As the halfway point of the Hurricanes' season closes in, the team's challenges become more glaring. True finishers remain in short supply. Bigger bodies that play with an edge are still a wanting. More speed is always a good thing and consistent two-way play is a requirement of this Bill Peters' led team. There's both good news and bad news on the horizon. The bad news is the future forward corps remain light on skill and still could stand to get bigger and tougher. The good news is that help is on the way, likely sooner than expected.
Anybody who followed the progress of this year's WJCs couldn't have missed the Sebastian Aho or Alex Nedeljkovic stories. Indeed the Finnish squad and their top line of Puljujarvi, Aho, and Laine and their 38 points leading up to the finals with Russia is one of the key stories of the tournament. Even with the U.S. loss to Russia, Nedeljkovic's play is also the talk of Helsinki. There are a number of others in the Hurricanes' system that didn't get the high profile press provided by participating in the World Junior Championship. A brief look at these guys tells a story filled with potential for the future.
The Cream of the Crop
Sebastian Aho - His play this year with Karpat in the professional Finnish league has been nothing short of superb. Through 26 games he's scored 10 goals and dished 11 assists. When he went down for 4 games after taking a puck to the neck, his team promptly went on a 4 game losing streak. Upon his return they reeled of a double digit winning streak. His coach speaks glowingly of the humble, unassuming youngster (who doesn't turn 19 until July). A highly skilled player with speed, he plays on both the penalty kill and the powerplay. Leading up to the WJC final vs. Russia, Aho is second in tournament scoring with 12 points (4g/8a). He was kept off of the scoresheet only once, in the semi-final game against Sweden. It is hard to not dream of Sebastian in a Canes sweater next to Lindholm and a "big body" as early as next season (although time in Charlotte would likely help the transition to the North American game). One can only hope that the siren song of North Carolina barbecue is singing to the young Finn.
Update: Finland takes the gold medal at the WJCs and Sebastian Aho gets another goal and an assist. Aho finishes with a stat line of 5 goals, 9 assists and 14 total points finishing 2nd to his teammate Puljujarvi.
Alex Nedeljkovic - Beginning the year with the Flint Firebirds (the one-time Plymouth Whalers), things did not appear to be going according to plan for "Ned". Through the first 19 games Alex was 9-7-2 and sported an ugly GAA of 3.21 and a rather pedestrian SV% of .907. It seemed that Nedeljkovic was merely continuing with the lackluster 3-game stint with the Everblades at the end of last season. He was then traded (along with Josh Wesley) to the OHL's Niagara IceDogs. Maybe it was the defense in front of him, maybe it was something in the Michigan water, or maybe something just clicked. With his new team Ned went 2-1 in his first 3 games, giving up only 5 goals. His stats with his new team: GAA of 1.67 and a SV% of .946. Then came this year's WJC. Simply put Alex Nedeljkovic stepped up onto this big international stage and demonstrated why those that consider him the goaltender of the future for the Hurricanes are justified in that opinion. He would be credited with 3 wins and 2 losses. He never gave up more than 2 goals in a game and pitched a shutout against a good Czech Republic team. He stopped an incredible 91 of 97 shots faced. The phrases "incredible save" and, in the case of the American's semi-final game against the Russians, "is doing all he can to keep his team in the game" were thrown around. Prior to the bronze medal match he sported a GAA of 1.36 and a SV % of .950. Originally this writer thought Alex Nedeljkovic would begin his professional career in Florida with the Everblades. He is, however, making a case for bigger and better things.
UPDATE: Alex Nedeljkovic was in the net for the U.S. WJC bronze medal win, 8-3, a 35 save effort, ending with a .942 SV%.
Nicloas Roy - Great size, good hockey sense, very good hands, skating needs some work. That was the initial read by many talent evaluators when looking at the 1st overall pick in the QMJHL 2013 entry draft. Then he didn't seem to live up to his billing. Ranked as the 45th best North American skater by Central Scouting in his draft year, he ultimately fell to the Canes in the 4th round. It seems "thar's gold in them thar hills". Roy has apparently put it all together this year. He's currently powering his team with 44 points (21g/23a) through 34 games. Reports of his work ethic, his play close to the net, and his incredibly soft, agile hands have been off the charts. He's winning faceoffs at a 60%+ clip. Even his skating continues to improve. The 18 year old will likely add weight to his 195 pound frame as he gets older. But strength has never been an issue as he's proving this year to be a "man among boys" in the Q. One wonders what happens next year for Nicolas. If he continues this progression, he will likely hit a development plateau of sorts in juniors. He'll still be too young for the AHL and would benefit from "next step" development at whatever the next level would be. Unless he continues to progress and make huge strides it is doubtful that he could compete for a spot on next year's NHL squad, but stranger things have happened. Regardless, after two disappointing scoring years, Roy has gotten it into gear.
