Defense leads the way in Carolina Hurricanes prospect pool

By Cory Lavalette
Defense leads the way In Carolina’s prospect pool

Photo: With 11 points in 14 games, Phil Di Giuseppe is on pace to almost double the 30 points he had for the Charlotte Checkers in 2014-15. (Courtesy of Frank Jansky/Icon Sportswire)

 

 

Second-year General Manager Ron Francis has promised to build the Carolina Hurricanes the right way: by stockpiling draft picks and patiently developing prospects—while not cheating the process.

That comes with its pitfalls. Carolina was among the NHL’s worst teams in 2014-15, and most pundits peg them to have a similar fate this season. A lack of success on the ice has meant fewer bodies in PNC Arena’s seats one month into the campaign—always a concern for a franchise that tends to be at the forefront of relocation conversations when cities like Seattle or Quebec are mentioned.

But some of the fruits of Francis’ labor are beginning to blossom, particularly on defense.

Left Wing

Carolina still lacks a stud left wing prospect, but the team has slowly developed a good base of talent. With Carolina struggling to score both at even strength and on the power play, there are opportunities for young players to make an impression and earn time with the Hurricanes now or in the near future. Leading the way are two former second-round picks, Sebastian Aho (2015) and Brock McGinn (2012).

Aho stood out at Carolina’s prospect conditioning camp and his solid play has carried over in Finland, where he has 15 points (seven goals, eight assists) in 17 games in Liiga and four points (two goals, two assists) in five games in the Champions Hockey League for Karpat.

McGinn nearly made the Hurricanes out of training camp, but early season injuries among Carolina’s forwards gave him a chance, and he immediately made an impression. He scored on his first NHL shift, just 55 seconds into an eventual 5-3 win over Detroit. Through Nov. 9, McGinn had two goals an assist while playing more than 11 minutes a night, mostly on the fourth line.

Down in Charlotte, both Phil Di Giuseppe and Sergey Tolchinsky are streaky scorers who got off to fast starts for the Checkers. Through 14 games, Di Giuseppe leads the team in scoring with four goals and seven assists, while Tolchinsky registered points in his first five games before hitting a lull. Both could provide the kind of finish that the big club is lacking right now.

Also in Charlotte, Justin Shugg—the Checkers’ top scorer in 2014-15—has five points in five games after missing some time due to injury, while rookie Erik Karlsson (one goal in seven games) and Carter Sandlack (no points in five outings) have both been in and out of the lineup.

Warren Foegele, the team’s third-rounder in 2014, opted to leave the University of New Hampshire just a handful of games into his sophomore season and join the OHL’s Kingston Frontenacs. He had points in each of his first two junior games, including Kingston’s lone goal in his second, and had totaled three points in his first four junior outings. Northeastern’s Brendan Collier had not registered a point eight games into his season, while project forward Luke Stevens is still a year away from enrolling at Yale.

Center

It seems like the entire future of all of Carolina’s forward spots begins and ends with one word: Staal. Captain Eric Staal has spent most of his career at center, but has played the majority of this year on the wing, while younger brother Jordan is the team’s No. 2 pivot and top shutdown player. Eric’s deal expires following this season, while Jordan has underperformed and some question his desire to stay in Raleigh if his brother departs.

So where does that leave Carolina? Well, Victor Rask continues to be a pleasant surprise on the NHL roster and Elias Lindholm could still become a full-time center. But like the rest of the forward prospect pool, there are no sure-fire answers at center looking forward.

Former QMJHL first-overall pick Nicolas Roy might have the best upside. He was considered an underachiever heading into the draft this summer, taking him from a probable first-round pick all the way down to 96th overall. But Roy, a big-bodied center with all the skills to succeed at the next level, may have turned a corner this season, registering 24 points through his first 17 games (1.41 points per game) after averaging just 0.69 points per game in his first two junior seasons. That includes 12 goals, three-quarters the 16 he scored in 60-plus games in each his previous two campaigns with Chicoutimi.

