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Carolina Hurricanes Prospects: What We Learned

Beginning in Traverse City and carrying on through training camp, the current crop of "Baby Canes" represents improvements of the "leaps and bounds" sort. While some rare disappointments did surface, when one considers the Canes youth, "...there's gold in them there hills".

Canes' prospect Janne Kuokkanen is one of the bright lights in the improving Hurricanes' system
Canes' prospect Janne Kuokkanen is one of the bright lights in the improving Hurricanes' system
Jen Fuller/Getty Images

With training camp completed, full on practices under way, and final roster cuts made, it might seem like an odd time to review the kids' progress. Yet, so much interesting and informative activity occurred in northern Michigan, in camp, and in the preseason, it speaks volumes about certain of the young Hurricanes' prospects. As a team, the squad came together, for the most part, pretty quickly. Systems were learned and implemented. As the champions of the Traverse City tournament, the youngsters in the prospect pool proved that they could score. While nobody really stepped up a la Victor Rask, a number of the guys had momentum coming into camp. For some, that carried through and for others it proved to be a hopeful indicator of good things to come.

They Showed Up When It Counted

Roland McKeown is pretty good at hockey. For those who have watched McKeown's steady progression and were not distracted by his seeming stagnation of his draft year, his performance at the tournament reinforced why some considered him a 1st round talent. While not known as a super fast skater, his speed combined with his positioning seemed to have him consistently in the right place at the right time. He jumped in on the rush and was rewarded on the scoresheet. He had continued to display steady decision-making and excellent defensive instincts...and he also continued to score. Rarely, if ever, caught out of position, his offensive production feels like a pleasant surprise (but really was an extension of his last Memorial Cup playoff scoring surge).

Some observed that Roland's play seems "plodding" or "conservative". A more accurate observation is that he was always thinking his way through the play and that decision-making wasn't labored. How else can one explain the "rarely out of position" thing. If somebody was going to unseat Ryan Murphy in camp as the default #6 on the right side, it would have been McKeown. His "steady Eddie" play might not be flashy but it is effective, very effective. With Murphy's injury, Roland is likely to at least get his taste of real NHL play in Winnipeg this Thursday.

Lucas Wallmark, at first criminally underrated, proved he's nearly NHL-ready. On September 22nd, Ron Francis called into the Adam and Joe radio program on 99.9 The Fan. As he was running through how well certain players performed in Traverse City, he made a point of referencing Wallmark's "solid, steady play". He even alluded to his playmaking capabilities, something this NHL team has lacked for some time. Often making the sneaky difficult pass, Wallmark can often be found breaking up plays defensively when a viewer would invariably say, "Who was that guy"? His surprisingly good shot continues to be on display and he'll most likely see some time in Raleigh this season.

When drafted, Lucas Wallmark was painted with the "bad skating" brush. But much like his countryman, Victor Rask, Wallmark has clearly worked on this part of his game and it shows marked both speed and agility. Despite not looking great in the faceoff circle early in Traverse City, he picked this part of his game up in the final tilts seeming to win a significantly higher percentage. This is critical for his chances as his immediate path would be to eventually unseat Jay McClement. With the team's need for veteran voices, however, this was likely the hurdle young Lucas wasn't able to overcome. Martin Frk's acquisition and his scoring potential merely sealed the deal.

Noah Carroll is more than a random 6th rounder. When Hadyn Fleury went down with his injury in Michigan, the guy who was called on to take a step forward was Noah Carroll. Even before that, he was likely making an impression on the coaching staff. His pass to a breaking Janne Kuokkanen in stride allowed the young Finn to work his magic for the Canes prospects' first score of the tournament. Once Fleury was out, Carroll was often paired in the top duo with McKeown. He showed that he was a very slick, speedy skater who wasn't easily intimidated. He regularly angled his man to the outside preventing dangerous chances. Without a doubt he was the surprise of the blueline and probably did more to help himself in the coaching staff's eyes than anybody.

