RALEIGH, N.C. – The Carolina Hurricanes have always kept an eye on European hockey players when drafting a new group each year.
However, they have rarely capitalized or benefited from those selections.
Save for the 2007 NHL Entry Draft, the Hurricanes have selected at least one player from across the pond each year since they began play in North Carolina.
The regular return on investment in making those picks has been low, but that may all be changing.
It has become apparent that there is much more of a push to create a European contingent of players, young and talented ones up front, who will hopefully make significant contributions to the Hurricanes’ success in the future.
Led by the productive results from young Swedish forwards Elias Lindholm, Carolina’s top pick (5th overall) in 2013, and Victor Rask, the team’s second pick in 2011 (42nd overall), the Hurricanes are not shying away from getting more of their European players signed more quickly.
Before them, only two other European draft selections had ever earned time with the Hurricanes as NHLers – fourth round picks in defenseman Niclas Wallin (Sweden), a 2000 pick (97th overall), and the late Josef Vasicek, a center picked in 1998 (91st overall).
Oh, by the way, both of them not only played as regulars, but also skated on the Hurricanes’ last and only Stanley Cup-winning team in 2006 – a squad that had eight Europeans listed on the roster throughout that season.
Thus, as the team’s recent draft picks are close to completing prospect camp at PNC Arena this week, it is not surprising that a more deliberate attempt to get their Euro players immersed into the team’s system sooner rather than later.
Executive vice president and general manager Ron Francis indicated recently that he’s working on getting more ‘boots on the ground’ in scouting and keeping in touch with European prospects and potential picks.
Francis’ next step in that regard is to sign forwards Gregory Hofmann and Erik Karlsson, two notable prospects attending camp who are ready for the next level.
They say they are ready.
“Very exciting,” Hofmann said of making his return to Raleigh for the first time since his draft year 2011.
“I wasn’t here for three years. I was playing in Switzerland. I received the call to come here at camp. I wanted to come and get to play every day and improve my game.”
After former general manager Jim Rutherford was unable to sign Hofmann to an entry-level contract, the Swiss forward, a fourth round pick (103rd overall) in 2011, was eligible to reenter the 2013 draft.
Not selected, he remained within the Hurricanes organization and has played for Davos in the Swiss League over the past two seasons.
He’s always kept his focus on playing in the NHL.
“The NHL is the biggest league in the world and that’s my goal to play one day here,” Hofmann said.
“The Swiss league is a different league. The ice is bigger. Here you have to adapt to a quicker game because the ice is smaller. I can use my speed a bit better. That’s what I come here to try and show my hockey.”
“When I was drafted, I was not ready to play in a big league like the NHL and that’s why I stayed home,” Hofmann continued.
“I wanted to be a little bit bigger and improve my game on every side – my skating, my body and my mentality. That’s what I did and I played in Switzerland. Now, if I come one day, I’m ready.”
According to Hofmann, the suggestion was made for him to come back to camp during the past few years.
Francis was at the U-18 World Championships in Zug and re-connected with Hofmann to attend this year’s prospect camp.
“This year was a good year to come and try,” Hofmann said.
Hofmann cited the differences he’s seen playing with professionals in Switzerland, but noted the talent around him at camp.
“Whether it’s the guy who was just drafted and played in the CHL, it’s very different,” he said.
“We have a very good group of guys here. It’s very fun to play with these guys. It’s gonna be a fun week and every day we have something to learn.
For versatile center/winger Karlsson, a two-year stay in Sweden since being drafted in the fourth round (99th overall) of the 2012 NHL Draft was long enough to develop his body a bit more while also playing amongst professionals in Sweden.
“I had a pretty tough season back home in Sweden,” Karlsson said of a down year with Frolunda of the Swedish league in which his numbers didn’t reflect the ability and skill he was drafted for.
He now looks forward to finally making the commitment to play and develop his game further in North America.
“We just had a lot of great players. I’m real excited coming over here to play in Charlotte or with the Hurricanes,” Karlsson said of his renewed focus and commitment.
“I’m going over in August to the Traverse City tournament and then I’ll probably go to the main camp and then we’ll see how things work out. If I don’t make the team, I’m going to play for Charlotte in the AHL. I’m excited.”
Carolina head coach Bill Peters liked the possibility of adding players like Hofmann and Karlsson to the team’s growing development system.
“A little bit older guys with a little bit more experience and it shows in my opinion,” Peters said of both players earlier in the week.
“They look very comfortable out here. I know Karlsson’s comin’ over to try and make our team and that’s exciting. Exciting for us and exciting for him. We’ll get a good look at him during the rest of this week and in Traverse City.”
“Hofmann can really, really skate,” Peters continued.
“He reminds me, if I can make a comparison, he looks like a Hagelin out there, the way he gets around the ice. I’ll just keep watchin’ and see how it goes.”
Understanding that prospects are rarely ready to step onto the ice in the NHL right away, Euros like Hofmann and Karlsson, among others like free agent Sergey Tolchinsky and this year’s second round pick Sebastian Aho, still have to adjust to the North American game.
“The biggest adjustment for those guys is the difference between the European game and the North American game, and there is a difference – the 200-by-85 and the 200-by100 – it makes a difference, it really does,” Peters said.
“The system plays a little bit different, so in my opinion, the sooner they can get over here and get some experience in North America, the better off they’re gonna be.”
After taking their time to return to Raleigh, and finally making the decision to commit to become pros in North America, Hofmann and Karlsson could be signed soon.
It’s a stronger possibility that Karlsson will sign before Hofmann does, but either way they will only bolster what is becoming a talented corps of young Europeans in the Hurricanes’ system.
Whether it’s the right strategy to take in order to become successful is still to be determined, but it’s a focus that only brightens the possibility that Carolina reaches its goal of making the playoffs, rather than darkening it.