Hurricanes Top 20 prospects

By Glen Jackson

The Carolina Hurricanes system continues to consist primarily of goaltenders and defensemen, with Jack Johnson taking over top spot from Cam Ward.

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. (2) Jack Johnson, D – 19 – University of Michigan (CCHA)
Rating: 8.5B, Projection, Top pairing defenseman

The Hurricanes landed the highly-touted Johnson in the 2005 NHL Entry Draft when they received the third overall pick in the lottery, and the Anaheim Mighty Ducks elected to select OHL forward Bobby Ryan instead of the best defenseman in the draft.

Johnson is projected to be a true impact player at the NHL level and he’s already shown he can dominate in the college ranks. As a freshman with Michigan, Johnson is 23rd in overall scoring, and second in scoring for defensemen and amongst freshmen with 10 goals and 22 assists in 37 games. Twenty-one of his points came on the power play, fourth-best in the CCHA.

Johnson is much more than just offense as his physical play and the intimidation factor he brings are as important to his game as the points he gathers. His 147 penalty minutes more than doubled the total of the next closest Michigan player, and is the highest total in the CCHA. This total includes some unnecessary and ill-timed penalties as well. It’s an area he will need to work on as he turns pro.

Some expect the Hurricanes to sign Johnson as soon as Michigan’s season is over as he does appear ready.

The previous 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 this year’s World Junior Championships where he had a goal and five assists along with 45 penalty minutes (the most in the tournament).

2. (1) Cam Ward, G – 22 – Carolina (NHL)
Rating: 8.5B, Projection: Starting goaltender

Without the 2004-05 NHL lockout, Ward would have had a shot at the NHL a year earlier, but instead he had a strong campaign with the AHL’s Lowell Lock Monsters. There he had a 1.99 goals against average, fourth-best in the league, and .937 save percentage, which topped the AHL. More impressive was that Ward did this as a rookie following a good career with the WHL’s Red Deer Rebels.

This season he was promoted to the Hurricanes where he’s done fairly well with one of the NHL’s best teams. Ward has a 13-6-2 record with a 3.52 goals against average and just an .886 save percentage. With an impressive group of rookie goaltenders in the league this season, Ward has been overshadowed and is near the bottom of performance statistics when compared with those other rookie goalies. He’s expected to continue to improve of course, and coach Peter Laviolette has given him almost 35 percent of the team’s starts this season. Only three of his 25 appearances have come in March as the Hurricanes wrangle for the top spot in the East.

3. (3) Andrew Ladd, LW – 20 – Carolina (NHL)
Rating: 8.0B, Projection: First line forward

Ladd has been called up four times by the ‘Canes this season, most recently on Mar. 5 following the season-ending injury to Erik Cole. Those are skates that Ladd isn’t quite able to fill at this point in his career, but he has done well in his first year as a pro with both the Lock Monsters and the Hurricanes.

He’s played in 25 games for Lowell and had 19 points, and for Carolina he has appeared in 25 games and has scored six goals while adding five assists. Ladd’s physical play will come in handy for the ‘Canes playoff drive and the experience should improve his overall development.

In 2003-04, his first full season in the WHL with the Calgary Hitmen, Ladd led all rookie scorers and the Hurricanes drafted him fourth overall at the 2004 draft. In 2004-05 his point total dipped and some attributed that to the departure of Ryan Getzlaf, but he was by no means a disappointment, and he was also a big part of Canada’s 2005 gold medal World Junior team.

4. (NR) Anton Babchuk, D – 21 – Carolina (NHL)
Rating: 8.0C, Projection: Top four defenseman

The Hurricanes acquired Babchuk from Chicago for Danny Richmond and an exchange of fourth round draft picks on Jan. 20, and he has spent most of his playing time since with the Hurricanes aside from a five-game stint with Lowell near the beginning of March.

Babchuk possesses good size, standing 6’5, and he’s a physical blueliner who can add some offense and big hits. In 31 games this season split between Chicago and Carolina, the native of Kiev, Ukraine has four goals and four assists and is a -5.

Last season with the Norfolk Admirals Babchuk had 24 points in 66 regular season games. He appeared in two playoff games for the Admirals before he was suspended for five games after an incident in which he responded to fan heckling by throwing a water bottle into the stands from the penalty box which struck a child.

5. (5) Kevin Nastiuk, G – 20 – Florida (ECHL)
Rating: 7.5B, Projection: Starting goaltender

Nastiuk is another of the pro rookies in the ‘Canes system and he has dressed in three different uniforms this season.

He began the year as Cam Ward’s backup in Carolina but didn’t play any minutes. Once Martin Gerber returned from injury, Nastiuk was sent to Lowell where he appeared in 11 games, but only managed a 1-7-3 record with a 3.53 goals against average.

“The American League is a great league, and I think being 20 years old, you have to take everything you can out of your first year and just try to learn from it. I think I played some good games in the AHL and a couple tough ones, but that’s going to happen. Just growing pains and hopefully in the next little while I can keep on progressing,” Nastiuk told Hockey’s Future last month.

On Jan. 3, Nastiuk was then assigned to Florida where he has an 11-3-1 record and an impressive .928 save percentage. He knows the ‘Canes want what is best for his development, and right now that means playing in Florida.