The Next Guys in Line
Haydn Fleury - We should have all known it was a matter of time or maybe a blip on the development path, but the #7 pick in the 2014 entry draft is showing why he earned his draft position. Currently putting up impressive numbers for the WHL's Red Deer Rebels, Fleury has 7 goals and 13 assists in 24 games. Word has come down that he's playing excellent, more physical defense which is reinforced by his +6 rating. Haydn came to prospects camp noticeably bigger and stronger. His big-league wrist shot was on display several times, while his smooth, fast skating continued to impress. Still only 19, spending this year in juniors is proving to be a great decision as his development is advancing significantly. Despite Canada's poor showing at this year's WJCs, the experience will be invaluable for Fleury. Look for him to slot into one of the top 2 pairings in Charlotte next year.
Roland McKeown - The captain of the Kingston Frontenacs has been repeatedly praised by his coaches for his leadership skills and his on-ice decision-making. Add to that his scoring to date (he's tied for 4th on the team with 28 points in 30 games), and Roland McKeown is another player who after seemingly taking a step back last year, is taking a leap forward this year. Consider that much like Fleury, McKeown was told to focus on his defensive game last season and that likely led to both players' perceived regression. This year they are both proving that the critics were wrong. How wrong? Those 28 points have him tied for 5th in scoring by defensemen in the entire OHL. Even though he had surfaced as something of a whipping boy for Canda's WJC team, he played a very solid game against the Finns in the semi-finals, ending the tournament +4, the best on his team. Like Fleury, Roland McKeown is benefitting from another year in the OHL. Together with Fleury, he is also likely to man a Top 4 slot on the Checker's blueline next year.
Lucas Wallmark - The Carolina Hurricanes seem content with Wallmark's decision to continue his development while playing in the SHL (likely the 3rd best major hockey league in the world). Lucas was a unique story in that he was eligible for the 2013 draft but went unselected. The Canes picked him up in the 4th round of the 2014 draft and seem to have found another diamond in the rough. Known more for his vision and hockey sense ,Wallmark's passing skills are on display in every game he plays. He really came into his own during last year's WJCs where he scored 4 goals and had 2 assists in 7 games. He also posted a plus/minus of +3. Wallmark has extended his run of good play this year where he has posted 21 points in 26 games. It is expected that he will play in Charlotte next year as he signed an entry level contract in June.
Warren Foegele - Whether it was a coaching issue or a playing time issue remains unclear. However, Warren Foegele left University of New Hampshire this past Fall and joined the Kingston Frontenacs of the OHL. The change seems to have done wonders for Warren's development. At UNH he played in 5 games notching 1 assist. Since coming to the Frontenacs, Foegele has taken off production-wise. In 23 games he's put up 22 points (4g/18a). According to Cory Laviolette's article on Hockey's Future (found here), he's even been playing some center. He's always been a bit of a banger in the prototypical power forward mold. It seems that he's also taken on a more responsible 2-way outlook on his game. With speed to burn, this summer he was one of the fastest, if not the fastest skater in camp. At 6'1" and nearly 200 lbs. that speed makes him especially dangerous. Here's to seeing him plying his wares in Charlotte next season.
