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Three to Watch, Three to Know, & Three on the Go

Get to know some of the “guys” that few are talking about...but will likely be significant contributors to the Carolina Hurricanes’ future.

Jamie Kellner

In a world where “now” is the overarching mantra, being patient with things like prospects seems almost antiquated. How can we be calm when we need to win now?

We all know, from time to time, we’re equally guilty as charged. However, watch Sebastian Aho in action and compare his progress to Elias Lindholm’s. Sea Bass was allowed to marinate for an extra year in the Finnish professional league.

Or think about Nicolas Roy. After being touted as a top draft pick the year before the NHL draft, the Hurricanes were lucky enough to snag him as a mere 4th round pick. His draft + 1 year and now his draft + 2 year have both been lessons in development.

The Carolina Hurricanes are blessed with a new-found wealth of outstanding prospects, some already playing professionally. If you don’t know the names Janne Kuokkanen, Julien Gauthier, Warren Foegele, or the aforementioned Roy, you’re behind your Canes lovin’ peers. The pride of the Hurricanes’ prospect pool, the defense, is also well known and well respected. Yet, given Roland McKeown’s and Trevor Carrick’s injuries and Haydn Fleury’s recent return from a stint on the shelf, there’s little concrete evidence of their collective development. Still, there are other names, often less discussed or even less respected, that are giving the informed fan reason for real hope.

Who are These Guys?

David Cotton - C - 6’3”, 205 lbs.
The big, fast centerman has been bouncing between Boston College’s 2nd and 3rd lines this season. His 6 goals and 13 points in his first 21 games are quite respectable for the freshman. He has been scoring on both the power play and at even strength.

Surprisingly for someone as big and fast as he is, Cotton has very under-rated passing skills, and a soft touch around the net that helps him to be successful close in. He has good velocity on his shot, but will need to work on his accuracy, with “missing high” as the key result needing a remedy.

Taken in the 6th round of the 2015 NHL draft, Cotton played his draft + 1 season in the USHL for Waterloo where he put up good, but not great numbers (15g/15a in 48 games). As a 19 year old freshman he’s played every game for BC, mostly as the third line center.

Hopefully, he’ll be able to glean a lot from Colin White, Ottawa’s 2015 first round pick and BC’s first-line center who burst on the NCAA scene last season. Cotton projects to be a solid, physical bottom six guy who could play up a line in a pinch. For now, though, his size and speed are the key assets the Canes ultimately covet.

Spencer Smallman - RW - 6’0”, 200 lbs.
Gritty, tenacious and tough are all words that have been used to describe Spencer Smallman. Something of a late bloomer, Smallman really came to the fore during his second draft-eligible season in the QMJHL. With 23 goals on his way to a 56 point campaign, he was taken in the 5th round of the 2015 draft.

Now in his fifth season with the Saint John Sea Dogs, Smallman has worn a letter in each of the last 3 seasons, carrying the “C” the last two. Leadership is one of those intangibles and Smallman seems to be blessed with a boat load. He’s also resilient: after a bit of regression in the regular season of his draft + 1 year, he bounced back in the postseason and scored at better than a point per game pace. This season he’s building on that trend with 40 points in 31 games.

Smallman is an all-situations player with a hard, accurate shot. His release is uncannily quick. Playing on both the PK and the PP, Smallman has had success on both, including four short-handed tallies in his draft year. Known as a fearless shot-blocker, Smallman also doesn’t back down from any of the physical aspects of the game, often standing up for his teammates.

Once an area of concern in the Hurricanes’ system, Smallman is one of a number of young right-wing prospects that look to have a potential positive impact on the NHL roster. After a year or two in Charlotte, Smallman could be a prototypical 4th line RW while bringing a fair share of offense to the table. He’s just the type of player that will hopefully contribute to a re-defined roster known just as much for toughness as for skill.

