Tough season ahead of Hurricanes despite deep system

By Cory Lavalette
Photo: After a stellar NCAA career with Merrimack College, Rasmus Tirronen began the 2015-16 season as the back-up goaltender for the Charlotte Checkers. (Courtesy of Jeanine Leech/Icon Sportswire)

Photo: After a stellar NCAA career with Merrimack College, Rasmus Tirronen began the 2015-16 season as the back-up goaltender for the Charlotte Checkers. (Courtesy of Jeanine Leech/Icon Sportswire)

 

 

Carolina Hurricanes General Manager Ron Francis enters the second year of his tenure with the team in significantly better shape than it was when he initially took over nearly 15 months ago. He has stockpiled draft picks—the team has a combined 10 picks in the first three rounds of the next two drafts, including two first rounders in 2016—and made good on his promise to stock the organization with bigger players to compete in today’s NHL.

On the ice, Carolina could be in for another difficult season. Francis has promised to build the organization from the ground up, which means drafting and developing prospects at a methodical pace. Yes, 2015 first-round pick Noah Hanifin made the team’s opening night roster and looks like he will be an NHLer at 18. But overall, the team seems dedicated to giving their prospects ample time to develop before subjecting them to the rigors of the best league in the world.

Furthermore, with the contracts of Eric Staal and Cam Ward set to expire at season’s end, Francis is in for even bigger and more difficult decisions in the months ahead. But there is still plenty to look forward to from Carolina’s youth. The AHL’s Charlotte Checkers have a new coach, Mark Morris, and several junior and European players should compete for their respective league championships.

Pro

Top Prospect
Noah Hanifin, D, Carolina Hurricanes (NHL)

Hanifin beat out 2014 first-round pick Haydn Fleury and first-year pros Brett Pesce and Jaccob Slavin for a spot on Carolina’s blue line to open the season. It’s easy to see why. The 18-year-old blueliner already has NHL size (6’3, 206 pounds) and has teammates saying he is mature beyond his years.

In training camp and the preseason, Hanifin showed a willingness to use his frame to be physical in his own end, and he also two assists in four games while playing in all situations for the Hurricanes. Carolina figured to ease Hanifin in as a top contributor, but he will likely start on Carolina’s third defensive pairing. As a left-handed shot, he is a fit to play with the team’s top defenseman, righty Justin Faulk, down the road.

Offensive Breakout
Brock McGinn, LW, Charlotte Checkers (AHL)

McGinn nearly made the team out of training camp, being among the last cuts reassigned to Charlotte. That’s because McGinn brings an element to the ice otherwise lacking in the Carolina system: an in-your-face, on-the-edge physicality that contradicts his 185-pound frame.

McGinn brought that to the Checkers last year, but in order to earn a promotion to Carolina he needs to up his scoring output. McGinn finished 2014-15, his first professional season, with 15 goals and 12 assists, but he had a 20-game run without a point and only five nights where he registered multiple points. The 21-year-old winger had an 85-point season his final year of junior—including 43 goals—so the offense is there. With a year of pro hockey under his belt, McGinn is a prime candidate to break out this season—and perhaps make his way on to Carolina’s third line as a physical force and secondary scorer.

Unsigned For 2016-17
Rasmus Tirronen, G, Charlotte Checkers (AHL)

Tirronen didn’t show up on NHL scouts’ radars until his fantastic senior season at Merrimack that saw him finish with a 2.30 goals-against average and .929 save percentage despite finishing the campaign with a 12-14-3 record. A native of Espoo, Finland, Tirronen signed a one-year contract with the Hurricanes in March, and he earned the backup job in Charlotte behind veteran Drew MacIntyre heading into the 2015-16 season.

The one-year deal puts the onus on Tirronen to prove his senior season was not a fluke. At 6-foot-3, 209 pounds, Tirronen is the biggest goalie in the Carolina system, but he is a raw prospect who should benefit from playing behind MacIntyre and receiving high-level coaching. Still, with only a one-year deal in hand, Tirronen needs to make good on his promise if the Hurricanes are going to continue the experiment beyond this year.

Junior

Top Prospect
Haydn Fleury, D, Red Deer Rebels (WHL)

Fleury impressed at the Traverse City Prospects Tournament and Hurricanes training camp, but since he is still just 19 he either had to make Carolina’s NHL roster or return to junior. Another year in the WHL is likely the best thing for Fleury, the seventh overall pick in the 2014 NHL Draft. Red Deer is set to host the Memorial Cup this year, meaning the Rebels will get an automatic bid into the four-team tournament.

