After years of struggling to build a solid prospect base, the Carolina Hurricanes seem to have depth in about every position in their system. The key, of course, will be taking that depth and turning it in to NHL talent – a task that has seemingly proved difficult for the Canes.
Carolina lacks star power at left wing, but what they do have is a group that has consistently proved people wrong and achieved beyond what many expected. Drayson Bowman was a two-time 50-plus goal scorer in the WHL, and while he struggled to apply his scoring prowess through his first two professional seasons – just 29 goals in 107 AHL games, two goals in 32 NHL games – he started off the 2011-12 season with a bang, scoring five goals in 10 game before being recalled to Carolina to play on the fourth line. He was recently reassigned to Charlotte.
Chris Terry was also a big-time scorer in major junior, and his game has grown through two-plus pro seasons. He’s gotten off to a slower start this season (two goals, six assists through 13 games), but Terry’s emergence from fifth-round project to legitimate AHL sniper and potential future NHLer has been impressive
First-year pro Justin Shugg has bounced between Charlotte and the ECHL‘s Florida Everblades this season, but he has shown throughout his young career that he knows how to score. Through five games with the Everblades he has eight points. Now up with Charlotte due to recalls to Carolina, Shugg is yet to register a point in three games.
Mattias Lindstrom and Oskar Osala are both big wingers who are spending the season in Europe, albeit for different reasons. Lindstrom signed with Carolina this offseason but he and the team mutually decided that another season in the Swedish Elite League would be best for the oft-injured forward. Osala played for Carolina’s top affiliate after being acquired from Washington at the 2010 trade deadline, but signed overseas in the KHL when his entry-level contract expired last summer.
Charlotte alternate captain Nicolas Blanchard has carved out a spot as an AHL grinder, but his future as an NHLer seems limited.
The Hurricanes look pretty deep down the middle, but at least a few of these players will make the permanent move to the wing if they make it to the NHL full time. Zac Dalpe and Zach Boychuk are both highly regarded, but neither has been able to bust through and earn a top-nine role in Raleigh. Dalpe’s time was supposed to be this year, but he started the season on the fourth line before being injured, then recently returned and resumed his spot as a bottom-line wing. Boychuk is in the top nine right now, registering his first point of the season November 8th, after being recalled from Charlotte. But the clock is running on Boychuk, who will be waiver eligible next season and needs to find his way into a full-time role with Carolina soon.
Riley Nash and Brett Sutter have both made an impact in Carolina this season. Nash was the final cut in the preseason, impressing coaches with his improvement from training camp last season. Sutter earned a brief recall early in the year when Dalpe was injured. He has the makings of solid fourth liner.
Victor Rask came to North America this season and has been a standout for the WHL’s Calgary Hitmen. His 10 goals through 18 games are four more than anyone else on the team and are tied for 16th in the league and second among rookies. His creativity and playmaking could be a great fit on Carolina’s second line in the near future.
Cedric Lalonde-McNicoll rounds out Carolina’s center prospects. He has two points in eight games with the Checkers this season.
Carolina’s biggest weakness is at right wing – the reason players like Dalpe and Boychuk figure to make a full-time move there in the NHL – but there is some hope. Swiss forward Gregory Hofmann, a 2011 fourth-round pick, brings a mix of blazing speed, skill and defensive smarts. He is back in the Swiss league this season, and his biggest hurdle will be adjusting to the talent level and speed of the North American game. In training camp this year, he seemed up to the task.
AHL star Jerome Samson has scored in bunches with Carolina’s top affiliate, but his NHL future is cloudy. He is a great player in the corners, especially with the puck, and never hesitates to shoot, but his other attributes are average and he is the type that needs minutes and opportunities to produce, two things he’s unlikely to get with the Hurricanes.
Jared Staal and Matthew Pistilli finish up the depth at right wing. Both are projects that show some upside as possible bottom six contributors down the road. But each has holes in their game that need filling before they show up on Carolina’s recall radar.
The Hurricanes can’t help but be thrilled with their future on defense. Justin Faulk is NHL-ready, but is polishing his game in Charlotte and figures to be in Raleigh as soon as a spot permanently opens for him. He can contribute on the power play immediately. The same is true for OHLer Ryan Murphy, but he is spending 2011-12 back with the Kitchener Rangers. Murphy is a top-end offensive talent on the back end, but a recent concussion (suffered on a high hit from Niagara’s Tom Kuhnhackl (PIT) that led to a 20-game suspension) has brought his season to a streaking halt. Still, Carolina expects him to make a run at a roster spot next season and he could immediately add a new element to the Carolina defense corps.
A stable of collegiate defensemen are also on the horizon, led by Boston College’s Brian Dumoulin. The rangy defender could emerge as a Jay Bouwmeester-type, capable of shutting down the opposition’s best while still contributing offensively. Minnesota’s Mark Alt and Harvard’s Danny Biega are both strong blueliners with offensive upside. Biega is stocky and rugged, but also a capable point producer. Alt is the son of a long-time NFLer and oozes athleticism, but is more of a project.
AHLers Michal Jordan and Bobby Sanguinetti each possess the ability to eventually make the leap to the NHL. Jordan is an all-around defender who can play some on the power play, whereas Sanguinetti, a former first-rounder selected by the Rangers, is a power play quarterback who is trying to recover from an injury-riddled 2010-11.
Big defender Brett Bellemore found success paired with Jordan last season, serving as one half of Charlotte’s top shutdown pairing. Bellemore has gradually improved since being drafted in 2007, earning the trust of Charlotte coach Jeff Daniels.
First-year pros Rasmus Rissanen and Justin Krueger are also in Charlotte and could be a bottom pairing NHLers down the road. Rissanen is a tough-as-nails type who isn’t afraid to muck it up in the corners, while Krueger is more of a cerebral defender who excels in a shutdown role.
Austin Levi and Keegan Lowe, 2010 and 2011 third round pick, respectively, both figure to play a part in Carolina’s blue line future. The duo are both stay-at-home defenders with some offensive upside. Both are playing in major junior.
Carolina has a pair of capable netminders in Charlotte in Mike Murphy and Justin Peters. Peters got a taste of the NHL last year, serving as Cam Ward’s backup for the season. But he’s back in Charlotte this year trying to unseat Murphy as the Checkers’ number one goalie. Murphy won the job late last season from Justin Pogge and, helped by an injury to Peters to start this year, as taken the reins of the top job by opening the season 6-4 with a .932 save percentage and 2.11 goals-against average. Peters has played well in limited action, plus is a former AHL All-Star, but he has ground to make up to catch Murphy and become Carolina’s top option if Ward or Brian Boucher go down with an injury.
The team’s most intriguing goaltending prospect might be Frederik Andersen. The Danish goalie upped his competition this season, moving from Denmark to Sweden and playing for Frolunda in the Swedish Elite League. He has dominated the SEL much like he did in the Danish league, putting up a 1.48 goals-against average and .933 save percentage in 15 games with Frolunda before being injured when ex-NHLer Ole-Kristian Tollefsen ran into him.
Plymouth Whaler goalie Matt Mahalak was chosen in the sixth round by Carolina and is off to a strong start in 2011-12. Through eight appearances, Mahalak is 5-2-0 with a .934 save percentage and 1.96 goals-against average while splitting time with 2010 Devils third round pick Scott Wedgewood.