Spokane Chiefs v Kelowna Rockets Photo by Marissa Baecker/Getty Images

Hudson Elynuik - C - 6’5”, 195 lbs.
The son of one-time NHLer Pat Elynuik, if Hudson (right, #26) has any of his dad’s nose for the net, he’ll be a 3rd round steal from this past summer’s draft. Big and rangy, Elynuik is a suprisingly good skater. He’s not afraid to go to the front of the net, but still needs to learn how to use his size effectively. This is especially important as his hands appear skillful around the crease.

After an unimpressive first WHL season split between Kootenay and Spokane, Elynuik’s second season was marred by injury, seeing the ice in only 27 contests. However, in his draft year, Elynuik blossomed, with a late season push that propelled him to 44 points, barely missing the 20 goal mark. This season he’s off to an excellent start with 14 goals and 39 points in 30 games, Spokane’s second leading scorer behind only projected 2017 first round pick Kailer Yamamoto.

Elynuik is clearly a project, but one that has progressed quite nicely. He’s got notable bloodlines that contribute to his scorer’s instincts. As he gains comfort with his size and adds strength to his frame, he’s a power center (or maybe a power forward) in the making. Consider his rise in last season’s draft rankings that had him move from a mid-season rank of #122 to a final draft ranking of #68.

While the Hurricanes would be wise to develop Elynuik slowly, he has the tools and the physical makeup to continue to elevate his game. This season’s jump in scoring tells that tale as well as any other factor.

While these three youngsters tend to fly under the radar for the casual fan, all three are doing just what they are supposed to be doing: advancing. Smallman and Elynuik are over a point per game this season. Smallman in particular is exhibiting the type of maturity that is greatly desired of pro prospects. Cotton, playing against bigger players in the NCAA, is more than holding his own; he’s being counted on as a freshman to play an integral role on one of the nation’s top-ranked college teams. This is what the organization dreams of when considering late rounders and their development.

Showing Their Stuff

Andrew Poturalski - C - 5’10”, 181 lbs.
As the leading scorer for the offensively-challenged Charlotte Checkers, Andrew Poturalski has accepted an ad-hoc leadership role. With erstwhile captain Derek Ryan likely a fixture in Raleigh for the remainder of the season, Poturalski will continue to drive scoring on the ice while helping to lead in the locker room.

In his first full season as a Checker, he has potted 6 goals, has 13 assists, and sports a solid 10.7% shooting percentage in 31 outings. With a defense that’s on the mend and the hope of better goaltending, there should be even more opportunity for the 22 year old.

After two full years as a University of New Hampshire Wildcat, Poturalski came to Charlotte, signing a two-year, two-way contract with the Hurricanes organization. He played in 16 games last season on an amateur tryout agreement, putting up two goals and five points as he learned the AHL ropes. The hope is that there’s more offensive explosiveness to come from last year’s second-leading NCAA Division I scorer (22g, 30a in 37 games).

So far he’s progressing respectably on a Checkers squad that has been hard-hit by a double-whammy of injuries and callups, including two-thirds of the Checkers’ top line, Ryan and Brock McGinn. Poturalski will need to double down on an already impressive start to his first full professional season, if he wants to show that he could be the next man up should the need arise.

Lulea Hockey v Farjestad Karlstad - Champions Hockey League Round Of 32 Lulea Hockey/Champions Hockey League via Getty Images

Lucas Wallmark - C - 6’0”, 175 lbs.
Wallmark has taken his time to get to North America, and that has worked out quite well for the Hurricanes. He went undrafted in his first year of eligibility before the Canes picked him up in the 4th round of the 2014 draft. While slight of build, he’s a wiry, tough player who has surprising acumen in the faceoff circle.

The Canes let him develop in Sweden for a couple of extra years following his draft season. The first of those years was somewhat unimpressive. However, in his draft + 2 season, playing with Lulea in the SHL, Wallmark showed what the scouts apparently had known. He is something of a wizard with the puck on his stick, especially when it comes to finding the open man and dishing beautiful passes. Wallmark’s skating has always been an issue, but he’s clearly worked very hard on improving both his acceleration and his overall agility. Much like Victor Rask before him, that hard work is apparently paying off.

