Grading Ron Francis’ Drafts by Round

CHICAGO, IL - JUNE 23: Martin Necas poses for photos after being selected 12th overall by the Carolina Hurricanes during the 2017 NHL Draft at the United Center on June 23, 2017 in Chicago, Illinois. (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)
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Ron Francis leaves behind a confusing legacy. As Brett Finger pointed out on twitter last night, Francis’ ability to draft value in rounds 2-7 could very well be his legacy here. He also pointed out that his first round misses could be a more disappointing part of his legacy here. How were his drafts over four years? We’ll take a look and see just how bad some of those picks were, and if they should even be called bad picks. We’ll look at these picks, why they were made, and how they’ve panned out. All of this without using lazy narratives or hindsight bias. Brett’s tweet can be found below. He brings up a couple of interesting points that are worth thinking about.

First Round – B-

Ron Francis definitely received criticism for all of his first round picks, as most GMs do. Over four years, the Canes have selected five players in the first round: Haydn Fleury, Noah Hanifin, Jake Bean, Julien Gauthier, and Martin Necas. Three of the five are defensemen, one is a center, and the other is a right winger. Now how is it that the Canes managed to whiff on four of those picks? Wait a second, that can’t be right. Canes twitter has to be making something up. Let’s clear some things up. The popular narratives are the ones that come in hindsight. The classic “BUT SEAN MONAHAN” when talking about Elias Lindholm. Hindsight is 20/20. There’s also the classic lazy narrative of “he’s not in the NHL yet, so he has to be a bust.” Just because a player is taking a longer time to develop doesn’t mean they’re a bust. If they’re still bad after two or three years of pro time, then re-evaluate.

First up is Haydn Fleury. Why did the Canes draft him? The Canes needed defensemen in the pipeline, and they needed some badly. In 2013, the Canes selected Brett Pesce and Tyler Ganly. Ganly was a prospect with minimal talent, and it’s shown. Pesce was a bit of an unknown, and while he’s worked out really well, the Canes didn’t know what they had in him at the time. The year before was when the Canes traded Dumoulin (and others) to Pittsburgh for Jordan Staal. The Canes selected defensemen Trevor Carrick and Jaccob Slavin in that draft. Both players were coin flips, especially Slavin. Again, it’s great that he worked out, but there was just no telling with any of the defensemen in our pipeline. In Charlotte, the Canes had Michal Jordan, Ryan Murphy, Danny Biege, and Keegan Lowe as their best prospects. That’s it. So when the Canes came up to the podium, they had one thing in mind: draft a good defenseman. They picked Haydn Fleury, who was the best defenseman not named Aaron Ekblad available. And fans at the time were relatively happy. The Canes needed a big defenseman, and they got it. There are always going to be good players selected after the player you drafted. It’s how the draft works. You take a chance on a player, and if it works out, that’s great. William Nylander would’ve been a great pick, nobody is arguing that. But at the time, the Canes’ biggest need was on defense, and they filled that need with Fleury. His first NHL season has been rough at times, but he’s looked much better with each passing game. Is he great? No, but he’s getting a lot better. Fleury is only 21, so there’s plenty of time for him to be an effective NHLer.

The Canes drafted Noah Hanifin in 2015, which was a no-brainer at the time. Hanifin was the best defenseman available in the draft, and the Canes weren’t going to pass up on him. They picked him, and he’s worked out nicely for us. The fans haven’t liked him, unfortunately. Hanifin is prone to mistakes, as any young defenseman is. Unfortunately, his mistakes end up being costly. While he’s improved, the team’s lack of scoring makes his mistakes all the more noticeable. Hanifin has set career highs in goals and points this year, which is encouraging. He still has a long way to go, but he’s also a player that’s gotten better each season he’s been here. Werenski looks like the better pick, but Hanifin was the right pick at the time, and could still pass Werenski.

