While the Hurricanes’ prospect pool is still among the shallowest in the NHL, there is no denying that the organization has made every effort over the past two seasons to both harvest homegrown talent and put competitive minor-league teams on the ice with the River Rats as their AHL affiliate in Albany, N.Y., and ECHL‘s Florida Everblades in Estero, Fla. Florida has served primarily as a training ground for the Canes’ goaltending prospects, while Albany is home to most of Carolina’s pro prospects.
The River Rats have battled for the top spot in the AHL‘s East Division, joining the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins and Hershey Bears in chasing the first-place Philadelphia Phantoms. But Albany is facing an uphill climb. As injuries continue to deplete the Hurricanes, the River Rats have had many of their top players promoted to the big club. Top scorers Keith Aucoin and Brandon Nolan both recently earned their second call-ups of the season. On top of that, starting goalie Michael Leighton – who has been among the AHL’s best netminders this year – and top defenseman Casey Borer were also promoted to Carolina.
The Everblades have stayed in the playoff hunt, led by recently named ECHL All-Stars Mathieu Melanson – a former Minnesota pick who was recently recalled to the AHL’s Manitoba Moose – and Carolina second-rounder Justin Peters, whose play in goal earned him a promotion to Albany.
With the glut of goaltending prospects, Swiss netminder Daniel Manzato was loaned to the ECHL’s Las Vegas Wranglers for his first season in North America since turning pro.
Signed as a free agent in July, Nolan was recalled just before Christmas and had a secondary assist in his first NHL game. After two games, he was reassigned to Albany, only to be recalled in early January. Nolan, the son of New York Islanders head coach Ted Nolan, has been one of the River Rats’ top goal scorers, netting 13 goals in 31 games, plus adding 13 assists. Nolan’s best effort of the season was on Nov. 16 against Hershey, when he had two goals and an assist in a 6-4 loss.
Rookie Jerome Samson has been a pleasant surprise for Rats GM/coach Tom Rowe, recording 13 goals – tied for the lead in Albany – and nine assists through his first 36 professional games. Samson was signed as an undrafted free agent by Carolina over the summer.
After playing one playoff game for the River Rats last year, rookie Bobby Hughes has spent his first full season in Albany adjusting to the rigors of professional play. In 24 games, Hughes has six goals and nine assists. He missed a string of games in late October and early November, but had his best month of his young career in December, scoring four goals and adding three assists in 13 games, including netting two power-play goals in a 3-2 win against Lowell on Dec. 14.
While no longer considered a prospect, Aucoin leads all scorers with seven goals and 26 assists through 29 games. He’s on his second stint of the season with the Hurricanes, having played six games in Carolina in late October through early September, recording two assists in six games. It’s the third straight season he’s earned a brief NHL call-up. When in Albany, Aucoin served as the team’s captain and was also give the "C" for the All-Star Classic — an event he’s surely hoping to miss.
Carolina has four other forward prospects playing in Albany. Left wing Mike Angelidis has seven goals and seven assists in 21 games this year after splitting time between Albany and the Everblades last season. Nicolas Blanchard, a 2005 sixth-round pick, is playing his first full pro season with Albany this year. The big center has three goals and five assists in 26 games. Jakub Petruzalek, who was acquired last season from the Rangers for journeyman forward Brad Isbister and re-signed this offseason, has two goals and 13 assists through 35 games in his second season with Albany.
Albany is stocked with Carolina defensive prospects, boasting four of Carolina’s top 20 prospects as ranked by Hockey’s Future. But despite blueline injuries in Carolina, only one River Rat, first-year pro Casey Borer, has earned a recall to Carolina.
In 35 games in Albany before his Jan. 1 recall, Borer was leading all River Rats defensemen with 14 points on five goals and nine assists. He was also a team-best plus-13, the only player on the Albany roster in double digits on the plus side of the ledger.
After impressing in training camp, Borer did more of the same early in his promotion to the NHL.
Brett Carson, a 2004 fourth-round pick, is in his second season in Albany. Through 38 games this year, Carson has nearly matched his scoring output of 2006-07. The 6’4 blueliner has one goal and 11 assists so far this year, just six points shy of his total last season. Carson is minus-6 on the season, fueled by a minus-11 in December. However, he has been able to stay out of the penalty box, taking only four minor penalties this season.
After an impressive 11-game stint with Albany at the end of last year, free-agent signee Noah Babin catapulted himself onto the Hurricanes’ prospect radar. But Babin’s first full pro season hasn’t been as easy. The rookie blueliner struggled to start the year, even skating forward shifts as a way to regain his confidence. Then in late November, Babin suffered a broken left cheekbone after a questionable hit by Wilkes-Barre’s Ryan Stone. He didn’t return to the lineup until Dec. 19, but recorded his first point since Oct. 20 by earning an assist Jan. 5 against Philadelphia, giving Babin two assists in 19 games.
Acquired last season for journeyman blueline Derrick Walser, Mark Flood has had a good half season in his first full year with the River Rats. Flood has a team-high six goals among defensemen plus seven assists for 13 points in 33 games. He has one two-point game on the season, assisting on both of Albany’s goals in a 2-0 win over Portland Dec. 7.
Carolina opened the season with three goaltending prospects battling for the right to compete with veteran Michael Leighton, who was acquired from Montreal at the entry draft for a seventh-round pick, for a spot in Albany. After half a season, it’s unlikely there could have been more shuffling than what occurred in Albany and Florida.
Kevin Nastiuk initially earned the spot in Albany. He won his first four starts spelling Leighton, allowing just two goals in all four games. But then an injury in late November sidelined Nastiuk, opening the door for Manzato. Nastiuk played two games in the ECHL with Florida in late December, splitting back-to-back games at home against Columbia. He was then reassigned to Albany Dec. 26, but lost his first game back with the River Rats, allowing six goals on 28 shots against Syracuse Jan. 4.
Manzato had been on loan to the ECHL’s Las Vegas Wranglers — where he was 6-0 at the time — before his promotion in wake of Nastiuk’s injury. But Manzato had just one start with the River Rats, allowing five goals on 43 shots in a 5-3 loss to Providence Dec. 2. He was reassigned to Las Vegas Dec. 11. With the Wranglers this year, Manzato is 10-3-2 with a .921 save percentage and 2.31 goals against average.
Peters has spent most of his season with the Everblades, earning an ECHL All-Star selection. In 20 games, Peters is 13-5-2 with a 2.60 goals against average and .921 save percentage. Peters also went undefeated during a stint in Albany in mid-December, going 3-0 in four appearances. His 3.16 goals against average and .896 save percentage are deceiving because he gave up five goals in 46:11 of ice time in relief of Leighton in an 8-1 loss Dec. 15 to Wilkes-Barre. In his other three starts, Peters allowed two goals twice and three once – all wins.
With Leighton’s recall — and John Grahame’s demotion to Albany — it appears Nastiuk will continue as Albany’s backup, this time to Grahame. Peters has returned to Florida and is poised to play in the All-Star game for the American Conference. Manzato also earned ECHL All-Star status and could conceivably face Peters as a National Conference representative.