Carolina GM Jim Rutherford has always had success building an NHL team, be it by trade or free agency. The current roster has just four players drafted by the team — Eric Staal, Cam Ward, Niclas Wallin and Erik Cole, who has returned after a brief stint in Edmonton — with the rest of the team coming through other means.
But for the first time in memory, Carolina looks poised to turn over its roster with players it drafted, a testament to the team’s improved amateur scouting and new-found patience in developing their young players.
The Canes have a promising core of centers for the future, though one or more of them could find themselves on the wing at the NHL level. Leading the way is 2008 first-rounder Zack Boychuk, who just turned 20. The former Lethbridge Hurricane is in his first professional season with the team’s AHL affiliate in Albany, but the skilled speedster is not far from making his way onto Carolina’s roster.
While Boychuk is expected to add offensive punch, second-year pro Brandon Sutter is a prototypical shutdown pivot. The lanky 20-year-old already got a sniff of the NHL last season, but needs add more strength if he’s going to add dimensions to his already suitable defensive game.
Ohio State sophomore Zac Dalpe stood out at the Canes prospect conditioning camp, showing a mix of speed and skill that should make him a scoring threat at the NHL level. Although Dalpe, 19, has two years of eligibility left with the Buckeyes after this one, he could turn pro as early as next summer.
Phillippe Paradis, the team’s first-round pick in this past draft, infuses size to the Canes prospect center pool. While he is more of a project than the previous three, Paradis already possesses a big shot and should get ample time to develop with Shawinigan in the QMJHL.
The Canes’ fifth-round pick in the 2006 draft, Stefan Chaput is hitting the ground running after an injury-shortened rookie pro season with Albany. The 21-year-old Montreal native was a point-per-game player in his final season with Lewiston, and he has shown the ability to score in his brief time with Albany. He is good both ways, however.
Finally, rugged center Nicolas Blanchard has evolved into a rough-and-tumble forward for Albany. The 22-year-old, 6’3 pivot has not put up many points through two full seasons in the AHL, but his willingness to fight and play big means he could one day find his way to the NHL in a fourth-line role.
While the Canes have a wealth of centers in their system, they lack a top-notch prospect at right wing. Tops in the system is Jerome Samson. The 22-year-old has put up back-to-back 20-goal seasons in his first two pro campaigns, and he is the River Rats’ early-season point leader. Undrafted out of the QMJHL, Samson has been passed over several times for promotion, but could get a shot if he continues to pile up points.
As part of the Hurricanes plan to get bigger at this year’s draft, right wing Matt Kennedy was selected in the fifth round. The 6’2, 203-pound 20-year-old became a top-notch OHL scorer last season, his third full season with Guelph. After a brief tryout with the AHL’s Syracuse Crunch last year, Kennedy is back with Guelph in 2009-10.
Also added this offseason was undrafted free agent Matthew Pistilli. The 21-year-old was a teammate of Paradis last season in Shawinigan, and is playing his first pro season with the Rats this year. Another big forward, Pistilli will be looked to as an energy player.
Second-year pro Harrison Reed rounds out the right side. After being picked in third round by Carolina in 2006, the 21-year-old had a monster season with Sarnia in 2006-07, amassing 81 points in just 67 games. But his play dropped off in his final junior season, and he has been unable to replicate his previous scoring success as a pro.
Coming off of two 40-plus goal seasons with Spokane of the WHL, Drayson Bowman begins his professional career with big expectations. Armed with an NHL-caliber shot, the 20-year-old, 2007 third-round pick has been an amazing find for Rutherford. Despite back-to-back pedestrian training camps, Bowman had registered six points in his first six pro games with Albany and has an outside shot of being recalled if injuries strike in Raleigh.
The Canes took a flier on Plymouth Whaler Chris Terry in the fifth round in 2007, and it looks like it will pay dividends. The first-year pro hovered around the 100-point mark the past two seasons in the OHL, putting him among the league leaders in scoring. In his first pro season, Terry needs to show he can continue to put up points against top-level competition. So far he has three points in seven games for the River Rats.
Like Paradis and Kennedy, 2009 third-rounder Mattias Lindstrom adds size and skill up front for the Canes. Still just 18, Lindstrom has already seen time in the Swedish Elite League’s top division, primarily because he is already 6’4 and more than 200 pounds. Known as a punishing player, Lindstrom was the biggest proof that Carolina was serious about getting tougher up front at this year’s draft.