I’m going to step out of the Canes Prospects and CBTS brand here and say that I was not and still am not a fan of the Jake Bean pick. I know that I have to hype up his highlights and say that he’s going to be a top four defenseman someday for the prospects account. He’s a good player, don’t get me wrong. I just don’t see the need of having him in the system after drafting two LHD in the first round each of the two years before. That, and the emergence of Jaccob Slavin on the left side made this pick all the more confusing. The Canes didn’t need to go with Bean unless they planned on trading one of those players away, which hasn’t happened yet. It’s just confusing when the Canes acknowledged that they needed help at forward, but then selected a defenseman at 13. This pick could come back to haunt us. Okay, back to rationality. Bean has potential to be a top four offensive defenseman that can really do some damage to opposing teams. He’s worked hard since we drafted him, gained some weight, and improved defensively. He’s not Murphy 2.0, which is definitely a good thing. He’ll need some AHL time, which is fine. Not the best pick, but he raises the team’s babyface/60 tremendously.

Gauthier was the next pick, and he’s been disappointing to fans. Still, the Canes needed a scoring forward, and they definitely got that. Gauthier is big, and he was able to score tons of goals in the QMJHL. While he may not have the best hockey sense, his physical play and prowess in the offensive zone made him a first round pick. He’s had a few speed bumps this year, but looks like a good pick. While we may not know about Gauthier for a few years, it’s safe to say that he’s going to be an NHL player in the future.

Then we get to Necas in 2017. A lot of fans were shocked when we picked Necas, and some had never heard of him. It’s safe to say that he’s surprised people and gotten fans excited. Necas was a steal at 12th overall. He’s smart, quick, dictates play in the offensive zone, and is a tremendously gifted player. He was a great pick, and should make the NHL lineup next season. We’ve heard enough about him to know that we have a good prospect, which is exciting.

So let’s recap. The Fleury pick may not have been the best pick, but it was a necessary pick. The Hanifin pick was a case of drafting the best player available. The Bean pick was confusing, but still has a lot of upside. Gauthier is taking a slower route than we thought, but he’s still got loads of potential. Necas looks like a stud. Now were these picks great? No. But there’s enough potential in all of them to warrant a B without being lazy and just looking in hindsight.

Second Round – A

One of Ron Francis’ best traits was getting value for prospects outside of the first round, and he did it twice in a row. Alex Nedeljkovic is our best goalie prospect, and he’s done well in the AHL this season. He is either leading the league in shutouts or close to it, which is a plus. He still has a little ways to go, but will be a good goalie someday. Good value for that pick there, especially since the Canes didn’t have a lot of good goalies in the pipeline.

Sebastian Aho is Ron Francis’ best pick as it stands right now. Aho has been a tremendous player for the Canes, and has changed the dynamic of this team. He had a 49 point rookie campaign, and has followed it up with 63 points in 72 games this season. Aho is a special hockey player, and will continue to get better. He was a crazy pick when the Canes first drafted him, but quickly became an exciting prospect. Now, he’s made Ron Francis look like a genius at drafting in the later rounds.

The jury is still out on Janne Kuokkanen, Eetu Luostarinen, and Luke Martin. Kuokkanen looks like a good prospect, but it’s not clear what his potential in the NHL is. He’s done well in the AHL this season, and even earned rookie of the month in February. Kuokkanen will be an NHL player as early as next season if the Canes find room for him. Luostarinen was a wacky pick, but he’s worked out pretty well. He went from being the fourth line center on a struggling KalPa team to being the first line center on an above average KalPa team. His numbers improved, and he looks to have improved in most capacities this year. His NHL potential is still underwhelming for the second round, but it’s looking more and more like he’ll be a solid pro. Luke Martin is essentially a more physical version of Brett Pesce, which is nice to see. He’s definitely got top four pairing potential. He may be boring, but he’s got talent. While it may not be the flashiest second round, the Canes definitely drafted players that carried a lot of value and had potential to grow. That’s all you can ask for.

All in all, the Canes have had four successful second rounds. Nedeljkovic looks like he could be a starter, and Aho will be a superstar in the near future. The next three second round picks all have NHL potential, with Kuokkanen being the best one for now. While they may not be as exciting as Aho or Ned, they’re still good picks. Francis definitely gets an A here.

Third Round – B

Warren Foegele has surprised people at every level since he was drafted, and he has definitely made an impact in Charlotte this season. He scored and had an assist in his NHL debut, and could be given a longer shot in the NHL after that performance. He was a really solid pick in the third round, which is harder for some GMs to find.

