rated offensive defender Ryan Murphy fell to the Hurricanes at the 12th overall spot in the 2011 NHL Entry Draft, even Rutherford could not pass on the Kitchener Rangers rearguard. In fact, Rutherford couldn’t have been more pleased with the team’s first three selections, plus felt the team filled some depth needs with Carolina’s three other picks in St. Paul, Minn.
Ryan Murphy, D – Kitchener Rangers (OHL)
1st Round, 12th overall
Height: 5’11 Weight: 176 lbs
Murphy was a consensus top-10 prospect by most scouting services and media, so when he fell to Carolina at No. 12, even the Hurricanes – known for avoiding defensemen in the first round – could not pass on the slick-skating, offensive blueliner.
"I can say that that on our list we had one or two forwards ahead of him, that if they slipped to us we would have possibly taken a forward," Rutherford said. "It wasn’t about just targeting a defenseman. But on our list, we had Ryan rated much, much higher than the 12th selection. Not only did he slip on [Central Scouting’s] list, he slipped quite a ways down on where we had him rated."
The Hurricanes knew Murphy pretty well after thoroughly scouting and eventually drafting Jeff Skinner – this past season’s Calder Trophy winner and Murphy’s Kitchener teammate last season – in the first round last year.
"I did ask Jeff Skinner at one point a month or so ago about Ryan, and he gave me thumbs up on him as a teammate," Rutherford said.
Murphy was second among all OHL defensemen in scoring last season, registering 26 goals and 53 assists in 63 regular season games. His play at the World Under-18 Tournament earlier in the year also opened eyes.
"At the World Under-18 tournament he was just outstanding for Canada," Hurricanes director of amateur scouting Tony MacDonald said of Murphy, who was named the tournament’s top defenseman. "Everyone’s looking for those kinds of players today. Those players that can push the pace, and contribute to the offense, and we expect that he’s going to be able to do that."
Murphy numbers jumped dramatically in his draft year, but he knows it will take more than statistics to make it to the NHL.
"I’m a really confident kid, so as of now my plan is to play in the NHL next year," Murphy said. "I’m going to do everything I can this summer to put on the appropriate weight and hopefully by the end of the summer I’ll be mature enough and I’ll be heavy enough to play at the next level."
It’s too soon to know whether or not he can make the leap that soon, but when Murphy fell further than Carolina expected – the team revealed they had him ranked sixth on their draft board – they couldn’t help but take the 18-year-old, regardless of whether or not he’s ready for the NHL in 2011-12.
"We certainly had him high on our list," MacDonald said. "What we liked most about his game is he’s one of the most dynamic defensemen in the game today, and certainly in junior hockey. He rushes the puck very well. He’s the kind of player that makes things happen. When you think that there’s nothing there, he creates something. He has a great shot. He’s a great skater. He can quarterback the power play. [He’s able to] get his shot through to the net consistently. A 79-point season says it all."
It wasn’t long ago that Rask was considered a potential top-10 pick. But after a season of inconsistency that included the Swedish center asking to be sent to the Swedish Elite League’s second division for more playing time, the Hurricanes were thrilled to get Rask in the second round.
"We had him ranked at times in the first round," MacDonald said. "Starting out the season we had him up there. But he dropped back a bit there with the inconsistency and switching teams. We think we might’ve stolen a guy in the spot we are able to pick him."
While Rask’s play was up and down in Sweden (11 points in 37 second division games), like Murphy he stood out at the U-18 Worlds. Rask finished with three goals and two assists in six games for Team Sweden, including a plus-5 rating.
"He had a really strong Under-18 tournament where he was centering [sixth overall pick, to Ottawa, Mika] Zibanejad," MacDonald said. "He did a great job there. He’s got good size. He’s very skilled, very smart, good distributor of the puck. He has a nice quick release and he’s a good skater. He’s a kid who plays well on both sides of the puck, and he’s a good faceoff man also."
While Rutherford and even Rask initially said he would be returning to Sweden for the 2011-12 season, the news had changed by the end of the second day of the draft, with the Carolina GM saying early discussions with Rask’s agent pointed to him coming to North America immediately.
"He’ll come in for the conditioning camp in [mid-July] here," Rutherford said. "He’ll go to rookie camp. He’ll come to our big camp. If he can make the team, he’ll make the team. If he can’t, we’ll have to make a decision at that point in time whether it’s better that he goes back and plays [major] junior or he goes to (Carolina’s AHL affiliate) Charlotte. But we do have the flexibility of possibly putting him Charlotte because he’s not a contracted player in Europe."
With the WHL‘s Calgary Hitmen taking Rask with the third overall pick in the CHL Import Draft, it looks like everyone in North America is placing bets that the young center will be on this side of the Atlantic sooner rather than later.
Rask is known for his offensive pay, but both he and the Canes think he is capable at both ends of the ice.
"I think my best thing is handling the puck, and I’m an offensive forward but good in defense too," Rask said. "So I’m a two-way forward."
While Carolina’s two first picks (a rare defenseman in the first and an even more infrequent early round pick used on a European-born player), the selection of Lowe was much more in the Hurricanes’ wheelhouse. With two Staals, three Sutters (more on this in the seventh round) and several players with a connection to the NHL, the Canes’ selection of Lowe – the son of Kevin, a member of the Oilers’ ’80s dynasty and long-time Edmonton executive – wasn’t a surprise.
If one knows the elder Lowe’s game from back in the day, they will easily recognize Keegan’s style. He’s a stay-at-home blueliner who brings character and grit to the back end.