Carroll exited camp early and headed back to an improved Guelph club where he will likely have a top pairing role. This past season he wasn't ready for that duty. After a summer of work and competitive play, he seems to be more than up for the task now. Serious fans should keep an eye on his progression to see if the Hurricanes, yet again, found a late round defensive gem.

Valentin Zykov is the type of forward the Hurricanes lack. Either Chip Alexander or Cory Laviolette mentioned that Zykov had effectively gotten under the skin of each of the 4 teams that the Hurricanes prospects played in Traverse City. In addition, he was pretty impressive offensively. Zykov is also a very solid surprise on the defensive side of the puck (which probably explains some of the opponent's animosity). Much like Wallmark, a good play would be executed or a defensive stand made, and #39 was often in the mix, even well into camp and preseason. Heading for Charlotte earlier than some expected, it is likely that he will be leaned on heavily for serious scoring contributions this season.

Valentin Zykov is a sniper. He's got a rocket of a shot that takes him some time to get under control. He'll harness that with the Checkers' coaching staff's help. Zykov's also got sneaky speed coupled with fearless board play. Look for him to make a real run at next year's NHL roster.

Don't fret Warren Foegele's contract status. Ron Francis was frank and to the point. The team liked what they saw from Foegele...a lot. But he still needs heavy ice time. He could have gotten a contract and headed to Charlotte, but the bottom six role that was waiting for him isn't what he needs. He'll take his speed and physical play to Kingston where he'll be a leader, see big ice time, and be counted on offensively in a top 6 role. Almost assuredly, the Frontenac's coaches will work on his hands and his shot. Not that they are bad, but he'll need to understand how to use his skills in traffic.

Look for Warren to get signed to his ELC as soon as Kingston's season is complete. This is a savvy move for him and an even more savvy move by Francis, effectively building a contract ladder necessary for a budget team like the Hurricanes. While he may surprise next year, look for his ultimate arrival in Raleigh in 2018.

Add a Dash of Coaching and 2 Parts Experience...

Janne Kuokkanen already opened many eyes. Both Peters and Francis mentioned Kuokkanen's skill and excellent play. Samuelsson highlighted his efforts at the TC tournament. There was probably little doubt about this kid's offensive chops. What surprised many was his excellent defensive awareness. Already off to a fast start with the London Knights, he's a point a game player with 2 goals and 2 assists in four games. At just 18 (he won't be 19 until May) he's got both time and room to grow. Look for Janne to put on a few pounds of muscle and show up next summer prepared for whatever the Hurricanes throw at him.

Kuokkanen is realistically two years away from truly competing for a spot on the NHL club. However, don't tell him that. There was a fire in this kid's belly that was evident throughout the summer and early Fall.

Nicolas Roy now understands what NHL speed means. This kid is big and he's got very solid hockey sense. The improvement in his skating has been dramatic. He'll never be a speed burner, but he gets around the rink adequately and seems to have more quickness than before. However, his efforts in traffic need to be improved. That will be the mantra of his coaches in the Q. He's got a very nice shot, but stick work in traffic is so much more difficult in the NHL and he'll need to work on that if he's ever to materialize as a significant contributor.

For Roy to be "all that he can be" he'll need to have a top 9 role eventually, Could he carve out a spot for himself on the 4th line....sure. However, his raw scoring prowess would be somewhat wasted in that role. Let's see how this year goes in juniors. He will need to dominate.

Julien Gauthier gets that NHL hockey is a team sport. Surprisingly, it took a while for Gauthier to click at Traverse City. His weaknesses, while not truly glaring, did surface in training camp. At first, many thought that Gauthier didn't "play well with others", but that's not really true. The key is that he has to learn to play within a system, skate with a line, be in the right position at the right time, and think on his skates. He's got all of this in his bag of tricks, but he'll need to learn to do it in the context of an NHL organization. The kid is big, strong, and skates very well. It is all about pulling this together with teammates....on the NHL speed. Then that incredible shot will truly be an asset.

