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Scouting Justin Faulk

by Michael Smith / Carolina Hurricanes

Michael Smith
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Long before he established himself as a top-pairing defenseman in the National Hockey League, long before he was an All-Star, long before he represented Team USA at the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Justin Faulk, the teenager, was eyed as a potential draft pick among a collection of many.

From the first scouting report to the last, from the annual pre-draft scouts’ meetings to draft day, this is the story before the story, the prologue to Faulk’s burgeoning NHL career.

World U-17 Hockey Challenge, Dec. 2008

The Carolina Hurricanes got their first look at Faulk at the World U-17 Hockey Challenge in late December 2008. The South St. Paul, Minn., native, who was just 16 years old, posted two goals and two assists in the tournament.

And though the Hurricanes wouldn’t begin regularly chronicling Faulk until his draft-eligible year, they had an inkling.

“Our initial exposures to him at under-17 and under-18, we thought we saw something we liked,” said Tony MacDonald, the Hurricanes’ head of amateur scouting. “The first thing you noticed about Justin was that he is such a powerful skater. Strong skater, strong on his feet, usually stronger than most of the players he played against, even though he wasn’t a 6-foot-3 guy. He’s got a low center of gravity, and he’s got a tremendous shot. He can really shoot the puck.”

United States National Team Development Program, 2009-10

In his draft-eligible year, Faulk emerged as a standout defenseman in the United States National Team Development Program. He amassed 21 goals and 12 assists (33 points) in 60 games.

“What you notice with him right away is his hockey sense and offensive creativity. He had an amazing draft year as a whole, but when you really look at the maturity and the way he plays, he stood out,” said Darren Yorke, who is now the assistant to the general manager and a video scout. “He ended up scoring 21 goals as a defenseman and 18-year-old in his draft-eligible year. That’s remarkable.”

As Hurricanes scouts tracked Faulk in person and Yorke analyzed video in his office at 1400 Edwards Mill Rd., certain attributes of Faulk’s game separated him from the pack.

“Hockey sense is something that always gets talked about with him. He’s an easy guy to play with. He’s smart. He moves the puck. Those are types of skills that translate very well to the next level. Then you start talking about more of the offensive-minded things: he’s got an unbelievable shot, a bomb,” Yorke said. “He wins battles that are important, especially when someone might consider him an undersized player in his draft year.”

For the Hurricanes, Faulk’s draft stock was rising.

“He was a guy we were keeping an eye on. Some games, he would stand out, but he wasn’t the type of player that always jumped out at you because he was a player that made good decisions on the ice and very few mistakes,” MacDonald explained. “A player like that who plays an efficient and effective game doesn’t go unnoticed but he’s not jumping out at you. He was just an efficient guy.”

Scouts’ observations at the rink were confirmed and perhaps further appreciated when slowed on tape.

“For a player like Justin when you start reading reports and you see ‘hockey sense’ or ‘this guy has a great understanding of the game,’ you can really get an appreciation of just how smart he is,” Yorke said. “When you’re able to pause and take a second to see that a player doesn’t have time to make a play and he’s able to see the option right away, recognize what’s going on and look what his outs are, and he’s able to hit those passes, that’s when you can really get an appreciation of just how smart Justin was and is.”

U-18 World Championship, April 2010

The U-18 World Championship would be the Hurricanes’ last glimpse of Faulk’s on-ice abilities prior to the draft. He posted a goal, three assists and was a plus-8 in seven games.

“We had a pretty good idea then where we thought he’d fit in in the grand scheme of things,” MacDonald said.

That much was certainly evident from this excerpt from one of the Canes’ scouting reports on Faulk in the tournament:

QuoteAnother outstanding puck game from this player. Quick hands, very good passing skills and lots of vision. Has some edge to his game in nasty areas, solid defensively and competitive in all areas of the game. ... Solid skater, solid initial positioning and always sees the options. Like this guy a lot, and you cannot play today's game without a guy like this on the team.

– Canes' Scouting Report on Faulk from April 2010

Draft Meetings, June 2010

As is the case every year, the Hurricanes’ amateur scouts gather for a week of discussions in order to analyze players available, prepare strategy and finalize their draft board.

That year, the team was primed to land an impact player with the seventh overall pick. They were looking for a scorer, MacDonald said, and they ultimately found one in Jeff Skinner.

They planned to shift their focus to the defense with at least one of their two second-round picks.

“We thought we’d certainly be able to cash one of those picks in the second round in on a defenseman,” MacDonald said. “We wanted it to be Faulk.”

“I remember the discussions with the scouts,” said Ron Francis, now general manager of the team and then an associate head coach and director of player personnel. “They thought he skated well. They thought he handled the puck well. Good shot. A lot of the attributes you want in the prospect of a young defenseman.”

Making the second day’s seventh pick, 37th overall, the Hurricanes hoped but certainly did not expect Faulk to be available. On the Canes’ final draft board, they had him ranked in the first round between 20 and 30.

“We thought a lot of him heading into the draft,” Francis said. “You do a lot of homework going into it and a lot of preparation, and ultimately you hope things fall your way when you get to the draft table.”

“You start going through your list, and you go basically by best player available,” Yorke said. “You go through the process just like you do any year. You try to maximize your list to get the best player available, and you have different conversations to get to that point. At the end of the day, we felt that Justin was good enough to be selected in the first round.”

NHL Draft, June 25-26, 2010

With the seventh overall pick in the 2010 NHL Draft, the Canes selected Skinner, the dynamic forward they eyed with their first top-10 pick since 2005. Afterward, the team looked to day two and the seven remaining picks, including the 37th overall selection.

“After the first day, we regroup to get a look at where guys were taken on our list,” Yorke said. “After day one and after selecting Skinner, you try to get a sense of who might be available at 37. You go through sort of the same process to get more of a condensed list and try to guess maybe who teams might select. You hope that a player like Justin falls to you at 37.”

The first five picks of the second day were forwards.

“There’s always sort of a nervous energy for me with any pick. You want guys that you’re excited about, and you hope that the draft falls your way,” Yorke said. “When the team ahead of you is on the clock, you’re hoping they make a selection that isn’t your player. You want the guys that our scouting staff is excited about, and you want that guy.”

“As it got closer and closer, it was like, ah, he’s probably going to go to this team or the next,” former general manager Jim Rutherford recalled last year. “It’s like, ‘Oh boy, is someone going to take our guy?’”

Florida was on the clock at 36.

“We had it ready, but you don’t ever want to put it in because sometimes that jinxes it. But we had it ready,” MacDonald said. “We had the name there, and we were aware of who it was going to be. It was just a matter of Florida making their pick.”

Florida selected a defenseman: Alex Petrovic.

“There was a bit of an excitement around our table after Florida selection,” Yorke said. “You can’t get the name into the computer until you’re officially on the clock, but … we knew Faulk was our guy.”

“There was no need for debate, no need for timeouts. It was Justin Faulk,” MacDonald said. “He was the player we wanted, and when we were able to pull the trigger on it, everybody was pretty happy.”

Future years would, of course, lend credence to this optimism, an emphatic stamp on a multi-year process that culminated in the 37th overall pick and Faulk donning a Carolina Hurricanes sweater.

“I know Bert Marshall had been a big Justin Faulk booster,” MacDonald recalled of the Canes’ longtime amateur scout who logged 868 career games as a blueliner in 14 seasons in the NHL. “He really liked the way Justin played. I remember Bert being pretty happy. He was sitting right beside me. He said, ‘I think we got ourselves a player here.’”

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