Shifty winger Samuel Morneau, a seventh-round pick in 2008, piled up points for a bad Val d’Or team last season. While the Foreurs expected to improve this year, they came out of the gate slowly again this season. For his part, Morneau continues to register points.
It’s been a long time since Carolina groomed a defenseman from the draft to the minors to a full-time NHLer. In fact, you’d be hard-pressed to name one blueliner who was drafted by Carolina and worked their way through the system. Enter Jamie McBain. The 21-year-old, first-year pro was a dominant performer with the University of Wisconsin for three seasons before turning pro following the Badgers’ 2008-09 season. His combination of size, skill and skating could give Carolina its first home-grown, top-pairing blueliner since the move to Raleigh. McBain is currently a rookie with the River Rats.
Brian Dumoulin, the team’s second-rounder in this year’s draft, will likely have a slow path to the NHL. But that’s no reason to be down on this big, smooth-skating rearguard. The 19-year-old Boston College freshman was impressive at prospect conditioning camp, and at 6’3 and hovering around 200 pounds, he has the luxury of letting his skills grow into his body.
Fourth-year pro Brett Carson is on the cusp of earning a full-time NHL job. While there was no room him this season with the Hurricanes, the 23-year-old blueliner has progressively improved on offense while continuing to be a force in his own zone. He has been sidelined by an early-season injury in Albany, but that shouldn’t hinder the team’s long-term plans for him.
Fellow Rats defenseman Casey Borer hasn’t been so fortunate with injuries. Lingering neck troubles suffered in last season’s team bus crash have cost Borer the beginning of the 2009-10 season. It’s the third straight season the promising defenseman has been shelved because he was hurt, though it’s hard to call him injury-prone when he looked no worse for wear last year — coming off knee surgery in 2008 — before the accident. If he can get healthy, Borer has shown promise as a solid, two-way rearguard.
Plymouth Whaler Michal Jordan was chosen in the fourth-round in 2008. He was among the top scoring OHL defensemen last season, but has struggled early this year with the Whalers. The 19-year-old Czech has the potential to develop into a puck-moving, reliable defenseman.
Notre Dame senior Kyle Lawson has been a pleasant surprise for Carolina. A seventh-round pick in 2005, the 22-year-old has been a key cog in the emergence of the Fighting Irish as an NCAA contender. Though undersized, Lawson has grown into an all-situations defender who plays a team-first game.
Finnish defenseman Rasmus Rissanen, Carolina’s sixth-rounder in this year’s draft, brought his North American style to the WHL this year, joining Everett this year after playing in his home country. Known as a rugged and punishing defender, Rissanen bring grit to the Carolina blueline pool.
Defense-first rearguard Brett Bellemore is taking his second crack at pro hockey. The 21-year-old was slowed by injury early last season and eventually sent back to his OHL team, Plymouth, for the season. But he’s returned to Albany this year and is in the rotation on defense. Drafted in the sixth round in 2007, Bellemore is among the biggest Carolina prospects at 6’4 and 200-plus pounds.
Unlike countryman Rissanen, seventh-round pick Tommi Kivisto played in the WHL last season only to leave for home for 2009-10. Kivisto had 22 points for Red Deer last year, but joined Jokerit this offseason after struggling with the transition to the North American style.
Cornell senior Justin Krueger, 23, was a seventh-round pick in 2006. He has developed into a defensive defenseman for the Big Red, becoming a mainstay on the team’s blue line the past three seasons.
Mike Murphy enters his first pro season with more doubters to convert. The acrobatic 20-year-old was the two-time OHL goalie of the year, but his Tim Thomas-esque style scared off many teams. The 2008 sixth-rounder finds himself backing up for the River Rats. He is 1-1 with a 2.57 GAA and .917 save percentage so far.
Twenty-three-year-old Justin Peters has played five games to Murphy’s two. Peters, the 2004 second-round pick is 3-2 with a 2.40 GAA and .919 save percentage. His traditional butterfly style offers a stark contrast to Murphy’s flopping acrobatics.
Magnus Akerlund, the Canes’ fifth-round pick in 2004, has played in the SEL since his draft year. The 23-year-old Swede has been solid, if unspectacular, in his homeland.