Future of defense looks bright in Carolina

By Cory Lavalette
Carolina Hurricanes defenseman Ryan Murphy

Photo: Defenseman Ryan Murphy is not only the top prospect for the Carolina Hurricanes but among the top defensive prospects in all of hockey. (Photo courtesy of Jamie Kellner)

 

One could argue that since the Hartford Whalers became the Carolina Hurricanes, the franchise has never had the true number one defenseman most teams covet. Even the 2006 Stanley Cup-winning team was a mash-up of role players.

Veteran shutdown defender Glen Wesley was once so highly regarded as an offensive defenseman that the Whalers gave up three first-round picks for him, but by the time his career was finished he was instead one of the league's best positional, defense-first rearguards. Swift-skating Bret Hedican had the size and speed every team wants in a top blueliner, but he was always better-suited in a defensive role. Mike Commodore was better known for his ever-growing red hair and eccentric personality than his play – a mix of size, intimidation and understated smart play. Despite having a great season in 2005-06, Frank Kaberle was still "the other Kaberle" to brother Tomas. Aaron Ward was a former fifth-overall pick by Winnipeg that was much-maligned in Detroit despite playing a significant role in their 1997 championship team. And finally, rugged Niclas Wallin was a tough defender with a flair for the dramatic, specifically in the postseason.

Wallin was also the only player drafted and developed by the Hurricanes, as the others all came to the franchise via trade or free agency. General Manager Jim Rutherford has always proclaimed that the development curve of defensemen makes it difficult to justify using first-round picks on one.

To that end, the team has often acquired defensemen once they have turned a corner developmentally and are ready to contribute. This year's team has dressed 10 defensemen, and only two were drafted by Carolina.

But times they are likely a-changing in Raleigh. The Hurricanes inserted one rookie blueliner – Justin Faulk – into their lineup this season with fantastic results. Suffice to say more homegrown blue line talent is on the way.

1. (2) Ryan Murphy, D, 8C
Drafted 1st round, 12th overall, 2011

Murphy's first post-draft season was derailed after he suffered a serious concussion in early November. But the dynamic defenseman regained form and was red-hot after not earning a spot on Canada's World Junior team.

Murphy finished the regular season ranked fifth in the OHL in defenseman scoring with 11 goals and 43 assists in 49 games, but all but nine of those 54 points came in the season's final 33 games. From December 29th on, Murphy was arguably the OHL's best offensive defenseman, and he helped push the Kitchener Rangers into the third round of the OHL playoffs and finished the postseason with 22 points (two goals, 20 assists) in just 16 games.

He will likely compete for a roster spot with the Hurricanes next season.

2. (4) Brian Dumoulin, D, 7.5B
Drafted 2nd round, 51st overall, 2009

Three years of college, two NCAA championships and an armful of awards later, Dumoulin finally decided to turn pro. The rangy defenseman was one of the linchpins in Boston College's success the past three seasons, and with just a few classes remaining to earn his degree and nothing more to accomplish at the collegiate level he was ready to make the move. Dumoulin was named Hockey East's top defensive defenseman each of the past two seasons, a consensus first-team performer in the conference in 2011-12, and one of 10 finalists for this year's Hobey Baker Award honoring college hockey's best player.

When Carolina selected him 51st overall in 2009, Dumoulin was the youngest player in his draft class but had impressed at the NHL Scouting Combine with his size. After three years with the Eagles, Dumoulin grew another inch (now 6'4) and is up to 210 pounds. He finished his career at Boston College with 83 points in 123 games, including scoring seven goals and 21 assists for 28 points this season, all team highs among Eagles defenseman. He also helped the United States to a bronze medal at the Under-20 World Junior tournament, registering two assists in six games.

Dumoulin joined the AHL's Charlotte Checkers for the end of the regular season, but did not play and the team was eliminated from a postseason berth after losing its regular season finale. Like Murphy, Dumoulin should compete for a roster spot in 2012-13.

3. (1) Zac Dalpe, C, 7.5B
Drafted 2nd round , 45th overall, 2008

Dalpe took a step back in his development in 2011-12, failing to secure a full-time roster spot with Carolina and scoring 25 fewer points (32) than he had the previous season with the Charlotte Checkers in just five fewer games. Furthermore, Dalpe did not score a goal and had just three assists in all of April (eight games) with the Checkers pushing for a playoff spot.

