There's nothing like a game type of atmosphere to put things into their rightful perspective. Add a couple of signed contracts and the future really feels like it is now. Of course, the actual game play fuels our impressions, both good and not so good. In general this is also the time that you notice what the term "prospect" actually means. As good as these youngsters are, the vast majority of them are just not ready for the pro ranks yet. This is nowhere more evident than in game-like situations.
Giving a play by play recap of the actual scrimmage would likely bore most of you all to death. I'll leave these types of details for the discussion threads. However, here's a truncated recap of the rosters and the format. Team Red seemed to be the stronger squad on paper leading into the tilt. With Gauthier, Roy, Fleury, and Bean anchoring the squad, it had good size that also included David Cotton and Steve Lorentz. Alex Nedeljkovic and Jack LaFontaine were between the posts. The White team looked to be a little more skill-oriented with Zykov, Poturalski, Kuokkanen, and Foegele leading the offensive charge. On the back end Josh Wesley and Roland McKeown would guide the blueline. Booth and Helvig manned the nets.
The format was one 15 minute period of 4 on 4 hockey and one 15 minute period of 3 on 3 hockey. The match would end with a 5 round shootout. There was some tentative play to start, but that was soon replaced with fast paced rushes, a number of nice shots, and even better goalie play. You can see it on the Carolina Hurricanes website, but Callum Booth had one of the more miraculous saves, diving back to his left and snagging a shot that was destined for the twine. However for my money Jack Lafontaine was probably the best of a very good lot today. In both 4 on 4 and 3 on 3 hockey, there are going to be a lot of good opportunities and the goalies stopped most of them. If I had to nit pick, I'd say that Nedeljkovic didn't have his best effort, letting in a weird "squeaker" from Roland McKeown.
In the end the score was 6-3 with Team White winning because of their shoot out performance. The actual match ended in a 2-2 tie. It was clear that the selection of shoot out performers was more about fun than competition with hometown heroes Josh Wilkins and Josh Wesley both taking part.
Like the other days, it was easy to get mesmerized by the play of certain players. Those players, for me were: Julien Gauthier, Haydn Fleury, Valentin Zykov, and Janne Kuokkanen. Other players deserving honorable mention include Matt Filipe, Warren Foegele, Spencer Smallman, and Andrew Poturalski. As with previous viewings, other guys played fine and maybe even terrific, but I didn't get a chance to really focus on them or I just didn't see their good play. Still, the ones who stood out did so for a reason. They looked pretty good in what was nearly true game play.
In particular, and this is almost an apology, Valentin Zykov was pretty impressive today. His shot is a rocket and he "just missed" on a number of occasions. Often the play would go through him and he did an equal amount of setting teammates up and setting himself up. Even with a few minor muffs, almost all of which he recovered quite well from, he stick-handled in tight quarters, either making the right type of pass or getting a shot off quickly. Each day he seemed to improve. He's destined for Charlotte, but look for more than just a little positive press on the stocky Russian.
Haydn Fleury was truly a man among boys out there again today. He got beat only once (by Foegele) that I saw, but nothing came of it. He was both solid offensively and defensively even if he did almost Hainsey one into his own goal. He's both speedy and controlled at the same time. His passes were some of the best of the day. And the goal he scored showed patience and serious offensive acumen as he deked and then waited to slip his backhand by Booth. Haydn Fleury basically threw down the gauntlet to his fellow blueliners. He's making a play for an NHL spot.
The Goat, or as he comically called himself, the Goat Man, also let it be known that he's a "player". Somebody must have mentioned to him that a few passes, and successful ones at that, would go a long way to help his overall scoring. Julien Gauthier demonstrated serious unselfishness numerous times, especially off of the rush where an opening to shoot was not to be had so he would deftly feed a teammate for an A1 opportunity. This happened at least 3 times. Then, however, somebody must have reminded him of his sniper blood. The first goal of the match was a picture perfect top corner shot that skimmed the underside of the cross-bar. The top of the circle lightning bolt put an exclamation point on Gauthier's skill set for all to behold. The other key noticeable thing was the near joyousness he seems to exude on the ice. This kid knows he's gifted and absolutely loves to play this sport at which he so excels.
