Carolina’s off-ice focus in recent seasons has been rebuilding a prospect base that had thinned into arguably the NHL’s weakest group. Several disappointing selections and traded draft picks — including some that secured the acquisitions of Doug Weight and Mark Recchi, who helped lead the team to the 2006 Stanley Cup — depleted the Hurricanes pool to levels that needed correcting. Because of that, there have been very few players who have graduated from Carolina’s prospect ranks and joined the NHL team.
Refocused their efforts, the Hurricanes brass has held on to their high picks while also landing several diamonds in the rough in later rounds.
The team’s past two first-round selections, Brandon Sutter and Zach Boychuk, both look like legitimate top-nine forwards, if not better, while 2007 fourth-rounder Drayson Bowman and 2006 late-second rounder Jamie McBain should both be on Team USA’s World Juniors roster this season.
And while it appears the team is lacking wingers, the plentiful batch of natural centers will likely yield a few wings down the road.
Drayson Bowman is the class of the left wing ranks. While the 2007 third-rounder looked somewhat uncomfortable in training camp, he has picked up where he left off with the defending Memorial Cup champion Spokane Chiefs. His point-per-game production in both the regular season and playoffs last season was key to Spokane’s run to the top of the CHL. His shot is already NHL-ready and his skating is above average.
Beyond that, the depth at left wing is just ankle deep. Carolina has just two other natural left wingers: undrafted Mike Angelidis, who is playing with the team’s AHL affiliate in Albany, and 2008 seventh-round selection Samuel Morneau.
Angelidis filled mostly a checking role last season with the River Rats and, entering the last year of his contract, needs to show he can score more. Morneau, on the other hand, is with his third QMJHL team in three years and will have to prove himself worthy of an NHL contract in the coming years. Morneau’s a small, speedy winger who is the early season top scorer on a very bad Val-d’Or team.
Like the other wing, the right side of Carolina’s forward corps seems to be somewhat lacking. But while there is no elite prospect, there are some good players who could develop into NHLers. All four of the Canes’ natural right wing prospects play in Albany.
Jakub Petruzlaek is expected to be one of the River Rats scoring leaders this season. The one-time Rangers prospect is a good depth player for the Canes and could earn a promotion in the future.
Jerome Samson, an undrafted free agent, had a surprise rookie season with Albany last year, netting 21 goals in the just 65 games. He is expected to be a key cog in Albany’s offense this year, but has missed the beginning of the season with an ankle sprain suffered at Carolina’s training camp. He was set to play for the first time this season Halloween night.
Harrison Reed and Nick Dodge were both 2006 picks who are in their first full pro season. Reed, a third-round pick and one-time 81-point scorer in the OHL, is looking to regain the form that made him such a pleasant surprise the season following his draft year. Dodge is a do-everything winger — he was among college hockey’s best faceoff men despite playing primarily on the wing. He was captain at Clarkson and led the Golden Knights to the NCAA Tournament two straight years. His defensive acumen and timely scoring could make him quite the catch as a sixth-rounder.
The top of Carolina’s prospect rankings is loaded with blue-chip centers — some elite scorers, others do-everything pivots.
The guy on the top of the heap is Brandon Sutter. While his name has been in the news recently because of the hit on him that left him concussed, Sutter’s seven-game NHL cameo has justified Carolina’s decision to take him 11th overall in 2007. His defensive play and smarts have immediately paid dividends, while his offensive play has shown flashes of promise. While Sutter seemed a lock to play the entire season in the NHL, his injury will keep him out indefinitely and a return to Red Deer is still an option.
Zach Boychuk received a two-game audition with Carolina before being returning to Lethbridge. But Carolina thought enough of Boychuk’s play in training camp — all while participating in only non-contract drills due to his recovery from wrist surgery — to keep him on the roster and play him once he was cleared for full practices and games. His explosive skating and puck skills — attributes that made him the 14th overall pick in this year’s draft — were evident in his brief stint with the Hurricanes despite having to shake off the rust from not playing.
Zac Dalpe, a freshman at Ohio State, and Chris Terry, the Plymouth Whalers’ top scorer, are both skilled pivots. While Dalpe was drafted for his scoring, Terry is more of an all-around player who has developed into an elite OHL point producer.