Still, the Hurricanes haven't given up on Dalpe. With the team planning on adding a top-line forward to complement Eric Staal this offseason, the Hurricanes won't need Dalpe to be their savior in that role as some expected he could or should be. He still has the speed and goal-scoring acumen to make an impact, and attempting to do so in a lesser role could take the pressure off the 22-year-old. It could very well come down to his performance in training camp, otherwise he could find himself buried on the depth chart like former first-rounder Zach Boychuk was this season.

4. (5) Victor Rask, C, 8D
Drafted 2nd round, 42nd overall, 2011

Victor Rask's first season in North America was a success. The Swedish center was among the WHL's best first-year players this season, finishing second among rookies in goals (33) and third in points (63), plus his 14 power play goals ranked tied for 15th in the entire league. But a knee injury in the regular season finale cost Rask a chance to play in the postseason, with the Calgary Hitmen being eliminated in the first round with both Rask and captain Cody Sylvester – the team's top two centermen – out of the lineup.

Still, there's no denying how good Rask was this season. He was arguably the Hitmen's most dynamic player, dazzling with his vision and knack for creating offense. The debate now revolves around if he would benefit from another season in the WHL or should the Hurricanes give Rask a chance in the AHL or even in Raleigh. Like with the majority of Carolina's forward prospects, Rask's destination will likely be determined in training camp.

5. (NR) Jeremy Welsh, C, 7C
Signed as free agent, April 6th, 2012

Union College's dramatic run to the Frozen Four may have ended with a loss to Ferris State in the NCAA semifinals, but Welsh's roller coaster was just beginning. Just hours after Union was eliminated, Welsh signed a one-year deal with Carolina that allowed him to play in the Hurricanes' season finale in Florida.

Welsh clearly had some jitters in his lone professional game, taking two minor penalties, but he showed he belonged by creating scoring chances and using his big frame (6'3, 200 pounds) in the offensive zone.

Welsh was Union's top goal scorer and point producer this past season with 27 goals and 44 points in 40 games, so the Hurricanes are hoping he can join Staal and Sutter to give the team a great 1-2-3 punch down the middle next season and beyond.

6. (8) Bobby Sanguinetti, D, 7C
Drafted 1st round, 21st overall, 2006 (NYR)
Acquired via trade June 26th, 2010

Sanguinetti had an excellent bounce-back season after a disastrous 2010-11. An injury-filled campaign held him to just 15 points in 31 games then, but he was the Checkers number two scorer this year with 50 points in 60 games, setting career highs in goals (10) and assists (40) while also earning his first recall to the Hurricanes.

The Carolina defense corps is deep with offensive-minded defensemen, so Sanguinetti will be in a battle to try and make his way on to the Carolina roster, especially with Murphy and Dumoulin pushing for an early shot. Sanguinetti was signed to a one-year, two-way contract this spring and will be given an opportunity to compete for a spot in camp.

7. (NR) Evgeni Dadonov, RW, 7C
Drafted 3rd round, 71st overall, 2007 (FLA)
Acquired via trade January 18th, 2012

After a good showcasing with the Panthers in 2010-11, Dadonov was lost in the mix under new Florida coach Kevin Dineen and eventually traded to Carolina in an exchange of AHL prospects. With 19 points in 35 games with the Checkers, Dadonov didn't perform poorly but also didn't stand out in a half season in Charlotte.

Carolina has opportunities at right wing, so if Dadonov is qualified – he's an RFA – a good training camp coupled with his creativity could give the 23-year-old Russian a shot at making Carolina's roster. However, chances are he will be back in Charlotte to start the year, assuming he chooses to stay in North America.

8. (9) Chris Terry, LW, 7C
Drafted 5th round, 132nd overall, 2007

It's been a long road for Terry, but when the lights went out on the 2011-12 season he found himself atop the Charlotte Checkers scoring race. While comparing his numbers this season (16 goals, 43 assists for 59 points) to last year's (34 goals and 64 points) makes one wonder if Terry's production regressed, it's worth noting that the Checkers went from a team with six 20-plus goal scorers in 2010-11 to having just two this year.

Being a leading scorer is not unfamiliar territory for Terry, who twice led the Plymouth Whalers during his OHL years and finished just one point behind Zach Boychuk for the Charlotte points lead last season. Terry's evolution into an all-around player who can score, be a playmaker, and also hold his own in his end has him knocking at an opportunity to be a call-up next season. He is an RFA this offseason, and if he is re-signed – one has to believe he will be – he could earn an in-season promotion in 2012-13.

