Hurricanes Top 20 prospects

By Glen Jackson

If you’re a goalie or a big defensive defenseman, you’ll always have a home with GM Jim Rutherford’s Carolina Hurricanes. They hold the rights to a total of nine goaltending prospects as well as more than a half dozen defensemen who are mostly known for their size and play within their own zone.

The new Hurricanes Top 20 prospects is based on long-term impact on the hockey club and is not a reflection of who is closest to making the NHL. Players are assigned a rating based on Hockey’s Future’s Criteria reflecting the projections. Factors that help determine ranking order to varying degrees include: Player age, current league and years in that league, team quality, statistics, awards, international tournament performances, location (North America or Europe) and foreseeable opportunity.

Key: Rank, Name, Position, age
Draft Position, Rating and Role

1. Cam Ward, G, 20
Draft: 1st round, 25th 2002 Rating: 8 Role: Starting Goalie

Jim Rutherford might have Cam Ward jump directly from junior hockey to the NHL if 2004-05 has a season. If only for the sake of Ward’s development, one would hope there is no CBA resolution until he’s had at least a year with the AHL’s Lowell Lock Monsters. Ward’s junior career was an extremely successful and well decorated one and he looks to be a sure bet to be a starting goaltender in the league eventually.

2. Andrew Ladd, LW, 19
Draft: 1st round, 4th 2004 Grade: 7.5 Role: Two-way forward

Andrew Ladd was one of the most talked about prospects of the 2003-04 season, and the Hurricanes bought into him by trading up in the first round so they could select the CSS’ top rated North American for the second year in a row. Ladd is a very good all-around player who scouts have a difficult time being critical of. He can make passing plays, but also has a good shot. He can produce lots of offense, but his devotion to the defensive zone is notable. He’s also a physical player who will go to war for a teammate. Ladd certainly has great vision and work ethic, but his occasional mental breakdowns in the defensive game almost classify him as a power forward rather than a two-way winger, but even with those occasional mistakes he led all of the WHL in plus/minus in 2003-04 with a +39 ranking. The tight-budgeted Canes will definitely send Ladd right into the heat of battle if he has a decent training camp but he is still at least a year or two away from being a factor at the NHL level.

3. Justin Peters, G, 17
Draft: 2nd round, 38th 2004 Rating: 7.5 Role: Starting Goalie

The 2004 Entry Draft was undeniably a goaltender’s draft, especially when you consider that at No. 38 a starting caliber goalie in the form of Justin Peters was still on the board. The Hurricanes could not resist taking the best player available, and they rarely shy away from taking goalies. Peters had an extremely strong season in the OHL with the Toronto St. Michael’s Majors. His numbers were very good (30 wins, 2.65 GAA, .910 percentage), but what isn’t clear from those statistics is how fundamentally and technically sound Peters played. He looks to be very close to being ready, with perhaps just a few years of AHL development needed. However, in the crowded crease of the Hurricanes system he might find it difficult to move up the ladder, especially with Ward and Zepp already in the pipeline ahead of him. He has another season in junior with the Majors and perhaps the picture will be clearer after that.

4. Magnus Kahnberg, LW, 24
Draft: 7th round, 202nd 2000 Rating: 7 Role: Scoring forward

Kahnberg has improved in each of his four full seasons with Vastra Frolunda capped by 49 points in 50 games in 2003-04, good enough for the league lead in scoring and his 33 goals set a franchise record. He’s also not missed a single game in those four seasons. Before joining the senior team, Kahnberg dominated in his final season with 77 points (52 goals) in 41 games and it looks like he is now ready to move to the next step again. Kahnberg is a skilled player but it is unclear how well he will do on North American ice. He is offensively gifted with an accurate wrist shot, but his skating and quickness are potential weak areas. He had only a goal and an assist at the World Championships this year for Sweden. Kahnberg is under contract with Frolunda for next season and it appears there is a good chance that he will no longer be a prospect by the time he comes over.

5. Rob Zepp, G, 22
Draft: 4th round, 110th 2001 (re-entry) Rating: 7 Role: Potential starting goalie

Most teams would be content having Rob Zepp as their highest rated goaltending prospect, but with the Hurricanes he has to play even harder for respect and better opportunities. In 2003-04 he did just that when he led the Florida Everblades of the ECHL to the Kelly Cup Finals. His regular season was fair at only one win over .500 and a 2.95 GAA. In the playoffs, however, he improved his play and went 8-3 with a 2.72 GAA. Zepp is an excellent technical goalie and continues to develop well at the ECHL level. He’s had a handful of games in the AHL over the last two seasons but it’s not been enough to evaluate him effectively, but with Patrick DesRochers and Jamie Storr gone 2004-05 should be his year with Lowell, or possibly even with the Hurricanes as Martin Gerber’s partner should Ward falter.