Also in the QMJHL, Cape Breton captain Clark Bishop plays bigger than his listed size and is an on-ice leader who is defensively responsible while consistently improving his scoring numbers. He has 17 points (eight goals, nine assists) in his first 19 games of the 2015-16 season.

Joakim Nordstrom is the lone NHLer of the bunch right now, but he has been sidelined by injuries for most of the season’s first month, playing just three games and lining up exclusively on the wing for the Hurricanes through Nov. 9. AHLers Brody Sutter and Patrick Brown both have bottom six ceilings, though Sutter’s size (6’5, 203 pounds) makes him an intriguing player down the road.

Lucas Wallmark could prove to be a surprise asset. The Swedish center went undrafted in 2013, but Carolina scooped him up last summer in the fourth round and he has been lighting up the Swedish Hockey League. Through 12 games with Lulea, Wallmark has two goals and a team-high 11 assists—very solid output for a player that is perhaps pegged as a cerebral two-way forward.

David Cotton is a bit of a project who won’t be a freshman until the fall of 2016 (he’s headed to Boston College). This season he’s with the USHL’s Waterloo Black Hawks and was tied for second on the team in scoring through 12 games with three goals and six assists.

Peterborough center Steven Lorentz is another big body in the Carolina system. The seventh-round pick in 2015 also went undrafted in his first year of eligibility, but is on pace for his best offensive season with 11 points through 18 games for the Petes.

Right Wing

Clearly the thinnest position in Carolina’s prospect pool is at right wing, where just two players are listed as natural right wingers. This is helped somewhat by the fact that only a fraction of center prospects actually wind up in the middle in the NHL, but it’s still a point of weakness for the Hurricanes.

Neither of Carolina’s current right wing prospects project as much more than a bottom-six player if they make it to the NHL. Spencer Smallman, a 2015 fifth-round pick, is a character forward who plays bigger than his 6-foot, 201-pound frame. Through Nov. 8, Smallman has 13 points in 17 games for the Saint John Sea Dogs.

AHLer Brendan Woods, also a former fifth round pick, was a pleasant surprise for the Checkers last season, scoring 13 goals and adding 17 assists in 68 games, plus earning a two-game call-up to Raleigh. He’s off to a slower start in 2015-16 (three goals, one assist through 12 games), but he possesses the size (6’4, 210 pounds) and grit you look for in a fourth-line winger.

Defense

Carolina’s young defense is a group to be admired. Already anchored by 23-year-old alternate captain Justin Faulk, the Hurricanes blue line is stocked with young talent. That of course starts with fifth-overall pick Noah Hanifin, who made the Canes out of camp and has not looked overwhelmed a dozen games into his NHL career. A left-handed shot, Hanifin is an ideal partner for Faulk down the road, and Carolina is easing in their 18-year-old prized prospect with the occasional off night.

Also in Carolina is call-up Brett Pesce, who seized the opportunity presented when James Wisniewski injured his knee in the season opener and has logged more than 18 minutes a night seven games into his NHL career. A first-year pro who gave up his final year of college eligibility at the University of New Hampshire, Pesce won’t turn 21 until mid-November but has played well beyond his years in a top-four role for Carolina.

Jaccob Slavin and Trevor Carrick aren’t far behind. Both are 2012 fourth-round draft picks, selected just five picks apart, but look like sure-fire NHLers down the road. In his first pro season after two years at Colorado College, Slavin impressed in training camp and has seven assists while logging big minutes just a dozen games into his professional career. Carrick, a second-year pro, has become an offensive force (four goals, three assists through 12 games after 32 points as a rookie last year) on the back end while also exhibiting grit that is otherwise lacking in Carolina’s defensive prospect pool.