Teams generally go all-in when they are hosting the Memorial Cup, so Red Deer will make every effort to take a run at winning it all. Fleury will be a key component in that, both as the team’s most talented player and a veteran leader. Fleury also has the inside track at making Canada’s World Junior team.

Bounceback Prospect
Nicolas Roy, C, Chicoutimi Sagueneens (QMJHL)

It will likely be a rough season in the standings for Chicoutimi, but for Roy it will be the first chance to prove wrong all the teams that passed on him at the NHL draft. The former first overall pick in the QMJHL draft, Roy was expected to go in the first or second round this June—The Hockey News ranked him No. 18 in their Draft Preview issue—but slid to Carolina in the fourth round after averaging just 0.45 points per game in his first two junior seasons.

Roy has the size and skill to dominate at the junior level, and he is one of three players wearing an A for Chicoutimi in 2015-16. A big statistical season from Roy will point his development in the right direction—and should help the Sagueneens build toward the future.

New Team In 2015-16
Alex Nedeljkovic, G, Flint Firebirds (OHL)

Nedeljkovic will look out from his net this season and see a lot of familiar teammates in front of him, but the crest on their jerseys will be different with the Plymouth Whalers relocating to Flint, Michigan and becoming the Firebirds. The Whalers missed the playoffs for the first time in 23 seasons last year, and the team was sold by Peter Karmanos—also the owner of the Hurricanes—due to dwindling attendance.

It will likely be Nedeljkovic’s final junior season. The 2014 OHL Goaltender of the Year has been a workhorse for the Whalers the past two seasons, and he gives the Firebirds a solid foundation in the team’s first season in Flint.

Amateur

Top Prospect
Warren Foegele, LW, University of New Hampshire (Hockey East)

With defensemen Brett Pesce and Jaccob Slavin both leaving college early to begin their pro careers, Foegele is Carolina’s top NCAA prospect. The speedy late bloomer finished with 16 points (five goals, 11 assists) in his freshman season but battled some injuries, including a concussion in the first half of the season. Coach Dick Umile is known for easing in his young players, but Foegele should have a bigger role with the Wildcats this year as one of the team’s top returning forwards.

Bounceback Prospect
Collin Olson, G, Western Michigan University (NCHC)

It’s been a strange ride for Olson since the Hurricanes made him a sixth-round pick in 2012. Olson spent the 2012-13 season with Ohio State, but left the program after just two games the following season after losing his starting job. Due to the NCAA’s transfer rules, Olson was not eligible to play for another team until this upcoming season. Olson played well for Sioux City of the USHL the past two years, but the true test will come when he again faces better competition with his new team at Western Michigan.

Olson, a junior, will compete for starts with senior Lukas Hafner this year. Olson will also benefit from playing under WMU’s head coach, longtime NHL bench boss Andy Murray.

Unsigned in 2017-18
Brendan Collier, C, Northeastern University (Hockey East)

Collier is just a junior, but if he is going to earn an entry-level contract when his collegiate career is over he needs to begin producing this year. Collier has an uphill climb as a 5-foot-9, 176-pound forward that has struggled to score in college. Collier was cut by Boston University after one season with the Terriers, but the NCAA granted him a waiver to begin playing immediately with Northeastern last season. Collier played 35 games with the Huskies last year, finishing with two goals and six assists.

Europe

Top Player
Sebastian Aho, RW, Karpat (Liiga)

Aho ended last season by scoring the game-winning goal in overtime to secure the league title for Karpat, then two months later was a second-round pick of the Hurricanes. While most of the attention at prospect conditioning camp was on Carolina’s two recent first-round picks, Hanifin and Fleury, Aho made an impression with a solid week capped off by a hat trick in the team’s camp-ending scrimmage. Aho is back with Karpat this season, and he should return to the World Juniors with Finland this winter.

Offensive Breakout
Lucas Wallmark, C, Lulea (SHL)

Wallmark signed his entry-level contract with Carolina this offseason but was loaned back to Lulea for the 2015-16 campaign. Wallmark had 18 points in 50 games in the SHL last year, and he finished 13th in Champions League scoring with 11 points (five goals, six assists) in 13 games. Wallmark is poised to have an even bigger role in 2015-16, which should lead to more ice time and points for the 20-year-old center.