9. (10) Riley Nash, C, 6.5B
Drafted 1st round, 21st overall, 2007 (EDM)
Acquired via trade June 26th, 2010

Nash was the biggest surprise among the forwards at training camp last season, and his consistent two-way play earned him five games with the Hurricanes in 2011-12. The addition of Welsh will limit Nash's chances to crack the top nine at center, but his defense-first style could earn him a spot as a fourth-line center with a chance to move up if needed.

Nash finished with 20 points (eight goals, 12 assists) in 58 games with Charlotte last year and he had his first NHL point, an assist, during his brief stint in Raleigh. He will be in the mix to earn a spot as a checker with Carolina in training camp.

10. (11) Danny Biega, D, 7C
Drafted 3rd round, 76th overall, 2010

Like Faulk, Biega doesn't have the measurables that make scouts drool. But the Harvard blueliner, who was recently named the team's captain for the 2012-13 season, packs a stout punch all over the ice. Biega piled up awards in 2011-12, being named a first-team All-American, all-ECAC, and also the conference's defensive defenseman of the year. Toss in 10 goals and 25 assists, and it's easy to see why the Crimson will lean heavily on Biega next year, as they have since he followed in brothers Alex and Michael's footsteps at Harvard.

Despite measuring just 6 feet tall, Biega was one of the strongest players at the NHL Combine in 2010, and he weighs 200-plus pounds and is known for using his stocky frame to out-muscle opponents. Biega will be a senior this coming fall.

11. (12) Mark Alt, D, 7C
Drafted 2nd round, 53rd overall, 2010

Comparing Alt to Biega is like comparing apples to oranges. Or maybe hockey pucks to footballs. While Biega's family is a 21st century hockey institution at Harvard, Alt's father was a long-time NFL offensive lineman – heck, even Mark Alt's profile picture here at Hockey's Future is of him in a football uniform. Furthermore, Alt's 6'3 frame and athleticism oozes potential. But for all the polish in Biega's game, there's a raw, untapped potential to Alt's. And after two years at powerhouse Minnesota, that promising talent is starting to break through.

Alt finished second among Gophers' defensemen in scoring this past season, registering five goals and 17 assists in 43 games during his sophomore campaign. He also led the Gophers in blocked shots and his plus-19 was second among Minnesota defensemen. He will return to the Golden Gophers for his junior season in the fall.

12. (13) Mike Murphy, G, 6B
Drafted 6th round, 165th overall, 2008

Due to injuries in Raleigh, Murphy earned his first recall to the NHL in 2011-12. He also now holds the dubious record of being the only goalie in league history to record a loss before allowing a goal after he earned the loss due an empty-net marker by the Flames that moved the loss from Cam Ward's stats on to Murphy's.

Other than that, it was another developmental season for Murphy. He again shared duties in net with Justin Peters, as he did two seasons prior, and finished with a respectable 18-15-2 record. His goals-against average (2.74) and save percentage (.908) each dipped this past season, but his performance was enough to draw attention from the KHL – Murphy, a restricted free agent, announced via Twitter that he had had signed to play in Russia for HC Spartak next season.

13. (16) Austin Levi, D, 6.5C
Drafted 3rd round, 85th overall, 2010

Levi was considered a work-in-progress when he was selected by the Hurricanes, but no one knows the Plymouth Whalers better than Carolina since both teams are owned by Peter Karmanos. So far, selecting Levi looks like a wise choice. Rangy (6'4) and athletic, Levi has improved in each of his OHL campaigns, culminating with a 30-point season in 2011-12 and 10 points in 13 postseason games for the Whalers.

Levi will now need to make the next step and battle for minutes in Charlotte against several other highly touted defensive prospects, having signed his entry-level deal in March.

14. (15) Keegan Lowe, D, 6.5C
Drafted 3rd round, 73rd overall, 2011

It's no surprise that Keegan Lowe is a steady and reliable defender. He also knows how to win – just like his dad, Edmonton Oilers great Kevin Lowe. The younger Lowe was a key part in the Edmonton Oil Kings WHL title this season. And while Lowe and the Oil Kings fell short at the Memorial Cup, it's without a doubt a great learning experience for the young blueliner.

