Hurricanes Top 20 prospects

By Glen Jackson

A sure sign of a depleted prospect system, virtually all of the ‘Canes 2005 draft crop is represented here. The top 20 is still overloaded with goaltenders, but one fewer than in 2004 with the departure of Rob Zepp. Topping the list again are key blue chip prospects. Joining Cam Ward and Andrew Ladd is new addition defenseman Jack Johnson.

Hockey’s Future’s Top 20 ranking 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 an individual rating per HF criteria. Other factors that help determine ranking order to varying degrees include: player age, current league and team quality, draft position, location (North America or Europe) and foreseeable opportunity.

Key: Rank (former rank), name, position – age – current team (league)
Rating, Projection

1. (1) Cam Ward, G – 21 – Carolina (NHL)
Rating: 8.5B, Projection: Starting goaltender

Ward’s 2004-05 AHL rookie season with the Lowell Lock Monsters was superb and he finished with a 27-13-3 record, six shutouts, a 1.99 goals against average, and a league-best .937 save percentage. With numbers like that, the ‘Canes first round selection from 2002 could only solidify his standing as the organizations marquee prospect.

It’s long been known that the Hurricanes planned to have Ward back up Martin Gerber when the NHL resumed, and based on his performance last season it was clear that he was ready. The only question that remains is if backing up in Carolina will hamper his development more than playing regularly for Lowell.

Ward began his NHL career with a shutout over the Washington Capitals in the preseason, and so far this season he has a 5-1-1 record with a 3.06 goals against average and a .893 save percentage. Although his numbers aren’t as good as Martin Gerber’s, he’s still appeared in one more game than his goaltending platoon partner, and he’s contributed to Carolina’s amazing start this season.

2. (NR) Jack Johnson, D – 18 – Michigan (CCHA)
Rating: 8.0B, Projection, Top pairing defenseman

Johnson was the highest rated defenseman available in the 2005 Entry Draft and the ‘Canes went with this versatile two-way blueliner, who many see as the nucleus to build a defensive corps around.

He’s playing with the University of Michigan this season where he has four goals (three on the power play) and 12 assists in 11 games and, due to his physical style of play, also leads the team in penalty minutes. Johnson’s 16 points are good enough to have him currently tied for second in overall CCHA scoring.

The past two years Johnson was with the U.S. National Team Development Program where he was among the best defenders in the system, leading all rearguards in scoring during that time frame. Johnson has also seen some international competition including playing in the IIHF World U-18 Championships the past two years, and he should suit up for Team USA again this year.

3. (2) Andrew Ladd, LW – 19 – Lowell (AHL)
Rating: 8.0B, Projection: First line forward

Ladd’s WHL career complete, on September 27th the effective two-way forward signed his rookie contract with the ‘Canes but did not make the big club out of camp. He began the season with Lowell where he has five goals and three assists in 12 games.

Although he might be a year or so away from full-time NHL duty, Ladd looks to be just as promising as he did at the 2004 NHL Entry Draft where he was the fourth overall pick, and he should see some games with the ‘Canes this season.

4. (4) Danny Richmond, D – 21 – Lowell (AHL)/Carolina (NHL)
Rating: 7.5B, Projection: Top four defenseman

Richmond adjusted surprisingly well to life in an NHL-inundated AHL last season, and had four goals and nine assists with a +4 rating in 63 games played. Two of the Chicago, Illinois native’s four goals were game winners, which tied him for fifth on the Lock Monsters.

So far in 2005-06, Richmond has a goal and seven assists in 12 games with Lowell and he continues to develop well. He’s also dressed for the past two games for the Hurricanes, his first in the NHL, which is now the fifth different league he’s played in in the past five seasons (USHL, NCAA, OHL, and the AHL are the others).

Richmond is not the highest profile ‘Canes defensive prospect now that Johnson is on board, but he’s shaping up well to break into the NHL for good in the not too distant future.

5. (3) Kevin Nastiuk, G – 19 – Lowell (AHL)
Rating: 7.5B, Projection: Starting goaltender

Nastiuk has emerged as a top goaltending prospect the past few seasons after winning a Memorial Cup in 2003-04, and then breaking the Medicine Hat franchise shutout record just seven games into 2004-05. He suffered through injury trouble near the end of last season but still had a respectable 2.18 goals against average and a .914 save percentage.

This season Nastiuk played in four games for the Lock Monsters and although he doesn’t have a win yet, he’s got a .908 save percentage and has played fairly well. When Martin Gerber went down with an injury in October, Nastiuk got the call up to the ‘Canes to back up Cam Ward but he didn’t get an opportunity to play.

6. (5) Justin Peters, G – 19 – Toronto (OHL)
Rating: 7.5B, Projection: Starting goaltender

A goaltending prospect most teams would be very happy to have as their top guy, in Carolina Peters currently comes in third in the system. For the second season in a row, Peters is practically carrying his team towards the playoffs. Last season he succeeded in that and in the first round of the playoffs the Majors even upset the first overall Mississauga IceDogs.

