The Carolina Hurricanes have surprisingly stayed in the playoff hunt into March, a feat that would have been impossible without the contributions of several rookies who have performed beyond expectations for a franchise in the midst of a rebuild.
Much of the team’s success has been due to a youthful infusion on defense, led by three just-out-college first-year players who have gone above and beyond in their first professional season, and a forward who impressively carved out a spot in Carolina’s top nine.
Noah Hanifin, D, 19
The Hurricanes have eased their prized prospect into the NHL, mostly playing him on the third pairing while slowly giving him a key role on the power play. That he has lived up to the high expectations that made him the fifth overall pick last June is no surprise. While he has recorded a modest 16 points (three goals, 13 assists) through his first 67 NHL games, Hanifin has exhibited the skill and smarts that made him so coveted coming out of Boston College.
Hanifin skating ability is matched by few, especially among 6-foot-3, 200-plus pound defensemen, and his mobility allows him to escape trouble and key the rush for the Hurricanes. He has also flashed glimpses of his on-ice vision, making difficult offensive zone passes seem routine. That has been particularly true on the power play, where he has nearly half (six) of his points on the season despite not joining the unit until later in the season. Hanifin has graduated from Hockey’s Future prospect criteria.
Brett Pesce, D, 21
Pesce skating and size has allowed him to quickly adapt to the NHL game. Also in his first professional season after three at the University of New Hampshire, Pesce has seen time in all situations for the Hurricanes. He is playing more than 18 minutes a night for Carolina, including averaging more than a minute on both the power play and penalty kill.
Through 57 games, Pesce has 14 points (four goals, 10 assists), including five power play points. Pesce has deceptive strength in his own zone, and he uses his long frame to shield opponents from creating scoring opportunities. He could still stand to get heavier and stronger, but that will come with more time in the weight room.
Jaccob Slavin, D, 21
If Hanifin and his preceding reputation were not with the Hurricanes, a lot of people around the league would be talking about Slavin as an emerging star on defense. Slavin turned pro after two years at Colorado College, and it didn’t take long for him to carve out a spot in the NHL. The rookie blueliner (6’2, 205 pounds) has had the best season of any of Carolina’s first-year defensemen, averaging more than 20 minutes a night while registering 15 points (one goal, 14 assists) in his first 51 NHL games.
Slavin has been as his most impressive since Justin Faulk went down with an injury. He seized his opportunity on Carolina’s top pairing, often logging 25 or 26 minutes without ever hitting the dreaded rookie wall. He has improved his shot blocking as the season has progressed, and has been a key part of the penalty kill and also earned time on the power play.
Phil Di Giuseppe, LW, 22
Coming into the 2015-16 season, it seemed like there would be a spot for a gritty, third-line player who would relentlessly forecheck and even contribute points on a regular basis. It was just that everyone thought it would be Brock McGinn, not Di Giuseppe.
The second-year pro out of Michigan made an impression when recalled in early December and hasn’t been pulled from the lineup yet—other than for a brief injury. Di Giuseppe was always a capable, albeit streaky, point producer, but it was his physicality and hustle that opened eyes since he earned his promotion to the NHL.
On top of the 16 points (six goals, 10 assists) he had in his first 37 NHL games, Di Giuseppe has averaged 2.8 hits per game (104 total). That easily ranks him near the top of NHL rookies in hits, and it also put him in the top 30 in the NHL in hits per game among players with at least 30 games played. The combination of points and physicality has earned Di Giuseppe a spot in the Hurricanes’ top nine, and he has often played with fellow 20-somethings Victor Rask and Jeff Skinner on one of Carolina’s most effective lines this season.
Several other Hurricanes rookies have gotten a look so far this season. McGinn bounced back and forth between the AHL and NHL, logging 21 games with the Hurricanes. He had three goals (including scoring his first career NHL goal on his first shift) and an assist in his time with Carolina. Forwards Brendan Woods and Brody Sutter earned recalls after the trade deadline. Woods played three games with the Hurricanes from March 8-12, while Sutter was recalled and made his season debut March 15 and was still with the team as of March 17. Both also received brief late-season promotions to Raleigh last season.
On defense, Trevor Carrick made his NHL debut March 15 in place of an ill Ron Hainsey. He was reassigned to Charlotte prior to Carolina’s game March 17. Goaltender Daniel Altshuller was also twice recalled to Carolina, but only served as a backup and did not see any game action.
World Junior Championships Update
The Hurricanes had four representatives at the 2016 World Junior Championships, two for Team Canada, and one each for Finland and the United States.
Of the four, none made a bigger impression than 2015 second-round pick Sebastian Aho. Aho finished the tournament second in scoring for gold medal-winning Finland, centering a line with 2016 draft prospects Jesse Puljujarvi and Patrik Laine. Aho, an alternate captain for the Finnish squad, ended the tournament with five goals and nine assists, trailing only Puljujarvi (17 points) for the tournament scoring lead.
Goaltender Alex Nedeljkovic also had a big tournament, leading the U.S. to a bronze medal with a paltry 1.66 goals-against average, .943 save percentage and 4-2 record. The 2014 second-round pick exhibited the athleticism that, despite his smaller frame (5’11, 190 pounds), made him a highly regarded prospect.
Defensemen Haydn Fleury and Roland McKeown were part of a disappointing Canadian squad that was ousted by eventual champs Finland in the first game of the elimination round. In five games, Fleury had one assist while McKeown finished without a point.
Prospect Of The Month: Nicolas Roy
Nicolas Roy has finally made good on all his promise. The former first overall pick in the QMJHL draft fell to Carolina in the fourth round last summer, but his 2015-16 campaign has the Hurricanes believing they hit the draft jackpot. In 61 games through March 17, Roy ranks tied for first in the QMJHL in goals (47), seventh in scoring (89 points), second in powerplay tallies (19) and is second in faceoff percentage (60.9 percent). His efforts have led Chicoutimi back to the postseason, and the team had won seven of eight games heading into their penultimate regular season game on March 18.