Fellow AHLers Keegan Lowe, Danny Biega and Rasmus Rissanen all play vital roles in Charlotte as well, and each has seen brief call-ups with the Hurricanes since last season. All three play a defense-first game, with Lowe being the feistiest of the trio, Biega the best-conditioned, and Rissanen the most capable of clearing bodies in front of the crease. Due to Carolina’s impressive depth in Charlotte, first-year pro Tyler Ganly had played just three games though Nov. 9.

Carolina also has promising prospects in junior, highlighted by 2014 seventh-overall pick Haydn Fleury. Fleury was not AHL-eligible this season, so rather than keep him in Carolina in a limited role in 2015-16, the Hurricanes returned him to the WHL where he will anchor the Memorial Cup-host Red Deer Rebels. Fleury is on pace for his best statistical season yet, notching five goals (previous career high of eight) and eight assists for 13 points through the Rebels’ first 13 games.

Kingston’s Roland McKeown, acquired at the trade deadline last year as part of the trade that sent Andrej Sekera to Los Angeles, is another offensive force at the blueline. McKeown averaged 0.55 points per game in his first three OHL seasons, but through 18 games with the Frontenacs has 19 points (four goals, 15 assists), including a two-goal, one-assist night in a win over the red-hot Kitchener Rangers on Nov. 7. Fleury and McKeown have been frequent defensive partners in international play for Canada, and could rekindle their partnership down the road in Carolina.

Raleigh-born Josh Wesley, son of Hurricanes legend Glen Wesley, is in his third junior season, moving with the Plymouth Whalers to Flint for the 2015-16 campaign. A stay-at-home defender with NHL size (6’3, 200 pounds), Wesley has a goal and three assists 16 games into the season.

Kyle Jenkins, a 2014 seventh-round pick, is off to a slow start with just three assists through 12 games for Peterborough after totaling 36 points in 70 games with both the Petes and the Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds last season.

All of these assets—it wouldn’t be surprising for five, six or more of these players to become full-time NHLers—should allow Carolina to restock their forward cupboards by packaging a defenseman or two for front line reserves.

Goaltender

Carolina has an interesting mix of goaltenders in their system, but no sure-fire NHLers at the moment. Tops among them is 2014 second-rounder Alex Nedeljkovic. The 2013-14 OHL Goaltender of the Year, Nedeljkovic has been a workhorse for both Plymouth and now Flint in his four junior seasons. With the team’s struggles this year and last—including the latest behind-the-scenes issues regarding the Firebirds’ owner dismissing the coaching staff due to his son’s playing time—Nedeljkovic’s numbers have faltered from his award-winning campaign, but the 19-year-old still has the athleticism and compete level to overcome concerns about his size (5’11, 190 pounds).

Fellow junior goalie Callum Booth is more of a traditional 21st century goalie. At 6-foot-3, 201 pounds, the Quebec Remparts netminder has put up impressive numbers in the high-scoring QMJHL, but was recently sidelined after an emergency appendectomy in early November. A fourth-round pick in the 2015 draft, Booth has a 42-22-7 career record.

Both Rasmus Tirronen, a free-agent signing this summer, and Daniel Altshuller, a third-round pick in 2012, are playing in the minors for Carolina this season. Tirronen was signed after an impressive senior season at Merrimack, and he has been Charlotte’s number-two goalie to start 2015-16. In his first three outings, including two starts, the Finnish goalie is 2-0 with a 3.03 goals-against average and .860 save percentage.

Altshuller is off to a fast start with the ECHL’s Florida Everblades after playing sparingly for the Everblades in 2014-15. The second year pro is 5-1 with a 1.67 goals-against average and .939 save percentage through Nov. 8, but his numbers are similar to those of fellow Florida goalie Anthony Peters, and the duo are splitting time in the Everblades net.

After a long wait, collegiate goalie Collin Olson is back on NCAA ice. Olson left Ohio State after just two games of his sophomore season, and after sitting out all of 2014-15 and playing in the USHL has joined Western Michigan for this season. Thus far he has split time with senior Lukas Hafner, and Olson is 2-2 with a 2.27 goals-against average and .932 save percentage in his first four appearances.