6. Danny Richmond, D, 20
Draft: 2nd round, 31st 2003 Rating: 6.5 Role: Offensive defenseman

Though touted as having the potential to be a future power play quarterback, Danny Richmond held his own in all aspects of his game in 2003-04 with the OHL’s London Knights. He was a +12 with 35 points in 59 games in his first year in the league after spending 2002-03 with the University of Michigan of the CCHA. The extra games and experience in the OHL appear to be slowly paying off for Richmond and rumors have circulated that there is a strong chance of Richmond returning to the Knights as an overage player in 2004-05 where he will try to improve his play and cut down on his tendency for mental errors.

7. Brad Fast, D, 24
Draft: 3rd round, 84th overall 1999 Rating: 6.5 Role: Offensive defenseman

Although closer to breaking into the NHL than Richmond, Brad Fast has four years of development on him including a very strong college career with Michigan State where he had 114 points in 163 games. In his final season of college he was named the CCHA’s Best Defensive Defenseman and was also eighth in scoring for the conference. In 2003-04 he had a very strong season with Lowell offensively, collecting 35 points in 79 games which put him at 18th in the league for defenseman scoring, but he was also a team worst -20. Still, expect him to get a fair try at breaking the Hurricanes lineup next season. The team could use his offense from the blueline and he has shown throughout his young hockey career that that is his main strong point.

8. Michael Zigomanis, C, 23
Draft: 2nd round, 46th overall, 2001 (re-entry) Rating: 6.5 Role: Scoring forward

With 330 points in 240 games, it’s safe to say that Michael Zigomanis was a scoring machine with Kingston of the OHL in his four seasons there. And with 131 points in 178 games with Lowell, it’s also safe to say that he’s scored quite well at the AHL level. However, Zigomanis was expected to be on the verge of breaking through at the NHL level in similar fashion in 2003-04 but he fell flat with just 3 assists in 17 games with the Canes. His speed might be part of the problem, but it might also be as simple as lack of confidence. In 2002-03 he was given 19 games with the Hurricanes and scored just 2 goals with 1 assist. Apparently Rutherford lost patience with Zigomanis as the Hurricanes recently offered him the NHL minimum for a one year contract with the condition that if it wasn’t accepted the offer would be withdrawn for the Restricted Free Agent. Rutherford also made it public that he attempted to trade Zigomanis but could not find an interested party. If he does sign, expect the Canes to give Zigomanis just one more attempt to get over the hump in 2004-05.

9. Chad LaRose, RW, 22
Draft: Signed as a Free Agent August, 2003 Rating: 6.5 Role: Scoring forward

Like Zigomanis, Chad LaRose also had a good OHL career, especially in his overage season with Plymouth where he potted 61 goals and added 56 assists in 67 games. In his first season with the Hurricanes organization, LaRose did not disappoint. He started the year in the ECHL with Florida but was making more appearances with Lowell by the end of the season. His points per game at the ECHL level was .85 and in the AHL it was .44, but he still impressed. LaRose is an offensively gifted prospect in an organization that has few like prospects to compete with him.

10. Kevin Nastiuk, G, 19
Draft: 4th round, 126th overall, 2003 Rating: 6 Role: Backup goalie

In his third season with Medicine Hat Tigers of the WHL Kevin Nastiuk responded very well to increased action. He started a whopping 68 games and won 40 of them in the regular season before playing even better in the playoffs, going 16-4 with a 1.93 GAA, .917 save percentage and 4 shutouts while leading the team to the WHL Championship. In the finals, Nastiuk and the Tigers swept the Everett Silvertips and two of the wins were shutouts as Nastiuk went on to be named the WHL Playoffs MVP for 2004. In the Memorial Cup the Tigers made it to the semi-finals before being eliminated by the Gatineau Olympiques by a score of 6-5. Nastiuk will look to build on his excellent 2003-04 season, wherever he might end up.

11. Matej Trojovsky, D, 19
Draft: 4th round, 130th overall, 2003 Rating: 5.5 Role: Defensive defenseman

Matej Trojovsky is a large (6’5″, 220lbs) defenseman who uses his size very effectively as both a defenseman and enforcer. His last two seasons in the WHL he had 3 goals and 6 assists in each with over 200 minutes in penalties. The Canes will likely start him off with Florida of the ECHL next year to see if he has the foot speed and other skills necessary to play professionally, but he is expected to make the adjustment with relative ease.

12. Casey Borer, D, 19
Draft: 3rd round, 69th overall, 2004 Rating: 5.5 Role: Defensive defenseman

Not as large as many of the Canes other stay at home rearguards, Casey Borer is a long term project that the organization can feel fairly confident about. As a freshman at St. Cloud, he made such an impression with his play that he became a key player for the team, and the experience gained will help the Brooklyn Park, Minnesota native immensely going forward as he learns what it takes to be a top college defenseman. Like Dawson, Borer’s puck movement adds another dimension to his game beyond just being effective in his own zone.

13. Aaron Dawson, D, 19
Draft: 4th round, 102nd overall, 2003 Rating: 5.5 Role: Defensive defenseman

Aaron Dawson had a disappointing 2003-04 season, one in which he spent most of it rehabilitating from a shoulder injury sustained early on. He finished with only 24 games played and 5 points. This will set his development back somewhat but the big blueliner is still only 19 years of age with good potential. Not simply a stay at home defenseman, Dawson moves well and is also strong with the puck in aid of the transition game.