Our new favorite Finn, Janne Kuokkanen, reminds everybody including Ron Francis of last year's favorite Finn Sebastian Aho. Sure he's a little more raw, but his skills were much more on display today as you could just see that he was primed to shine in the game setting. Those magical hands showed themselves primarily through feeds and passes. Often the intended recipient was caught by surprise (again like Aho last season) because passes that were made just shouldn't have gotten through. Or even more appropriate, people just don't think of making such good dishes. Kuokkanen's shot is excellent and he likely needs to use it even more, but he demonstrated again today why he was more than a point per game player for the junior Karpat team. Perhaps the clearest explanation of the type of player Janne is was when he tried to stick-handle past 3 defenders. He beat the first two and nearly the third, but the space was too tight and he was stripped of the puck....momentarily. He immediately recovered, got the puck back, and in a split second hit a teammate who was flashing to the net with a picture perfect pass. In that brief moment it was as if he learned a lesson about playing on the smaller ice with more skilled guys....and put it into his memory bank for immediate use. Kuokkanen wasn't as flashy as some, but he's winner of a pick and we'll see some great things out of this youngster in the future.
As previously stated other guys played well. Matt Filipe had a very nice outing highlighted by the pass that Fleury took in to score. Foegele seemed to be fighting it a bit, but his speed and effort were evident throughout. Spencer Smallman continued to impress, always seeming to have a nose for the net, not shying away from net-front duties, and getting rewarded by banging in a Poturalski rebound. Speaking of Andrew Poturalski, don't be surprised if he ends up wearing a letter in Charlotte by the end of the season. He's that good and seems to be that good of a leader.
Others played well....Steve Lorentz was much more noticeable and used his size well. David Cotton again made some nice plays that demonstrated soft hands and savvy passing skills. Roland McKeown was his solid self, looking to play a more offensive role than I remember. Even some of the camp invitees like Josh Wilkins showed some panache. Yet some of the guys didn't play their best....Nic Roy clearly was rusty. Max Zimmer seemed more tentative and Luke Stevens disappeared again. Guys like Wesley and Elynuik seemed to play okay, but my focus wasn't on them very much. The same holds true for Jake Bean, who I did notice making some slick passes and a rush or two. He just wasn't where my eyes were most of the time.
While I wouldn't characterize the play as sloppy, it was easy to see that these guys hadn't played together any significant amount of time. There was building chemistry, but it wasn't quite there yet. That might be the most exciting part about it. If they were this impressive after such a short period of time together and with the coaches, looking forward to the future is pretty enjoyable.
Along with all the usual fan-oriented trappings that we've come to expect from Summerfest, the day included a couple of discussion sessions. The first with Coach Bill Peters and GM Ron Francis. The bubbly yet professional Michelle McMahon did an excellent job of moderating. Michelle started with some typical, probably canned questions, followed it up with questions from Twitter, and ended the first discussion set with audience questions. There really wasn't much new information, but certain things might be gleaned from reading between the lines.
Ron Francis again emphasized the size differential, comparing prospect camps 4 years ago to this one where in 2012 (I believe) the average prospect measured 6' tall and weighed 177 lbs. Today the average prospect is 6'3" and weighs about 200 lbs. That's a pretty significant change. Both Francis and Peters also emphasized that the team is not just deeper in all positions, the depth is of higher quality. Few would likely argue with that either. The brain trust was asked, point-blank, if Gauthier would have a good shot at making the team....and there was no equivocating, Francis said he was physically ready now. However, it would take an outstanding performance in camp to win the day. There was also an interesting question about acquiring another defenseman. In his own understated way, Francis indicated "....if a good opportunity presents itself, we'll take a look at it". This is where reading between the lines leads me to believe that the front office is actively looking for a veteran defender to bring in, not just for expansion protection, but for the overall good of the blueline. Even though he indicated that they were "comfortable" going into the season with the roster they currently had, it wasn't a very convincing statement.
After the scrimmage, the second panel discussion of Hurricanes insiders: Michael Smith, Mike Flannigan (Section328.com), Canes Country contributor Brian LeBlanc, and all around "team guy" Shane Willis, convened to answer another series of questions. These opinions were interesting and it was clear that some of them felt quite good about the team's chances at the post season. First round picks, Jake Bean and Julien Gauthier, were both dissected and praised. Janne Kuokkanen was compared to last year's 2nd rounder, Sebastian Aho, in a near unanimous positive light. The goaltenders were also highlighted and given good press. Three of the four panelists felt the team was likely bound for the post season while the lone sceptic felt that the guys "might" make it there. What was mostly interesting was that these "friends of the team" were both positive and frank in their assessments. It was good to see that the "company line" wasn't a requirement.
Now we begin that dreaded 3 month stretch where team news and activity wanes. A contract signing here and, perhaps, a trade there may break up the doldrums. It is now up to us as fans to carry the Canes conversation forward....at least until real news breaks.