“They pretty much said when they sent me down that they want me to get some games in,” Nastiuk said. “They’re really struggling up there [in Lowell]. Down here I’ll probably get a few more [games] and we’re in second place right now so we’re trying to keep going forward and drive towards the playoffs.”

Nastiuk emerged as a top goaltending prospect the past few seasons after appearing in the Memorial Cup in 2003-04 with the WHL’s Medicine Hat Warriors, 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.

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

Peters’ career with the Toronto St. Michael’s Majors of the OHL began well in his first two seasons when they had a well-rounded team, but in 2004-05 it became more of a case of a goaltender carrying his squad, and he did a good job of it. After helping them grab the final playoff position, the Majors faced off against the top-seeded Mississauga IceDogs, Peters and the Majors upset the IceDogs before making their own playoff exit in the second round.

This season, the outlook in Toronto was even bleaker and his numbers were not great, although he also still was able to help the club win and had a 10-6-2-1 record. On Dec. 9, the Majors elected to trade Peters to the Plymouth Whalers.

Since joining the Whalers, Peters’ performance has improved and he’s poised to have a long playoff run with his new team. His goals against average went from 3.83 to 2.75, and his save percentage increased from .893 to .921, which are both much more in line with his junior career numbers.

Peters is very good at handling the puck and is one of only two OHL goalies to ever notch a playoff goal. He’s also got six assists this season and 11 total in his junior career.

Technically sound as a big butterfly goalie, Peters has a competitive nature that produces clutch performances and that will help him to succeed at the pro level next year.

7. (7) Casey Borer, D – 20 – St. Cloud State (WCHA)
Rating: 7.0B, Projection: Top four defenseman

A junior with the St. Cloud Huskies, Borer has more than proven himself as a solid defensive defenseman at the college level. He’s captain of the Huskies and one of the team’s top two blueliners.

In his first two seasons with St. Cloud he chipped in with 20 assists in 67 games, and in 2005-06 he’s scored the first three goals of his WCHA career as well as adding eight assists.

Borer is the type of player that is prone to being underrated, however, coaches will recognize the contribution he makes in excellent defensive zone play, and he can be physical when the need arises.

The native of Minneapolis, Minnesota also played for the 2005 World Juniors for the U.S. where he performed well, often against the opposing team’s best offensive lines.

The ‘Canes system is heavy on defensemen, but Borer still stands out among the group.

8. (9) Brett Carson, D – 20 – Calgary (WHL)
Rating: 7.0C, Projection: Second pairing defenseman

Brett Carson is another of the ‘Canes big defensemen, and he’s rounding out well as a two-way blueliner as he finishes up his junior career with the Calgary Hitmen. He was 13th among defensemen for scoring with 40 points (11 goals) in 72 games, the highest total of his WHL career. Carson’s point total was also tied for fourth on the Hitmen and tied for tops for Hitmen defense. Prior to this season, Carson was elected captain in a vote by his teammates.

“It’s a great honor, especially the way we pick the captain,” Carson told Hockey’s Future in February. “It’s great to know you’re respected.”

Aside from focusing on the Hitmen’s playoff run, Carson is hoping to rejoin former Hitmen teammate Andrew Ladd in the ‘Canes system next year.

“Hopefully I’ll be in Carolina’s system somewhere,” he said. “It’ll be good to play in the NHL but a couple years in the minors would be a good thing too.”

9. (10) Chad LaRose, RW – 23 – Carolina (NHL)
Rating: 7.0C, Projection: Second line forward

After being signed a free agent back in 2003, LaRose has steadily risen in the ‘Canes system from ECHL to NHL. He had 14 goals and 25 points in 23 games for Lowell this year before being called up to the Hurricanes on Dec. 4.

In 37 games with the Hurricanes, the Fraser, Michigan native has one goal and 10 assists. His NHL production isn’t stellar but he has a history of showing he can adapt well to each new challenge.

With the rules changed in the NHL, the Hurricanes are likely counting on that improvement for the 5’8, 185 lbs LaRose.

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

Hagemo played in the first three games of his sophomore season before a shoulder injury knocked him out of the lineup, and he hasn’t played since.

Hagemo is a hard working defenseman who had two goals and eight assists last season. He’s an excellent skater and is hard-working and smart. Although he brings a fair bit to the table, his injury troubles and their effect on his development might become a concern.

11. (11) Jakub Vojta, D – 19 – Ottawa (OHL)
Rating: 7.0C, Projection: Second pairing defenseman

Vojta was the first overall pick of the Ottawa 67’s in the CHL Import Draft and he’s done fairly well for the 67’s in a year when the team struggled following their 2005 Memorial Cup appearance.

He was second on the team in scoring for rookies with 24 points in 65 games and the two-way defender also had the second best plus/minus on the team (+12).

Vojta is a crafty passer with 22 assists in 2005-06, and he’s adept at creating good plays. He’s also a physical player with an edge and his 114 penalty minutes were second highest for the 67’s in the regular season.