14. Ryan Rorabeck, C, 19
Draft: 9th round, 202nd overall, 2003 Rating: 5.5 Role: Two-way center

In his third season with Toronto of the OHL, Ryan Rorabeck showed a new level of grit and leadership on the way to his most offensively productive season (48 points in 64 games). The big concern with Rorabeck’s future is his lack of size and strength, and that will continue to be something he needs to focus on in the present and future. He will likely return to Toronto for 2004-05 and continue to work on all aspects of his game and conditioning as well as likely being an alternate captain for the team once again.

15. Brett Carson, D, 18
Draft: 4th round, 109th overall, 2004 Rating: 5 Role: Two-way defenseman

Yet another big Carolina defenseman for the system, Brett Carson is 6’4″ and 220 lbs and yet he brings more than just size and strength to the position as he was fairly competent running the Calgary Hitmen’s second power play unit (he was 40th in the league in power play assists) and he had 32 points in 71 games. In fact, scouts find his size, or how little he utilizes it defensively, to be one of his weaknesses as a player. The 2003-04 season was the third year WHLers breakout campaign and it will be interesting to see if he can continue to improve or if he reached his peak already.

16. Craig Kowalski, G, 23
Draft: 8th round, 235th overall, 2000 Rating: 5 Role: Possible backup goalie

Fresh out of school, the Hurricanes recently signed their 235th overall pick in the 2000 Entry Draft to a two-year contract. Craig Kowalski finished his career with Northern Michigan with a 68-49-12 record and 12 career shutouts. In 2003-04 he had a 17-14-4 record with a 2.71 GAA and a career-best .918 save percentage. It’s unclear at this point where the Canes will have Kowalski play next season, but as the organization has become deft at placing goalies within the ECHL, that would seem the most likely destination for the 23-year-old.

17. Sean Curry, D, 22
Draft: 7th round, 211th overall, 2001 Rating: 4.5 Role: Defensive defenseman

The Hurricanes seem to have a soft spot for beefcake Sean Curry, and in 2003-04 he was given an excellent opportunity to prove himself in a full season with Lowell. He didn’t exactly excel in the AHL then, or in his 35-game stint the season before, and it’s beginning to look doubtful that Curry will ever see regular duty above the AHL. He’s in the final year of his contract in 2004-05 and if the Canes don’t like what they see he might end up relegated to a career in the ECHL.

18. Martin Vagner, D, 20
Draft: 9th round, 268th overall, 2004 (re-entry) Rating: 4.5 Role: Two-way defenseman

The Hurricanes seem to like to select players who have re-entered the draft, and in Martin Vagner they acquire the rights of the Dallas Stars leftovers. Vagner was a first round, 26th overall pick in 2002. But after a woeful 2002-03 campaign and an injury marred 2003-04 season, the Stars could not convince Vagner to sign for what they felt he was worth rather than the value of a first round draft pick in 2002. With their last pick of the 2004 Entry Draft, the Hurricanes get a very interesting prospect in that he did rebound somewhat in 2003-04 in the QMJHL, but many suspect he will never amount to more than an AHL fill in. He is criticized for making too many mental errors as well as taking costly penalties too often. He’s got the skill and offensive upside to be a good two-way defenseman one day, but Vagner is definitely a wild card, and it’s unclear if he will even remain in North America to play.

19. Tyson Strachan, D, 19
Draft: 5th round, 137th overall, 2003 Rating: 4 Role: Two-way defenseman

Tyson Strachan will be entering his sophomore season with Ohio State in 2004-05 after collecting 7 points (2 goals, 5 assists) in 30 games last season along with just 8 penalty minutes. He will see more ice time and have more opportunity to show what he can do with the puck, and the Hurricanes are hoping that the big blueliner can eventually parlay some of the offensive talent he showed with Vernon of the BCHL in 2002-03 when he had 28 points in 56 games into success at the pro level. Strachan did indeed show some of the skill moving the puck in his freshman year with Ohio State, and he is also fairly dependable in his own end.

20. Kevin Estrada, RW, 22
Draft: 3rd round, 91st overall, 1999 Rating: 4 Role: Scoring forward

Another BCHL alumnus, Kevin Estrada has been unable to consistently show the offensive prowess he displayed in 2000-01 with Chilliwack when he had 118 points in 59 games. His third season with Michigan State, 2003-04 was also his best, but still he reaped only 16 points in 34 games. However, teammates and coaches began to see more confidence from Estrada as the season wore on and he might possibly be on the verge of turning the corner in time for his final year in the CCHA. The smallish forward has shown glimpses of his former offensive brilliance, but he will need to produce more in 2004-05 if he hopes to be signed by the Canes.

Copyright 2004 Hockey’s Future. Do not duplicate without written permission of the editorial staff.