"Keegan Lowe is a much better player than he was given credit for," MacDonald said. "He played a very physical game as a 6-1, 170 pound defenseman most of the year. But the fact of the matter is he’s more like 6-2, 195 pounds now. He skates very well. He’s got size. He’s got skill. He moves the puck. He plays a physical, involved game. Of course we know the bloodlines are there with his dad, Kevin. We were pretty pleased we were able to pick him where we did."
So while Lowe is still officially listed at what could be described as wiry, he has already added more height and bulk to his frame. Still, the defenseman knows he will need to get bigger, stronger and faster to eventually make it to the NHL.
"The two biggest things are just becoming a stronger overall player, strength-wise and my attributes," Lowe said. "And my biggest thing I need to work on technically is my first-step quickness. I feel like I’m a pretty good skater once I get up to speed, but the first couple steps are something that can be worked on pretty easily. I think if I can fix that up a bit it will help me a lot."
Lowe will likely never fill up the scoresheet (two goals, 22 assists in 71 games with the Oil Kings last season), but he isn’t afraid to mix it up (123 penalty minutes) and is already developing into a reliable shutdown defender (team-best plus-33 last season, a plus-49 improvement over his previous campaign).
And while he grew up rooting for the Oilers – he was at Game 7 in Raleigh when the Hurricanes defeated Edmonton in Game 7 in 2006 to win the Stanley Cup – the younger Lowe seems ready to step out of his father’s shadow.
"Our guys were quite high on him, actually, and would’ve picked him before that pick," Kevin Lowe said. "But he had asked that we don’t pick him, that he wanted to go make his own way. I’m really proud of him for that."
Keegan will leave eventually leave Western Canada for one of the NHL’s Sun Belt teams, but it’s not totally unfamiliar territory.
"What I noticed when I was down there [for the Finals] is how big hockey actually is down in Raleigh, and I didn’t know that before I went down there," Keegan Lowe said. "So it opened my eyes a bit to the warmer places down on the East Coast."
The number of Swiss players to crack the NHL is pretty small, and even smaller if you don’t include goaltenders. But the Hurricanes think they might have found a future NHLer in Hofmann.
"For a Swiss player, he’s very involved on the puck," MacDonald said. "He’s great on the forecheck, very disruptive on the forecheck. He’s got the quick feet to get on top of the defense and force the play. He’s got good speed. He skates well, has got a good shot. He plays the point on the power play on his team over there. He’s a speedy winger, but he can also play in the middle, so he’s a two-position player."
International Scouting Services had rated Hofmann the most underrated player in this year’s class in their draft preview guide, then after draft named him the best value selection in the fourth round.
"With Hofmann, according to our scouting staff, he can really skate and he’s a highly skilled guy," Rutherford said. "Of course, with the Swiss guys they don’t get the same exposure. But there are guys that have played coming out of there, and we do have high hopes for him."
Hofmann will need to prove he can step up against better competition, though he has been playing in Switzerland‘s top men’s league (three goals, nine assists in 41 games) and did perform well for the Swiss at last winter’s World Under-20 Championships.
"He’ll probably come to our conditioning camp in July," MacDonald said. "Whether he’ll be available for rookie camp and Traverse City, I’m not sure yet because he’s under contract for another year. We don’t have a problem with him playing another year in the Elite league over there [in Switzerland]."
Matt Mahalak, G – Plymouth Whalers (WHL)
6th Round, 163rd overall
Height: 6’2 Weight: 183 lbs
It wouldn’t be an entry draft without Carolina selecting from their de facto farm team, the Peter Karmanos Jr.-owned Plymouth Whalers. In 2011, it was the Whalers’ backup goalie, Mahalak, who was acquired by the Hurricanes.
While Rutherford admits the Hurricanes, also owned by Karmanos, could influence things in Plymouth, he said it was up to the staff there to determine playing time for the Whalers’ nets.
"We have to let the coach decide that," Rutherford said. "I guess we do have a little bit of pull being the same guy owns the same two teams. But we haven’t got that far yet. I know our scouting staff really likes him and we’ll have to keep an eye on that and what is best for his development."
As for Mahalak, he knew of the Carolina and Plymouth link and thought it was possible he could end up staying in the Karmanos hockey family.
"It was kind of in the back of my mind that they would be interested," Mahalak said. "I met with them when I was up in Toronto at the Combine and they expressed an interest there. They’ve had a history of keeping people in the organization through Plymouth and to Carolina. So it was definitely one of the teams that I always got excited when they were about to pick."
Mahalak finished the season 8-8-4 with a 3.08 goals-against average and .908 save percentage.
Brody Sutter, C – Lethbridge Hurricanes (WHL)
7th Round, 193rd overall
Height: 6’4 Weight: 220 lbs
Brody is the latest Sutter to come to Carolina, joining cousins Brandon (center with the Hurricanes) and Brett (AHL prospect in Charlotte) as part of the organization. The latest Sutter went undrafted last season, but the 19-year-old had 42 points in just 46 games this past year – a huge bump from the 14 points he had in 72 games the previous season. Clearly the Hurricanes were impressed with Sutter’s output and size, to go along with the familiar bloodlines.
"In Sutter’s case, he’s a big guy," Rutherford said. "He’s gone through the draft before but we do think he has a chance to turn pro and play in Charlotte this year. This was a guy who was talked about in our meetings. Our scouts talked about him and we were going to take him anywhere from the fourth to the seventh round, and it ended up that we rolled the dice and waited for in the last round. But he’s a player we could’ve taken as high as the fourth round."