Lowe put up similar numbers to those from his draft year, registering three goals and 20 assists in 72 games, plus a team-high 139 penalty minutes. Many of those came via fights, with Lowe dropping the gloves 11 times during the regular season and two more times in the playoffs – a noticeable difference from the way his father Kevin played. Lowe will be back with the Oil Kings in 2012-13.

15. (17) Michal Jordan, D, 6.5C
Drafted 4th round, 105th overall, 2011

After a surprisingly solid rookie season, Jordan was again reliable for Charlotte. The question is if reliable and steady is enough to make headway given the Hurricanes impressive stable of young defensemen.

He ranked second among the Checkers' defensemen in scoring with 22 points (four better than the 18 he registered in 2010-11) but will need to have an impressive third season if he is going to make headway toward becoming an NHLer.

16. (18) Justin Shugg, LW, 6.5C
Drafted 4th round, 105th overall, 2010

Simply put, Justin Shugg is a winner. After nearly claiming a third-straight Memorial Cups during his junior career – falling just short with Missassauga in 2011 after winning twice in Windsor – Shugg was a key component of the Florida Everblades run to the ECHL title in 2011-12.

Shugg split time between Charlotte and Florida during the regular season, but joined the Everblades for the postseason and had 12 points (seven goals and five assists) in just 11 playoff games in helping Carolina's ECHL affiliate win the Kelly Cup. That included scoring the first goal in the Cup-clinching win vs. Las Vegas on May 23.

Shugg will be looking to carve out a permanent spot in Charlotte in 2012-13 and hopefully bring his winning ways to the next level.

17. (19) Jerome Samson, RW, 6C
Signed as free agent, July 7th, 2007

Samson continues to be a dominant force in the AHL, but his chances of making his way into a full-time role with the Hurricanes are getting slimmer by the season. For the second straight year, Samson earned an extended stay in Raleigh, following up 23 games in 2010-11 with 16 games this past season – including scoring his first two NHL goals. He also had his fifth-straight 20-goal season in the AHL and his 37 points ranked fourth on the Checkers despite playing in just 57 games in Charlotte.

Samson is an RFA this offseason, so Carolina will need to decide if they want to give him another chance at making his mark, or if it's time to move on and let less experienced players get some of his ice time in Charlotte.

18. (20) Brett Sutter, LW, 5.5B
Drafted 6th round, 179th overall, 2005 (CAL)
Acquired via trade, November 17th, 2010

As they say with the Sutter family, you know what you're going to get. Sutter is already a reliable NHL fourth-liner, capable of grinding out shifts against top-level players and killing penalties. Beyond that, there's not much sizzle to his game. He captained the Charlotte Checkers for most of 2011-12, except when he was with Carolina for 15 games.

Sutter is an unrestricted free agent this offseason. If Carolina feels that Nash is a feasible option if a defense-first forward is needed, the team may opt to not re-sign Sutter. If he is back with the organization in 2012-13, expect him to again be a key component in Charlotte and available as a recall in Raleigh.

19. (NR) Joe Sova, D, 6C
Signed as a free agent, March 19th, 2011 (NJ)
Acquired via trade, January 20th, 2012

Chances are, history will show that the New Jersey Devils came out on top in the trade that sent Sova and a fourth-round pick to Carolina in exchange for veteran forward Alexei Ponikarovksy. While the Devils are in the Stanley Cup Final, the Hurricanes have yet to use the draft pick and have had a limited amount of time to see where Sova fits in the organization.

That being said, Sova has already made an impact. After playing 20 games for the Checkers, he joined the Everblades and played seven games (notching three assists) for the team as they went on to win the ECHL's Kelly Cup. Sova, who possesses NHL size at 6'3, 195 pounds, has one more season left on the two-year contract he signed with the Devils in 2011 as an undrafted free agent out of Alaska-Fairbanks, and will likely be back with the Checkers next season.

20. (20) Gregory Hofmann, C, 6D
Drafted 4th round, 103rd overall, 2011

Hofmann was expected to be Switzerland's most important player at the Under-20 World Championships, but in six games he managed just two points (a goal and an assist). His season with Ambri-Piotta in the Swiss League was also disappointing: after registering 12 points in 41 games last season he had six points in 34 games this year.

But chances are Hofmann isn't going to make his way to the NHL as a goal scorer or point producer. Hofmann's speed, two-way play and forechecking ability are his bread and butter, and even without putting up points he can be an impact player. According to online reports, Hofmann signed a three-year deal with HC Davos in the Swiss league.