There is ample reason for optimism in both Raleigh and Charlotte....well, okay, maybe a little more optimism a couple of hours down I 85 South. The young blueliners stacking up as part of this team's stable are quite impressive. It is very likely that one or two of the younger guys either makes the team outright with a strong training camp performance or gets called up and sees significant time with the Hurricanes this season. It is a near certainty that Ron Francis is hoping that this year's newly minted 1st round draft pick is destined for the 2015-2016 season in Raleigh. There are others who could also surprise. After so many years of complaining about the lack of quality prospects, times they are a changin'... at least as far as the defensive prospects are concerned.
As a follow-up to last week's effort at ranking the young forwards in the Carolina Hurricanes organization, ranking and rating the blueliners is a different type of challenge. It feels like there are far fewer fringe players in the group. For the purposes of this article, the same definition of "young" applies (under 25). The same requirement to have signed a professional North American hockey contract also applies. Using this criteria we are left with....wait for it....The Lucky Thirteen (nicknames are cool). Of this group only 2 have seen significant NHL game time. A few others seem primed to make the jump. Others still look promising with a longer term time horizon. We also have a couple of guys who are more or less marking time. The rankings use the same, somewhat arbitrary system from the previous article on the forwards (personal preference, perceived time to making an impact in the NHL, and perceived magnitude of the impact). Remember there's a certain weighting given to the "it" factor when a prospect just feels like he belongs in the NHL.
The key difference in the rating scheme for the defenders is that there's not really a clean division between those with the big club, those in Charlotte, and even those in juniors. Some of the guys in juniors, for example, demanded higher rankings. Therefore, the grouping categories are somewhat different and maybe a little more descriptive.
In the Show, Mostly in the Show, or Ready for the Show
1. Justin Faulk
Well this one shouldn't be controversial or confusing at all. Faulk came of age last year about 10 games into the season. He is not without room to grow and he will get even better, but he is clearly a top pairing defenseman in today's NHL. He was 2nd on the team in overall scoring while leading the team in assists. Catching top line defensive duties throughout the year, he regularly more than held his own against the league's best players. He was instrumental in a defense that was 2nd in the league in Shots Against, 4th in the league in PK%, and 1st in the league in Power Play Goals Against. He's scrappy tough, a very good skater, has ever improving on-ice vision, and his booming shot showed excellent placement and accuracy. He's the best defender of the bunch and an argument could be made he might be the best player on the team.
2. Noah Hanifin
It was quite difficult to rank this year's 1st rounder this high without ever seeing him in an NHL game. However, the reports and game video available on Noah reinforce his skill-set that includes the best back end skating in the organization and a head for the game that seems impossible for an 18 year old. All of this was cemented during prospects camp where he clearly was the most NHL-ready player on the ice. If you're placing bets, a safe wager probably has him ensconced firmly in Raleigh by October. Hanifin is a kid who reportedly puts in significant time for his intense workouts and training sessions. While not afraid to play the body, his stick work and angle awareness seem almost effortless. He even has a nice shot, but with his skating, passing skills, and hockey sense he should easily be a 30+ assist man. Depending on how he continues to develop it is only a matter of time before he goes from budding star to full fledged stud.
3. Haydn Fleury (Tie)
There was some gnashing of teeth when casual fans noted that Fleury had a "down" year offensively this past season, scoring 18 fewer points (in 7 less games) for Red Deer. The concern was unwarranted given factors such as: a) Red Deer was a low scoring and pretty average team, b) Haydn was encouraged to focus on his defense, working on positioning and technique in his own zone, and c) he put on what appears to have been 15-20 lbs. of muscle. While that last point should have had a positive impact on his play, it does take a while to grow into a more muscular frame. Another kid who impressed immensely during prospects camp, his wrist shot is world class and his skating is up there with the best of our blueline prospects.
