One way to look at the Carolina Hurricanes future and get a good read on it is through the lens of the youngsters currently on the team and in the system. With the construction of this year's team, the "kids" will need to step up. They need to be dependable and the team needs to depend on them. The bad news is, relative to the forwards, that the NHL- ready youngsters down in Charlotte are sparse in number with skill that is untested at best and limited at worst. The good news is that two or more of these guys will see significant time in Raleigh this year, likely with surprising results.
So who really are our best young players and prospects? Down on the farm we clearly have a growing stable of higher end blueliners, some of whom will be banging on the NHL door this year. The Canes already have some burgeoning young talent on the front end. There are also 3 or 4 projectable Checkers' forwards, mostly bottom six material. Still there's some upside potential with a distinct sleeper or two in the mix. The remaining centermen and wings are really either still a mystery or looking like they're just not good enough. This group of forwards is the focus of this article.
First let's define what we mean by youth, youngsters, and/or kids. For our purposes, it's those players under the age of 25 who have signed a professional North American hockey contract. Using this criteria, there are 14 forwards in this group...The Fair to Middling Fourteen. What follows is a somewhat arbitrary ranking influenced by personal preference, perceived chance to be a significant NHL contributor, and informed by the expected time to get to the NHL. If they are already contributing or they are expected to get there sooner rather than later, that yields a higher ranking in my world. Secondly the ranking will take into account role, demonstrated skill, and an undefined "it" factor, a feeling that a particular player will just be a pretty good NHLer.
1. Jeff Skinner
Love him or hate him, he's the best offensive forward on the team under the age of 25. A pure scorer who is dangerous from nearly anywhere on the ice, he is also blessed and cursed with a skating style that leads to highlight reel goals and also has led to multiple concussions over his short professional career. As an emotional player who is only recently reining in his propensity for untimely outbursts, he continues to learn to channel that for positive results. All that said he's the most creative offensive force on the team who merely needs to: a) recapture his ability to find his linemates when his goal scoring opportunities are shut down, and b) continue to develop a passable defensive game such as the one he seemed to find his last 20-25 games this past season. This year a bounce-back season won't be a surprise; it should be a given.
2. Elias Lindholm
He of the newly minted $5.4 million bridge contract perhaps has the most upside of any current Hurricane, at least from an offensive perspective. Looking much more like a 1st round draft pick, his hard, accurate shot was showcased more often while his vaunted on-ice vision began to surface as well. His 39 points were good enough for 3rd on the team in overall scoring and his 17 goals came in at 3rd as well. The key question is will he be the Elias Lindholm who scored 6 goals in the first 7 games in November or will he be the Lindy who scored a mere 4 points in 11 January contests. If he's the former then look for a true breakout season with 20-25 goals and 30+ assists. If he's the latter, can you say "whipping boy"?
3. Victor Rask
What's not to like about this kid? Both Jeff Daniels and Bill Peters spoke of how teachable he was and how much he embraced coaching to the overall betterment of his game. As a rookie, he was thrust into the NHL spotlight likely a year earlier than any would have guessed and by all accounts performed better than any could have expected. Rask's faceoff percentage was a very respectable 51% (not just good for a rookie). He had a very nice balance of even-strength points to powerplay points (67%-33%). In fact, one could say that his 33 points on the season were that much more impressive considering he went 0 for October and 1 for December. If Victor gets rid of negative streaks like those, more than just Caniacs will take notice. Perhaps most surprising was how well he performed in his own end, even earning (or being forced into) time on the PK. With improved shot selection, a little better puck luck, and a more stable set of linemates, 40+ points are not only not out of the question, it is what should be expected.
4. Andrej Nestrasil
First of all, he gets ranked highly for his awesome grill alone. There's something purely joyful about his toothless grins and smiles. If it wasn't contagious, it should have been. Okay, let's look at the basic metrics: 18 points in 41 games with the Canes, only 4 minutes in the penalty box, 10% + shooting percentage, a 58.5% faceoff % as a part-time centerman, and led the team with a +2 rating. This waiver wire pick up from the Red Wings came to Carolina and almost immediately fit in. It is hard to understate how much better his season might have been if he hadn't missed the 12 games from mid-December through early-January. Hopefully, he has done some conditioning work this summer as he clearly seemed to hit a wall toward the end of the season going scoreless his last 9 contests.
5. Brock McGinn
He's not big, but plays big. He's the epitome of tough, sometimes going too far to make a physical play. Still the kid is much more skilled than he's given credit for, but his calling card is gritty two-way play. A good skater, he has a tendancy to show up on the score card in bunches (4 points in 5 games twice, 6 points in 6 games, 6 points in 4 games, for example). At best he's a 2nd/3rd line tweener but more likely he finds his way as a physical, secondary scoring threat on Carolina's 3rd line. But 10 goals in the Checkers last 30 games does say something pretty positive about his offensive potential.
6. Brendan Woods (Tie)
"My goal is to be in the NHL and I'm going to work my butt off this summer to get there". You've got to love a guy who just puts it out there, laying down the gauntlet to his teammates as well as borderline NHL vets. A big body guy projecting more as a prototypical, banging 4th liner, he has found a surprising scoring touch. Woods was 4th on the Checkers in scoring and, like McGinn tended to be streaky, scoring 4 goals and 4 assists in 11 games in December and then 4 goals and 2 assists during and 8 game stretch in March. But scoring isn't his real game; it's a bonus. He's a banger, a responsible defender, who will make you pay for your minutes in his own end of the ice. He's one of two guys who could fill Patty Dwyer's spot on the 4th line.