12. (13) Craig Kowalski, G – 25 – Lowell (AHL)
Rating: 6.5C, Projection: Backup goaltender

Kowalski spent most of the start of the year in Florida and had a 12-6 record with a .915 save percentage. On Jan. 4 he was assigned to Lowell where he’s performed fairly well, sporting a 3.09 goals against average and .913 save percentage, however his record is only 5-9-2.

Kowalski’s contract is up following this season and this playing time in the AHL will help the ‘Canes determine if they would like hold on to the Warren, Michigan native.

13. (12) Vince Bellissimo, C – 23 – Florida (ECHL)
Rating: 6.5C, Projection: Second line center

The Hurricanes signed Bellissimo to a two-way contract prior to the 2005-06 season and he’s been shifted between Lowell and Florida several times.

In just nine games with the Florida Everblades, Bellissimo has seven goals and five assists, however, in 47 games with the Lock Monsters this year Bellissimo has just 14 points total, only two more than in his brief ECHL stint.

The Hurricanes signed Bellissimo for his offensive talent, however this year it appears he wasn’t quite ready for the AHL.

14. (NR) Ryan Pottruff, D – 19 – Guelph (OHL)
Rating: 6.0B, Projection: Third pairing blueliner

Pottruff started his junior career with the London Knights, but the combination of the ongoing construction of a dynasty there and his own injury troubles kept his ice time and opportunities to a minimum, and so it was a blessing for the Woodstock, Ontario native when he was traded to the Guelph Storm last season.

He’s made the most of it as well, playing in 57 games and collecting 19 points, more than doubling his OHL career total. He was also second on the Storm and 13th in the league with a +22 rating. Pottruff is a scrappy player who won’t hesitate to drop the gloves when necessary and he collected 125 minutes in penalties in the regular season.

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

The Hurricanes are optimistic about Akerlund’s future as he continues to develop in Sweden where he’s played in both the junior Swedish Elite League as well as the second league. For HV71, Akerlund has a 2.89 goals against average and .912 save percentage in two games played, while for Nykoping of the second league he has a 3.25 goals against average and a .889 save percentage. Those numbers have dropped off somewhat from last year’s, and his appearance in the World Junior Championships could also have been better.

Akerlund lost 5-1 in the opening game against the eventual silver medal winning team from Russia and Sweden’s other netminder, Daniel Larsson, was given every other key start following that. Akerlund did get one more start against Latvia, a game the Swedes won by a score of 10-2. Akerlund finished with a 3.50 goals against average and .849 save percentage in his two games.

It will be interesting to see if Akerlund rebounds from this season and makes it back to the Swedish Elite League, in which he played three games for HV71 in 2004-05.

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

Barnes was selected by the Hurricanes in the third round of the 2005 Entry Draft after he had a 62-point season. This year Barnes ended up sixth in scoring for the Saskatoon Blades with 25 goals and 27 assists.

Barnes has the size and ability to possibly succeed as a pro, but scouts have wondered about his mental makeup in the past. It will be interesting to see what the ‘Canes decide to do with the Winnipeg, Manitoba native in a year’s time.

17. (17) Risto Korhonen, D – 19 – HPK Hameenlinna (FNL)
Rating: 6.0C, Projection: Third pairing defenseman

Korhonen is a capable blueliner who doesn’t have an abundance of skill, but he plays the position well and uses all of his 6’3 frame. In 2005-06 he’s played in 22 games for HPK Hameenlinna and has registered 18 penalty minutes, but no points. He also played for Finland at the World Junior Championships and had two penalty minutes and a -1 rating in seven games played for the bronze medal winning team.

18. (15) Ondrej Otcenas, C – 19 – Plymouth (OHL)
Rating: 6.5C, Projection: Third line

The 6’1, 190 lbs Otcenas was drafted 25th overall in the CHL Import Draft by the Plymouth Whalers and by the Hurricanes in the fourth round of the Entry Draft. Although he’s known as a defensive center, Otcenas has had very low offensive production with the Whalers as an OHL rookie, scoring five goals and adding six assists in 50 games. He’s also on the lower-end of team plus/minus with a -2 rating.

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 Championships he was one of their best players, finishing with four goals, an assist, and a +2 plus/minus rating in six games.

19. (18) Timothy Kunes, D – 19 – Boston College (NCAA)
Rating: 6.0C, Projection: Third pairing defenseman

A freshman with Boston College, Kunes has one goal and three assists in 28 games. Last season Kunes had 40 points in 50 games for New England of the Eastern Junior Hockey League when he was the team’s Player and Defenseman of the Year.

With his freshman experience in place, the ‘Canes will be hoping that Kunes can grow into a bigger role with the Eagles next season as he and most of the other blueliners at BC enter their sophomore year.

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

Strachan has been a steady performer at Ohio State the past three seasons including his junior year in 2005-06. He collected five points in 23 games but it’s become apparent that Strachan will only be a defensive defenseman if he turns pro. He’s had occasional injury troubles over his college career and this season he broke his wrist in January and missed time for that, and last season a knee injury kept him out of the lineup for some time.

Holly Gunning, Aaron Vickers, and D.J. Powers contributed to this article. Do not reprint or otherwise duplicate without permission of the editorial staff.