Look for Gauthier to be called on to be more of a leader on his Val d'Or club. That would be the best way for him to inculcate system thinking and line play into his game on a regular basis. Much like Kuokkanen, he surely thinks he'll push for an NHL role next season, but his "due on" date should also be 2018.

Andrew Poturalski is future captain material. He's a bit of a poor man's Sebastian Aho (see what I did there). He got off to a slow and even unimpressive start in Michigan, but steadily improved throughout the tournament, training camp, and even pre-season. He's very cerebral in a shifty, even sly sort of way. Vision is often thrown around as a positive label when nothing else can be said. But Pots has it....he knows where to send the puck and where to plant his skates. Don't be surprised if he vies for the scoring lead down in Charlotte.

Hopefully, over the course of the season, he'll have some chance to add strength and muscle. His only downside is that he does get pushed around a bit. Still, with his hockey sense on display, he often slips checks and those who would out-muscle him. A summer at a shooting camp like the one Justin Faulk attended a few seasons back would also do wonders for his progression.

There's Still Some Work to be Done

Alex Nedeljkovic's hype has outpaced his progress. There have been flashes of brilliance, perhaps even great play, but the kid is still very, very inconsistent. Touted as a good puck handler, his decision-making outside of his crease is easily called into question. He's got a very good glove and his quickness is superior. However, there's a gap that needs to get addressed especially on his blocker side. While some may suggest it is merely a function of size, it feels more like a positioning and vision issue, almost as if he's always prepared on the glove side, but unsure of himself on his off side. Games in Charlotte or Florida will cure that as long as CuJo gets a fair share of time with young Alex.

What was unspoken when Ron Francis talked about the goaltender situation and not wanting to block an heir apparent, was that said heir apparent is apparently not ready. There are probably two good years in Charlotte before Neds is ready for even a back-up role in Raleigh.

Jake Bean is gonna be real good...someday. The kid has some serious skills. He can really, really skate. And he's no where near ready for the NHL. Heck, the kid has barely reached puberty, so what would you expect? With another year in Calgary, but this time as "the man", Bean's got some things to work on and to improve. All of this will be under a cloud of what looks like a lesser team. Bean needs to prove that he is more than solid in his own end. He needs to prove that he can withstand the rigors of a physical style of play. Most of all he needs to prove that his 64 point season wasn't a fluke.

He'll put on some weight and some muscle. He'll mature in his decision-making (not that it was a problem). He'll also have to take on more of a leadership role for the Hitmen. Even with all of this, Bean will be every bit of a 21 year old before he sniffs the NHL.

Trevor Carrick needs to take the next step before he can take the next step. At the tail end of last season, Carrick came up for a brief two game tryout with the big club and didn't look out of place. During his preseason games, he was much less sure of himself and had some identifiable positioning errors. Guys got around him. He's a better player than he demonstrated in a couple of his outings. He seems to perform better if he has a slightly bigger role. While his skating has improved, if he doesn't get the positioning thing right, he's destined to be a liability.

Look for the Checker's staff to work on this type of stuff. He's better than a #7/#8 guy, but he'll have to prove it. This season in Charlotte will see him with a significant leadership role, but he could be surpassed by the likes of McKeown and Fleury. His wily veteran status will have to prevail.

What about....

Guys like Haydn Fleury and Sergey Tolchinsky both played very well but really didn't have anything to prove. Fleury was always going to see a long slog in Charlotte and Sergey will have to prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that he's a scorer at all levels. Keegan Lowe is on the outside looking in. Josh Wesley just isn't ready yet. Brock McGinn, Patrick Brown, and Derek Ryan each have something left to prove too. Other question marks remain and others may still yet surface. However, this young Carolina Hurricanes team has too much uncertainty to add even more with borderline AHL talent. Look for guys to fight especially hard in the AHL this season. For some they know it's a "put up or shut up" season.

There's a bitter sweet sense to this. Guys that are known and loved just might not be good enough. New faces are more than bright shiny objects....they are burgeoning talent. Most importantly, this team is ready for roster competitions based on just that...talent. Building a long term winner takes a lot of ingredients, but the one constant is, well,...talent.