So far this season, Peters has faced a big challenge with the absence of a strong supporting cast and his goals against average is 3.71, the highest mark of his OHL career, but he still has the Majors in third place in the Central Division with an 8-5-2 record.

7. (9) Casey Borer, D – 19 – St. Cloud State (WCHA)
Rating: 7.0B, Projection: Top four defenseman

The ‘Canes have put an emphasis on defensemen the last two drafts, and Borer is turning out to be one of their better picks from 2004 where he was a third rounder.

At last year’s World Junior Championships he was solid for the American team and played well in key situations. His play at St. Cloud this season continues to be good and the defensive defenseman has got two assists in ten games, giving him 22 helpers in his college career.

8. (NR) Nathan Hagemo, D – 19 – University of Minnesota (WCHA)
Rating: 7.0B, Projection: Top four defenseman

Hagemo is a fiercely competitive defenseman who plays a lot bigger than his 5’11, 192 lbs frame. He’s an excellent skater with tremendous speed and is extremely hard working and smart, and he has shown flashes of very good offensive skills. Hagemo is willing to get involved in plays and can lead the rush and his transitioning is also quite good and he’s confident with the puck. With continued physical development and maturity Hagemo can become a more menacing presence on the blue line and the ‘Canes hope he can develop into a well-rounded pro in the coming years.

As a sophomore he’s only played in three of the Gophers ten games this season because of a neck and shoulder injury, but expect him to put in another strong season in college as well as for the U.S. World Junior team if he’s healthy in time.

9. (10) Brett Carson, D – 19 – Calgary (WHL)
Rating: 7.0C, Projection: Second pairing defenseman

Since being drafted in the fourth round of the 2004 Entry Draft, Carson has continued to develop into a fine two-way defenseman. At 6’5, 215 lbs, he had the size the ‘Canes crave in their blueliners, but Carson has also played well in all situations for the Calgary Hitmen, and last season he led the team in power play goals from point men.

In 2005-06 Carson has stepped up his offensive output and has five goals and eight assists in just 21 games, which puts him at fourth for Hitmen scoring.

10. (8) Chad LaRose, RW – 22 – Lowell (AHL)
Rating: 7.0C, Projection: Second line forward

Originally a free agent signing by the ‘Canes in 2003, LaRose quickly proved himself in the ECHL and last season he spent the entire year with the Lock Monsters where he finished fifth in team scoring.

LaRose is small by pro standards but he is also a hard worker who is able to chip in with some offense. This season he’s stepped up his point production and has eight goals and 13 points total in 13 games.

11. (NR) Jakub Vojta, D – 18 – Ottawa (OHL)
Rating: 7.0C, Projection: Second pairing defenseman

A fourth round pick for the ‘Canes and first overall pick in the CHL Import Draft by the OHL’s Ottawa 67’s, Vojta is an offensive minded two-way blueliner who makes use of his ability to join the rush and support the offense. He’s a crafty passer who is adept at creating good plays and is a solid skater with above-average straightaway speed and decent first-step quickness.

Vojta has played well for Ottawa thus far this season and has 11 assists in 21 games played. Perhaps Vojta’s best asset is his play in the defensive zone and his team leading +9 is a testament to his value as a two-way defenseman for the ‘Canes system (the next highest rating on the team is +4). The feisty Czech Republic native is also second only to enforcer David Jarram in penalty minutes with 36.

12. (NR) Vince Bellissimo, C – 23 – Lowell (AHL)
Rating: 6.5B, Projection: Second line center

Bellissimo is an offensively talented center who spent three years at Western Michigan University where the Toronto, Ontario native’s point production was over one per game. After completing his season with Western Michigan in 2004-05 he played 12 games with the San Antonio Rampage and had six points.

The ‘Canes signed him to a two-way contract before the 2005-06 season and on October 26th they assigned him to the Lock Monsters. He’s played in seven games and has three goals.

13. (12) Craig Kowalski, G – 24 – Florida (ECHL)
Rating: 6.5C, Projection: Backup goaltender

Following a strong college career with Northern Michigan, Kowalski entered the ECHL, and for a while last season he looked to be well on track in his development with the Florida Everblades before injury troubles held him out of the lineup. He finished with a 13-6-6 record in 27 appearances.

This season Kowalski was called up to Lowell to fill Nastiuk’s spot when Gerber was injured, but he did not play. He’s only played in three games for the Everblades this season but has done fairly well despite winning only one game.

Kowalski still has a little more to do to prove himself at the ECHL level, but a real shot at the AHL this year isn’t out of the question as his contract will expire after this season and the ‘Canes will need to decide what to do with the Michigan native.