The Canes had three picks in the third round in 2016, and it looks like they’re whiffing on two of them. Hudson Elynuik has done well in the WHL, but likely only has bottom six NHL potential. Still, he’s done enough to warrant a contract, which is more than the other two have done so far. Matt Filipe had a solid freshman season with Northeastern, and looked to be having another strong season this year. Then, he disappeared off the face of the planet. He was a non-factor in the majority of his games with Northeastern, and even hurt the team. He still has two more years to grow, but he’s definitely fallen out of favor with the fans. He’ll need to regain his confidence and come into next season stronger than ever. In the game against Michigan, Filipe looked lost. He turned the puck over, iced the puck, and couldn’t generate any form of offense. It was really disappointing. Jack Lafontaine has good mechanics, he just can’t stop pucks in the NCAA. His numbers got worse this season, and he lost his starting job. Lafontaine has been underwhelming since we drafted him, which isn’t a good sign. You can’t win with every pick, however.

In 2017, the Canes selected Stelio Mattheos and Morgan Geekie. Mattheos has taken the WHL by storm this season, recording 90 points in 68 games. He’s looking much more comfortable in the offensive zone, and reminds me a lot of Foegele. He still has a ways to go, but looks like a legitimate prospect right now. Geekie had yet another good season, and looks to be ready to make the transition to the pros. He has the offensive tools necessary for the NHL, but his speed is an issue. Still, the Canes drafted two good value players in the third round, and both picks look solid after one season.

The Canes drafted three solid players in Foegele, Geekie, and Mattheos, one “meh” player in Elynuik, and two disappointments in Filipe and Lafontaine. While the good outweighs the bad, having two out of six picks look bad isn’t good. Filipe and Lafontaine are enough reasons for me to only grade a B here.

Fourth Round – C-

In 2014, the Canes needed defense, and we saw them pick Fleury in the first round. In the fourth round, they decided to go with Josh Wesley, another defenseman. Wesley was projected to go around that area, so it wasn’t a terrible pick at the time. He’s been stuck in the ECHL for most of the two seasons he’s been here, however. An injury earlier in the year sidelined him for the rest of the season, and he’ll have a tough time cracking Charlotte’s lineup next season. The pick looks like a bust, unfortunately.

The next season, the Canes used their picks to draft two QMJHL players. Callum Booth looks like a good goalie prospect who has gotten better ever since we drafted him. He’s been solid in the ECHL this season, and will likely be the backup in the AHL next season. He may not have as high of a ceiling as Nedeljkovic, but he’s still a good prospect. Nicolas Roy was another steal in the fourth round, but he may not be as good as people think. He’s got offensive talent, but has done really well in a fourth line role in the AHL. Roy will likely only get bottom six minutes with the Canes, assuming he makes it to the NHL someday. Still, drafting a successful player in the fourth round is always a good thing. The Canes made two solid picks here.

Max Zimmer struggled his freshman season, and looked to be doing the same for parts of this season. The fourth round pick in 2016 then found his game, and began to play on the first line more regularly for Wisconsin. While he may not be scoring, he’s at least playing more consistently. Zimmer has two more seasons left, and he’s still a wild card. I can’t tell how good he is just yet, nor will I be able to for another season or so.

Francis’ last fourth round pick as GM was Eetu Makiniemi, a Finnish goalie. He had a good season on a really bad team, which is always nice. It’s hard to determine how good of a prospect he is as of right now, so he’s an unknown at this point.

The fourth round was not a great round for Francis, selecting one likely bust, two good players, one “meh” player, and one unknown. It looks like the 2015 draft will be his best draft, especially considering he did well in the first, second, and fourth rounds.

Fifth round – B

It’s what you would expect from a fifth round. The Canes selected Clark Bishop in 2014, and he’s done a serviceable job in the AHL this season. It was just a pick to add to our prospect depth, which was nonexistent in 2014. Bishop is average, and if he ever makes it to the NHL, it’ll be in a fourth line role. Can’t be disappointed with those types of picks after the third round.