Just Waiting in the Wings
Daniel Altshuller - Following last year's showing with the Florida Everblades, some were thinking that Daniel Altshuller was just another in the long line of mediocre Carolina Hurricanes goaltending prospects. In 14 games, even though he was 8-3-1, his below average GAA of 3.21 and even uglier SV% of .881 had those same skeptics shaking their collective heads. Despite being pushed into the professional ranks with a year of junior hockey eligibility remaining and despite only playing in 14 games, the label "bust" surfaced. Frankly, there was probably little left for Altshuller to prove in Oshawa, but he would have gotten the bulk of the starts which could have only furthered his development. Fast forward to this season where Daniel was pegged as the #1 in Florida where he took the opportunity and ran with it. He blazed out to a 10-3 record and put up a stellar GAA of 1.58 and SV% of .941. With the Checker's goalies struggling, eyes in Charlotte turned toward Florida. Daniel Altshuller was called up and again had grabbed on to his opportunity. In 6 games he's 5-0-1 with his lone loss coming in a shootout. He has been a major factor in the Checker's current 10 game points streak and their rise to 1st place in the AHL's West. With his first AHL shutout in his pocket, Daniel Altshuller's numbers seem to indicate that he's the real deal. The numbers: GAA of 1.47 and SV% of .947. While it remains early, Altshuller's play has to have opened options for GM Francis, especially as it pertains to making net minder moves at the trade deadline.
Trevor Carrick - As the guy who has sort of been lost in the conversation about our great blueline prospects, Carrick has humbly kept his own counsel and quietly gone about the business of scoring goals and helping to win games. Currently the second leading scorer on the Checkers, Trevor has posted 7 goals and 14 assists in 29 games. Whether it is using his booming shot from the point or leveraging his savvy passing skills, he's clearly one of the main engines in Charlotte's resurgence. While Pesce and Slavin have rightfully received kudos for their play with the Canes, Carrick remains poised to get his chance. Like many of the other prospects whose skating was referred to as "suspect", he has worked hard to improve in this area and is more than a passable skater now. Carrick also brings a bit more snarl and a bit more grit to the table. That is an important characteristic for an NHL team that has a dearth of those same qualities. Look for him to get a look-see on the big club before the year is out. If the TDL plays out the way most expect, then he almost certainly will be a key call up late in the year. Let's hope he takes the opportunity and runs with it.
Brock McGinn - Maybe the 3rd time is the charm. With Phil Di Giuseppe side-lined with a concussion, Brock McGinn was again called up to fill a slot on the Canes roster. He has provided energy, grit, and even a bit of scoring in his call ups. While he didn't look out of place on the Skinner/Rask line (standing in for PDG), it clearly wasn't his best game and he didn't display close to the chemistry that Phil did. In his previous call up's he seemed to be over-matched at times and slightly lost at other times. That said, this kid is a keeper and he remains poised to grab a permanent spot on the Hurricanes, if not this year then almost certainly next year. Just prior to his call up McGinn was named the AHL player of the week and now sports 19 points in 19 games. He's a capable if erratic scorer. He also is a physical presence despite his size. As he continues to gain maturity his thinking part of the game should evolve as well.
Still Stewing in the Pot - The Best of the Rest
Clark Bishop - He's captain of his Cape Breton squad and continues to show more offense than expected (11g/15a/26p). He's scrappy, defensively responsible, and projects as 3rd/4th line tweener. He's the type of heart and soul guy every team needs; think of him as a bigger, somewhat more skilled Chad LaRose.
David Cotton - Cotton is the late round, potential sleeper pick that teams love to look back on and smile. Big (6'2", 200 lbs.) and comes complete with a purported 4 skill repertoire (speed, shot, hands, physicality), David Cotton remains a youthful project. Taken in the 6th round out of Cushing Academy, his play with the USHL's Waterloo Black Hawks is coming into its own (19 points in 26 games). Next year he's committed to the great Boston College program and it will surely help his development.
Steven Lorentz - Passed over in his original draft eligible year, he was taken in the 7th round of the 2015 draft. He's big and seems to have come into his scoring skills late in his development. He'll never top out as a 1st line guy but he fits the perfect mold as a bottom sixer who can chip in goals from time to time. That chipping in goals thing...he's currently doing that for Peterborough (16g/18a in 36 games). To be anything at the next level he'll need to continue to improve and put on both weight and strength.
While the Carolina Hurricanes prospect pool has improved, especially on the back end, there's still a ways to go. The group of defenders looks pretty well set. The forward group still needs some serious work, but with skilled players like Sebastian Aho coming into their own, things are no where near as bleak as once thought. If a few of the proverbial "diamonds in the rough" progress as they have been, things could get really interesting. Add to that any near ready prospects that may come from TDL deals (not to mention 1st rounders in the 2016 draft), the once bare cupboard might have enough in it to prepare a meal, maybe even a feast. Only time will tell.