3. Ryan Murphy (Tie)
Young Ryan showed some things to fans and coaching staff alike. Let's face it, when he gets sent down to the AHL he pretty much owns those guys, at least offensively. Two years ago in 22 games with the Checkers he had 22 points. This past year in 25 games with Charlotte he had 17 points (all assists), good enough to tie him for 5th on the team in helpers. Statistically his 13 points in 37 games with the Canes doesn't seem all that impressive. What is impressive is that he scored over half of those points (3g/4a) in his last 16 games. This coincided with his return from a month long stint with the AHL club, his second of the year. In each case he was given things to work on and came back to the big club better for it. More importantly he came back with confidence in his skills and it showed as he was markedly better in his own end. Still, Murph's career in the NHL will be predicated on his ability to put up points. The last 1/2 of the year showed glimpses of what he can be. He will have to take that next step this year or chance the very real possibility of getting passed by other prospects.
Banging on the Door
5. Danny Biega
Probably the first real controversial rating, Biega is one of those "it" players. Sure it was a terribly small sample size, but the 10 games he had with the sightless eye were pretty darn solid. It says a lot when the coaches at both levels speak to your poise. Danny Biega is a good skater who showed an offensive flair while at Harvard (85 points in 132 games played). As their team captain his senior season, his leadership skills are apparent. It is doubtful he'll be confused with other blueline scoring threats, yet he does have a good first pass. Biega is also a very cerebral player who thinks the game at a high speed. Something of a gym rat, his 6 foot 205 pound frame packs in a lot of muscle. He's not a afraid of contact and usually comes away from board battles with the puck. Even though he doesn't have the big upside of some others, there's a good chance that he competes strongly for one of the open rear guard slots and don't be surprised if he secures a bottom pairing role.
6. Trevor Carrick
This guy is the Rodney "I don't get no respect" Dangerfield of the Carolina Hurricanes organization. Taken in the 4th round of the 2012 NHL entry draft, he's the epitome of a two-way defenseman. His offensive side showed continuous improvement throughout his OHL career culminating in a 22 goal/51 point season in 2013-2014. His first year with the Checkers found him as their 3rd leading scorer with 32 points. Trevor probably has 2nd pairing upside with significant powerplay time given his big slapshot. His skating has been called suspect, but much like Terry, Rask, and Shugg there seems to be a program down in Charlotte that lets players significantly improve their skating skills. Look for him to follow suit. Like Biega, Carrick will quietly compete for one of the bottom pairing slots. It is a better bet that he spends the majority of this year in Charlotte with a periodic call up or two in his future.
7. Brett Pesce
His high school coach, Howie Weiner once said, "I would tell him to try specific difficult maneuvers, and he would go out there with a win and do them backwards". Brett is a slick, teachable, skilled player. Pesce missed prospects camp with a minor knee injury, but is participating in high impact training this summer to get ready for the season, wherever it may take him. Tall and lanky, he's another great skater who leans a little more to the offensive side. As he adds bulk (he's now up to 195 lbs.) his one defensive question mark, getting out muscled, should disappear. He spent 3 years at University of New Hampshire with ever increasing responsibility. He will likely continue to percolate in Charlotte this year as he projects to be a 2nd pairing, two-way defenseman. He is another guy who seems to have that "thing", maybe he just projects desire, and that makes him feel like he'll be an NHLer sooner rather than later.
8. Jaccob Slavin
In truth there is very little difference between prospects 5-9 and at #8 Slavin may prove to be the most skilled of this group. There's a pattern developing with these prospects as Slavin is another kid with highly evolved skating skills. One of the most notable of those is speed. He surprised and impressed both Coach Peters and GM Francis at the prospects camp. After serving as the captain of his USHL team, the Chicago Steel, and averaging over .5 points per game, Jaccob elected to go to Colorado College of the NCHC. As a freshman he led his team in scoring (25 points in 32 contests) and won NCHC Rookie of the Year honors. In 2014-15 with a new coach and a new system his offense took a dive even as he was honing his leadership skills. Putting on over 20 pounds since his draft year Slavin now tops out at 6'3" and around 200 lbs. Even with his offensive tendencies, he is a capable defender and that extra bulk can only continue to help him in his own zone.