Luke Stevens has been disappointing in college, but he’s also playing for Yale. I don’t think he has much NHL potential, especially since he’s still pretty slow. His father is a pro scout for Pittsburgh, so he might sign there if the Canes let him go to free agency.

Spencer Smallman has been good for two seasons now. While a shoulder injury kept him out of the majority of the season, he’s taken the ECHL by storm. He has 11 points in 10 games with the Everblades, and will get more of a chance to prove himself as the season goes on. He’s looking like a better prospect than we initially thought, but don’t get too excited just yet. He’s not going to be an offensive juggernaut in the NHL.

Jeremy Helvig was Francis’ last fifth round pick, and he’s looking like another good prospect. He’s done a damn good job in Kingston, setting franchise records in wins and shutouts. Could he be an NHL starter? It’s unlikely, but there’s always the chance after how well he’s done in Kingston. He’ll need a lot of time, but he has enough potential to become a good backup. Overall, it’s a good value pick from Francis and his staff.

The Canes did well in the fifth round, which is surprising. A lot of teams don’t draft well outside of the first three rounds, so drafting valuable players in the fifth round is cause for celebration. While they may not have high ceilings, these players make picking in the fifth round worth it. Let me repeat myself: the players may not be great, but they’re what you hope for when you draft in the fifth round.

Sixth Round – A

The Canes have made four sixth round picks in four years. Jake Massie was the first pick, and his time with the Canes was very short. He was involved in the trade that brought Kris Versteeg and Joakim Nordstrom to the Hurricanes. Nordstrom has been bad, but Versteeg was valuable enough for us to get Zykov. While it’s hard to correlate these things, we turned a sixth round pick and other minor assets into a legitimate NHL prospect. Not too shabby. If you’re interested, Massie had 7 points with the University of Vermont this past season. He’s not looking great, so the Canes definitely came out on top here.

David Cotton, on the other hand, looks like an intriguing prospect. While it’s hard to gauge potential with NCAA players, Cotton has definitely done enough to show folks that he has NHL potential. His offensive numbers have improved, and he’ll have another year before he’s ready to make the jump to the pros. If he signs here, the pick will have worked out. For right now, Cotton looks like a great pick in the sixth round.

Noah Carroll isn’t a great prospect. The Canes took a chance on him, and he’s just been okay since we drafted him. He has potential to become a pro player, but Francis drafted better LHDs than Carroll. It’s only the sixth round, so it’s not terribly disappointing.

Brendan De Jong also looks pretty solid. He’s an overage player, and had a great season with Portland. He set a new career high in assists and points. While his NHL potential may be limited, he’s a good enough pick in the sixth round for me to be satisfied.

Overall, the sixth round was good. Cotton looks like the best pick by far, and Massie was at least here long enough for us to get Versteeg. Carroll may be a bust, and De Jong is an unknown, but that’s okay. Drafting Cotton could be another great pick for Francis and the Canes organization.

Seventh Round – D

Yeah yeah, you should never expect much from the seventh round. Let’s just go over the picks.

Kyle Jenkins was underwhelming and didn’t sign with the team before the June 1 deadline in 2016. He played another year with the Petes before going to college in Canada. Not a great pick.

Steven Lorentz surprised people last season, and earned a contract for his efforts. He’s done well in the ECHL, but it’s still not clear if he has any NHL potential whatsoever.

Lastly, Ville Rasanen was picked this past summer. He’s another wild card who might have NHL potential, but it’s unlikely. I’ll reserve my judgments until I see what happens in another year.

The seventh round is the round where you take a chance and just hope it pays off. One of those picks hasn’t worked out, while the other is leaning towards “no.” Lorentz could be a good pro, but has limited NHL potential.

Recap

Overall, Ron Francis did well drafting based on need and value. He found good players in every round, and was able to make our pipeline dangerous for the first time in a very long time. It’s still a little too early to tell if all of these players will achieve their potential, but for now, these drafts were good for the team. Ron Francis drafted the players that the organization needed at the time. While they may not be the best picks in hindsight, they were the right picks at the time. Want to discuss Canes prospects, the AHL, or the upcoming draft? Head to @CanesProspects on twitter and look out for weekly Q&A sessions!

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