Wallmark is tied with Valentin Zykov for the Checkers’ team lead with eight goals, and second behind Poturalski with 16 points. He’s played in all 31 games, has steadily moved up from his initial 4th-line posting, and now finds himself often centering the 2nd line. As he and his linemates get more comfortable with each other, look for his assist rate to dramatically improve.

Tied for second in scoring for Lulea in the regular season last year (ironically, behind former Checker Jacob Micflikier), Wallmark led his team in goals while maintaining his second-place spot in points during the playoffs. Crafty and tough, Wallmark has been suggested as a future Jay McClement replacement. Centering the 4th line in the NHL is probably his ceiling, but don’t put it beyond Wallmark to center a 4th line that becomes something of a serious scoring threat. Do not be surprised if he gets a look in Raleigh later in the season.

Valentin Zykov - RW - 6’0”, 210 lbs.
A “barrel-bodied” Russian, Zykov has one of the most wicked wrist shots in the Hurricanes’ system. He plays responsibly defensively and is a very good skater, much faster than initial impressions would suggest. During his QMJHL career he consistently averaged above a point per game. A nagging wrist injury derailed his first AHL season, but he came into Canes camp this summer ready to vie for a key role, if not in Raleigh, then in Charlotte. Sporting an impressive 17% shooting percentage with the Checkers, one would hope the puck finds its way onto his stick more frequently.

An early second-round pick by the Los Angeles Kings in 2013, Zykov joined the Hurricanes in the Kris Versteeg deal last season to mixed reviews, most attributable to his injury. This year, as the joint-top goal scorer for the Checkers, he’s proving to be the scoring threat his junior career portended.

The 21 year old is one of the most creative players in the system and also is known for getting under the opposition’s skin. Zykov is not afraid of going to the front of the net where his silky, smooth hands serve him well. If he continues to progress in Charlotte, he could easily develop into a middle six, secondary scoring threat. Add in his tenacity and he could help to elevate the toughness factor on a club that sorely needs it.

With Ryan, McGinn and Matt Tennyson all answering the bell to join the big club, Poturalski, Wallmark, and Zykov represent a next wave of potential call ups. While they might not quite be ready for true NHL action, it won’t be long until they deserve a few games to see what is truly there.

Big Club Risers

Brett Pesce - RD - 6’3”, 200 lbs.
No single Hurricane has demonstrated the year over year progression that Brett Pesce has. Pegged as a low end 2nd pairing guy or maybe a good 3rd pairing guy, Pesce has proven that he’s ready, willing, and able to be half of the top shut down pairing for Carolina.

With a goal and 8 assists, he’s on track to surpass last season’s 16 points. And while not known as a offensive force from the blue line, Pesce did show some point-producing chops during his time at New Hampshire. He plays a more physical game than his crafty partner, Jaccob Slavin, and is nearly as good with his stick. What he doesn’t possess in pure speed, he makes up for in decision-making and positioning. Watch him the next time he’s working an opponent next to the boards. Chances are he’ll come away from the exchange with the puck.

While the eye test tells the story of a defender who is difficult to play against (and can make smart, sharp, clean passes), the underlying numbers are incredible as well. His Corsi-for of 55.7% and relative Corsi-for of +4.9 trail only Jordan Staal and Teuvo Teravainen. He has 23 takeaways versus 18 giveaways. Pesce is second on the team in blocked shots with 70, trailing only Slavin’s 78. Excluding goalies, he is third in total minutes and fourth in average time on ice. He averages the 3rd most minutes on the league leading penalty kill. And he averages over a minute per game on the power play.

All this from a 22 year old with less than a season and a half of professional hockey under his belt. And all of this on the second-best shot suppression team in the league. Oh, and he’s taken a grand total of 3 minor penalties this season.

We all know how good Slavin has become. We all know what an offensive force Justin Faulk can be. We all know what the future holds for Noah Hanifin. What we all should be marveling at is how good the Canes’ 2013 third round pick is right now. The crazy part is, he’s only going to get better.