9. Roland McKeown
He is described as doing a little bit of everything pretty well. He has a game with no real glaring weaknesses. That clearly describes the McKeown that showed up at this summer's prospect camp. He looked good, but not great. Sometimes it appeared that his thinking was way ahead of the action, but he didn't always react accordingly. Still, he plays a simple game that is difficult to play against. As the captain of his Kingston OHL team one would expect strong leadership skills. Indeed Ron Francis praised just that saying, "He's a character guy, a leadership guy. He's a player used to [playing] head-to-head against the other team's best". Look for an offensive upswing during his over-age year with the Frontenacs.
Might Be, Could Be
10. Dennis Robertson (Tie)
Was that a collective "who" from the readers? If Trevor Carrick is the Rodney Dangerfield of the organization, Dennis Robertson is the unknown soldier. However, this soldier had a solid year in his first full season of professional hockey. In fact he was the only blueliner on the Checkers to finish with a positive +/-. Putting up 17 points this past campaign, Robertson was the throw in acquired in the Tim Gleason for John-Michael Liles trade. A serious scorer while at Brown University, Robertson averaged .55 points per game for his college career. He's got the size to be an NHLer, but at 24 years of age he just may be all that he's ever going to be. Perhaps a brief call up here and a brief call up there, he's likely destined for a journeyman's AHL career.
10. Tyler Ganly (Tie)
Tyler Ganly is a throwback kind of defensive, defenseman. Not afraid to drop the gloves, Ganly is physical but is surprisingly good on his skates for his size (6'2" 205 lbs.). He demonstrated an uptick in his offense this past year but spent significant time out with injury. He should not be expected to contribute on the score-sheet, but he should be expected to be a crease-clearing presence who makes opposing forwards pay a price when in the good guys end. At best he's going to be a 3rd pairing guy who kills penalties and provides some snarl. He'll be a long shot to make the NHL roster any time soon.
So You're Sayin' I've Got a Chance
12. Keegan Lowe
He had a bright, shining moment when during his NHL debut he fought Vinnie LaCavalier...twice. But other than that, he seemed over-matched by the NHL speed and never fully able to catch up. He's strong and physical, but adds next to no offense and isn't gifted with particularly stong hockey sense. Lowe is not afraid to drop the gloves either and was fourth on the Checkers in Penalty Minutes. Could he develop into a serviceable 3rd pairing guy? Sure, but, frankly, it is a long shot. As the son of NHL player and ex-Oilers GM Kevin Lowe, there may still be hope, still better yet would be if he somehow developed into a more skilled player.
13. Rasmus Rissanen
It would have been a great story if Rissanen had grabbed his NHL opportunity and impressed during his brief Hurricanes call-up. But alas, it was not to be. He did some nice things in the physicality department, but he was lost when the puck was on his stick. With his AHL veteran status, one would have thought he would be at least solid in his own end. Poor Rasmus seemed to have trouble making decisions and in so doing was often beaten while he was trying to make up his mind. Then he got hurt. Maybe it was an eye opening experience. Maybe he learned a whole lot from his stint in Raleigh. Maybe what he learned is that he's a career AHLer who can make a nice living playing in Finland if he wants to.
It's a good thing that we've got so many young, talented blueline prospects this close to AHL/NHL ready. After The Lucky Thirteen the cupboard's kind of bare. Kyle Jenkins might still have some upside as an offense leaning defender. Jake Massie's high school career doesn't give one much to go on. There are a couple of other Checker defensemen who were signed to AHL contracts but technically they are not Hurricanes property. Still, one shouldn't complain given the depth of this current blueline prospect pool.
There is a very real possibility that in the near future the Hurricanes will put a completely homegrown defensive corps on the ice. All of Faulk, Hanifin, Fleury, Pesce, Murphy, Carrick, Slavin, and McKeown either are NHLers now or project to be. The upside for all of these guys is as top 4 rear guards. That's 8 guys for 6 slots, so something is going to give. With what is known about developing defensemen some of these guys will certainly take another year or three before they are truly ready. Defensive depth is a problem every team wants to have. And saying this group might be the best pool of blueline prospects in the league is probably a fair argument to make.