Bobby Hughes has bounced back from a perplexing neck/back injury to rejoin Albany. His OHL numbers and 16 points in just 26 games with Albany last year made it seem Carolina had found a gem in the fourth round of the 2006 draft. But his injury sidelined him for the rest of the year and Hughes has just recently started playing with the River Rats again.
Stefan Chaput and Justin McCrae are both potential bottom six NHLers who could fill an energy role with the Canes or fill in as a scorer in the minors. Current River Rats pivot Nicolas Blanchard has developed into a good defensive forward. His size (6’3) could give an inside track in the organization. Joe Jensen, like Samson, had a good season in 2007-08 but started this season on the shelf. He could see a promotion to the NHL if injuries continue to pile up in Raleigh.
The Hurricanes have done a great job in recent drafts of selecting defensemen after the first round who seem to be on a path to the NHL. The best of the bunch may very well be University of Wisconsin rearguard Jamie McBain. McBain has been a key part of the Badgers blue line since heading to college and is a two-time member of Team USA’s World Juniors team. He’s also played with several other top-flight defensive prospects at Wisconsin: Brendan Smith (DET), Ryan McDonagh (MTL), Cody Goloubef and, most recently, Jake Gardiner.
River Rats rearguards Casey Borer and Brett Carson were third- and fourth-round picks, respectively, in the 2004 draft and are now the most NHL-ready defensemen in the fold for Carolina. Borer provides two-way play, while Carson is a big, rugged defenseman who is adept at moving the puck, as well. They are joined by 24-year-old Mark Flood, who has been a consistent AHL point producer since joining the Carolina organization in 2006, and big Brett Bellemore, who has earned some playing time early in the season with Albany in his first pro campaign.
The Canes have four other current or former NCAA defensemen. Kyle Lawson, who helped lead Notre Dame to the Frozen Four championship game last year, is probably the best of the bunch and has been an absolute steal as a seventh-round selection in 2005. His offensive skills were known in his draft year, but Lawson was pressed into defensive situations right off the bat with the Fighting Irish and has thrived. When scouting Lawson, the Canes unearthed undrafted Noah Babin, who started off his pro career with a bang but has since battled injury and inconsistency with Albany. Fifth-rounder Tim Kunes, whose Boston College Eagles topped Lawson’s Irish for the NCAA crown last year, has been a solid, if unspectacular, blueliner for BC. Cornell’s Justin Krueger has the size and smarts to make an impact one day, but the 2006 seventh-round pick is raw and needs to bulk up.
Michal Jordan, the latest Plymouth Whaler acquired by the Canes, was a fourth-round pick in this year’s draft. While considered a reach by some, Jordan has started of 2008-09 on the right foot and could be another find for the Carolina scouting staff.
Carolina looked outside their organization for their backup of the future at the 2007 Entry Draft, trading a seventh-round pick for journeyman Michael Leighton, who did indeed earn the backup job behind Cam Ward this season with the Canes. With 2003 fourth-rounder Kevin Nastiuk not re-signed, that left Justin Peters and Daniel Manzato to battle for the starting job in Albany. Manzato, who was undrafted, is considered a graduated prospect because of his age, but he or Peters, a second-rounder in 2004, could hold a future spot in Raleigh. Magnus Akerlund, like Peters a 2004 draft pick, has settled into a backup job in the SEL.
The most intriguing goalie, however, is 2008 sixth-rounder Mike Murphy. His flop-till-you-stop-it style was a success in Belleville last year, and his showing at Carolina’s rookie conditioning and training camps showed why Murphy was named the OHL’s top netminder last season and backstopped a team to the Memorial Cup.
Only Manzato has graduated from the team’s prospect ranks. But his signing as an undrafted free agent should be considered a success, since he’s already earned ECHL All-Star honors, a World Championship roster spot in 2007 for Switzerland, and is embroiled in a goalie battle with Peters in Albany.
Carolina’s recent drafts have yielded many more NHL prospects than in previous years, but the lack of depth from those barren years has been tough to overcome. Still, the team is starting to develop depth at every position and is seeing their first round picks pan out instead of fizzle out. The defensemen drafted look like they will exceed their draft-day expectations, while mid-round choices like Bowman and Terry have become elite junior players. But at the end of the day the proof will be in the production at the NHL level, and until more of these young players make the jump it’s difficult to rate them as a definitive success.