14. (14) Magnus Akerlund, G – 19 – Nykoping (SWE-2)
Rating: 6.5C, Projection: Backup goaltender

Originally drafted in the fifth round of the 2004 draft, Akerlund has continued to work his way towards an expanded role with HV71 in the Swedish Elite League. Last season he played three games for HV71 and sported a 2.92 goals against average. Akerlund didn’t make the 2005 Swedish World Championships team but in the past he’s been one of the better performers in international play and will likely appear for his country again in the future.

Akerlund has a 3.16 goals against average and a .888 save percentage in ten games with Nykoping of the Swedish second league this season.

15. (NR) Ondrej Otcenas, C – 18 – Plymouth (OHL)
Rating: 6.5C, Projection: Third line

Otcenas split time between Trencin’s midget and junior squads in 2004-05 and when he played for Slovakia at the Under-18 World Junior Chamionships he was one of their best players, finishing with four goals, an assist, and a +2 plus/minus rating in six games.

Offensively, Otcenas is effective in the lower half of the offensive zone and he eagerly battles with opposing defenders in the trenches. He’s good at moving bodies, but doesn’t appear to have enough vision and passing skills to make an effective offensive center at the pro level. His skating is average, but his balance is good and he has good lower-body strength, and he’s effective at using his size in the defensive end of the ice. Last season Otcenas displayed a good attitude and work ethic as he led by example with his hard work on the ice and attention to defense on a consistent basis.

Otcenas was drafted 25th in the CHL Import Draft by the Plymouth Whalers and so far in 2005-06 his pre-draft effectiveness has not been evident in the OHL. In 17 games he has three goals and three assists, but in the last three games he’s come alive offensively and tallied four of his six points.

16. (NR) Joe Barnes, C – 19 – Saskatoon (WHL)
Rating: 6.5C, Projection: Third line

Barnes put up 62 points while playing in all 72 games for the Saskatoon franchise in 2005-06, a significant improvement over the 22 points he had the previous year. In fact, Barnes was so successful in his overall development that he was named both the club’s most improved and most dedicated player.

The knock most scouts have against the Winnipeg, Manitoba native is even with his size and ability, his mental makeup may hold him back as a pro. That criticism, though, seems to be the only deterrent for a player who chose not to opt into the 2004 draft after suffering a neck injury.

Barnes has picked up his production so far in 2005-06 with ten goals and 21 points total through 22 games.

17. (NR) Risto Korhonen, – 18 – HPK Hameenlinna (FNL)
Rating: 6.0C, Projection: Third pairing defenseman

Korhonen has earned his hype as a big, physical player. However, at 6’3, he won’t impress in the NHL with size alone. Fortunately his strength and will are on par with his frame and there is no question that his presence is punishing for opponents. Korhonen is a smooth skater but by no means speedy, yet even while he hunts for hits all over the ice he is rarely caught out of position. Although he is solid in his own end he is also used to support the offense as he handles the puck with skill and smarts.

Korhonen must learn to cope with ever stronger opponents to continue to progress. He is closer to going forward in that respect, having left Kärpät and the stacked defense corps behind as he seeks ice time with HPK in the Finnish elite league this season.

18. (NR) Timothy Kunes, D – 18 – Boston College (NCAA)
Rating: 6.0C, Projection: Third pairing defenseman

Kunes is an effective and physical two-way defenseman who scored 40 points in 50 games in 2004-05 for the New England Jr. Falcons of the Eastern Junior Hockey League, earning him second team All-EJHL honors. He was also named the Falcons’ Player and Defenseman of the Year and he led the league in scoring for defense and in 2003-04 he was the Falcons’ Rookie of the Year.

The Huntington, New York native is playing with the Boston College Eagles this season and in six games he has one assist.

19. (19) Tyson Strachan, D – 21 – Ohio State (CCHA)
Rating: 6.0C, Projection: Third pairing defenseman

Strachan is back with Ohio State in his third season of college hockey and he continues to play well for the Buckeyes. He’s a defensive defenseman of good size, toughness and he can take care of his own zone. Strachan has also contributed a goal and an assist to the cause in eight games this season.

20. (NR) Kyle Lawson, D – 18 – Tri-City (USHL)
Rating: 7.0D, Projection: Second pairing defenseman

One of three former U.S. National Development Team defensemen selected by the ‘Canes in the 2005 NHL Entry Draft, Lawson is an offensive-minded blueliner who will need more time to develop into that role, while he does show great promise.

Lawson isn’t an overly physical player, but he’s effective defensively. He stands up well at the blue line and he works hard in the corners and out front of the net while boasting solid all-around play.

Drafted in 2004 by Tri-City Storm of the USHL, Lawson instead chose to join the NTDP and in 2004 he signed a letter of intent to play with the Fighting Irish at the University of Notre Dame, however, he deferred this until the fall of 2006. This season he is playing instead with Tri-City where he has three goals and two assists in 13 games.

DJ Powers contributed to this article. Copyright 2005 Hockey’s Future. Do not reprint or otherwise duplicate without permission of the editorial staff.