6. Brody Sutter (Tie)
6'5", 205+ lbs. In some corners that would be enough said for the diminutive Hurricanes, "...bring him up guys, we need the size". There's more to Brody than just a big body. This 7th rounder with a right shot slots in as a center on the Checkers. After missing a sizable chunk of time last year he came back to score 25 points in 45 games, including 10 points in nine games down the stretch for Charlotte. If it plays out this way, a "battle of the titans" could ensue for one of the 4th line slots on the Hurricanes roster. With those Sutter bloodlines, don't count him out.
8. Sergey Tolchinsky
Many will think that the gifted scoring artist that is Sergey Tolchinsky should be rated higher. But as many others feel, he really needs to prove himself at the professional level. He's creative, but he's small. Some of his moves will likely get him plowed at both the AHL and NHL level. Even with all of that trepidation he's as skilled with the puck as Jeff Skinner (maybe even more so). His skating is excellent with both some speed and unbelievable edge control. A surprisingly good distributor, in his last two years at the Soo he had more than twice as many helpers as goals. After a year of honing his game in Charlotte, next year's rankings should have the young Russian leap-frogging many of his contemporaries.
9. Phil Di Giuseppe
He's an enigma wrapped in a riddle. PDG was highly touted when he went to Univ. of Michigan. His first year seemed to indicate growth and great things to come. He followed that up with a solid sophomore year. His junior year seemed to reflect a bit of a step back and there were rumors of commitment and attitude issues. Yet in his 1st full year as a Checker, Phil put up 30 points, ending the season by scoring 4 goals and 8 assists in the final 20 games of the season. Broad shouldered and very skilled, if he puts it all together he is yet another 2nd/3rd line tweener with scoring touch. It is critical for him to display continued development this year.
10. Erik Karlsson
Okay, technically he's never played for the Checkers (like Tolchinsky) but that will be remedied this year. He's fast and has perhaps the best vision of any player in the organization not named Lindholm. His passing skills that were on display during prospect camp were literally unparalleled. He also took time to get one-on-ones with Bill Peters at the end of each day, a very good sign. While slight of build he plays with an intensity and a physicality that belies his size. Early in his career he was a pivot (and played that during prospects camp), but has most recently found himself on the wing. He won't make noise on the Canes this year, and maybe not even next, but he's definitely somebody to watch.
The Best of the Rest (well okay, they are the rest)
11. Justin Shugg
He's scored at every level and started his pro career bouncing back and forth between Florida and Charlotte. He went through a spate of not being able to stay healthy, but that appears to be mostly behind him. His last two years with the Checkers, the scoring acumen has been on display including this year's campaign where he led the scoring-challenged team with 43 points. His skating and toughness have been called into question, especially earlier in his pro career. After working hard on the former and none of the latter having surfaced in the last couple of years, he made his NHL debut this past season and didn't look totally lost in his 3 games in with the big club.
12. Lucas Wallmark
From a pure skill and potential perspective, this kid is probably in most people's top 10. Having not played a minute of North American hockey AND unwilling to commit to playing in Charlotte this season, the Swedish mens pro has slipped on this list because of those intangibles. On the positive side he plays with men in Sweden, plays well, and is also a high-end performer during international tournament competition. Perhaps at only 19 the kid should be given a bit of a break....but not yet.
13. Patrick Brown
No points in October or March, one point in December... it does not speak highly of Brown's offensive prowess. He projects as a 4th line grinder. He's got pro size and toughness, but his skating is average. His determination and effort got him a 7 game early season tryout with the Canes this past season, but nothing really came of it. Unless he rediscovers the scoring touch he had his senior year at Boston College (15g/15a in 40 games), his path to Raleigh begins and ends on the 4th line...and with Woods and Sutter likely ahead of him that's a tough assignment.
14. Carter Sandlak
In the hockey dictionary if you look up Sandlak, Carter it says, "see Plug". Seriously this guy is a warm body who is not afraid to mix it up. In 5 OHL seasons he had 375 penalty minutes in 272 games. Of course he ended his OHL career with none other than the Plymouth Whalers...enough said. The AHL is the highest professional level this guy will ever achieve.
That's the list. Those are the guys that will either be the future of this franchise, be future Hurricanes, or struggle to be professional hockey players at any level. When constructing this ranking, it became apparent that there are indeed some potential diamonds in the rough. There's something about Phil Di Giuseppe that just smells like a pro. Eric Karlsson is just too fun to watch to not hope that he makes it. Woods, Sutter, and all the rest....it's not a bad group, but also not a group that couldn't stand an injection of talent. With another 8 draft picks in next year's draft, 5 of which are guaranteed to be in the top 100, this group likely improves by leaps and bounds. Also with the likes of Warren Foegele, Clark Bishop, Nicolas Roy, and this year's sleeper pick, David Cotton all waiting in the wings, help is definitely on the way. To paraphrase our great friend Peter Karmanos (and to do so entirely out of context), we just have to be patient.