Brock McGinn - LW - 6’0”, 185 lbs.
For a while, it was an open question whether Brock McGinn could make the jump to the NHL. He’s played a total of 39 NHL games and has 7 points to his credit. Last season, during his call-up, questions arose about whether he could think the game at NHL speed. Did he have the hockey sense for the big time? So far this season, he’s answered those questions with a pretty resounding yes.

While it is hard to look at his offensive numbers and quantify his contributions, he clearly has elevated his game. He’s a force, buzzing around the ice, hitting the opposition, weaseling his way into scoring positions, back-checking with abandon. He’s finding time on the PK and seemingly become comfortable next to Jordan Staal and current linemate, Elias Lindholm. It is hard to argue that he’s not a viable NHLer.

Should this be a surprise? When one looks at his development, his progression, and his history, probably not.

In 4 seasons with the OHL Guelph Storm, McGinn improved his total points every year. He scored 10, 12, 28, and 43 goals, again improving each season. He moved on to the AHL and in his first full season with Charlotte, he potted 15 goals on his way to 27 points in 73 games. Last season he netted 19 goals and 35 points in only 48 games.

He started out this season on fire, only playing 9 games for the Checkers, but he had 5 goals and 8 points before his call up. Last season he scored a couple of storybook goals early during his call-up to the Canes, but fell back to earth shortly thereafter. He was often out of position and seemed to skate around with no purpose or understanding of the system.

It was an easy conclusion to think that was the Brock McGinn the Canes would be getting forever. But to his credit, he kept working at his craft. He thinks the game better this season, knows his role and plays it with a verve that’s infectious. Look for more points to come from the talented McGinn. But in the meantime, just enjoy the game he plays.

Joakim Nordstrom - LW - 6’1”, 189 lbs.
After last season’s magic of the Nesty/Nordy/Jordy line, there was a lot of chatter about reconstituting that group this year in the hopes that they’d pick up again where they left off.

Alas, it was not to be. Andrej Nestrasil is clearly not where he was last season, and a healthy Nestrasil was the catalyst of that group. Nobody suffered from his absence more than Nordstrom. With a total of 10 goals and 24 points in 71 games last season, it looked like Nordstrom might prove to be a solid secondary scoring option. However, following Nestrasil’s season-ending injury on February 25, Nordstrom scored just of 2 goals and 4 points the rest of the season.

Fast forward to the 2016-17 season and Nordy started the season looking a bit lost. In his first 22 games, through the end of November, he potted exactly one goal on his way to posting four points while being moved all over the lineup.

He eventually found a home on the fourth line where he has started to flourish. Sure, he’s only put up two more goals and three more total points in his past 12 games, but his play has been nearly inspired. His speed easily matches that of new linemate Viktor Stalberg, and they wreak havoc with other less-skilled 3rd and 4th lines. Yet they don’t give up much when matched against other team’s top-six.

Nordstrom is an excellent penalty killer and an even better overall defender. In fact, during that same recent 12-game span, he’s posted a plus/minus rating of +1 compared to his -3 in his first 22 tilts. This is also another case where the eye test tells a deeper story. Nordstrom is clearly the straw that stirs the drink that is the Hurricanes’ 4th line. He drives the play, moves the puck, and initiates the cycle with the best of them. In his case, scoring is only part of an effective story.

But It’s About Team

There are other players making noise in the system. Callum Booth is tending goal at the highest level of his young career. Sergey Tolchinsky is heating up nicely. Aleksi Saarela is coming on strong after a slow start coming back from injury. Despite a recent hiccup, Noah Carroll is taking on a larger role for Guelph while Peterborough’s big centerman, Steve Lorentz, has picked up the pace after a slow start. There are other stories of progress as well.

However, for this team to reach its pinnacle, it may ultimately be on the shoulders of some of these unsung youths. Keep an eye on this group. Mark their contributions. And know that they, too, reflect the future of the franchise. Get out your shades, because that future is bright.