What do we know about next season? We’ve discussed goaltending and we’ve looked at bringing in scoring from outside of the organization. Almost assuredly, one or two (or possibly even three) of the new faces are likely to be of the “home grown” variety - at least in the sense that they’ve spent a modicum of time in the Carolina Hurricanes’ system. From skilled snipers, to big-bodied bangers, to multi-faceted defenders, there will be some of those freshly-scrubbed youngsters plying their new-found trade in the NHL.
Youth Has Been Served
We’ve seen how uber-talented youngsters can change the team’s dynamic. Sebastian Aho is exhibit A. However, there’s more to the Hurricanes’ youth movement than the guys that populate one of the youngest teams in the NHL. The prospect pipeline is maturing into guys that could, or even should, be players on next year’s roster. We’ve seen an inkling of this already this year. Sure, we know about Brock McGinn and Phil Di Giuseppe, both of whom are proving to be energetic, competitive players, albeit mostly with bottom-six skill sets.
The recent eye-opening, two game debut of Valentin Zykov has many taking notice of this wide-bodied, highly skilled right wing. Lucas Wallmark, heretofore known primarily as a slick playmaker, doesn’t look at all out of place during his current audition. Still waiting in the wings are Andrew Poturalski, who leads the Checkers in scoring and is 2nd in AHL rookie scoring, and Haydn Fleury, who has 21 points and a team-leading +13 rating. Both players seemingly at least a cup of coffee with the big club. Regardless, these players bode well for the near-term prospect pool.
Those aren’t the names that get the fans’ juices flowing. That distinction belongs to the two big French-Canadian forwards, Nicolas Roy and Julien Gauthier. They both bring size and skill, two of the characteristics in short supply on today’s Hurricanes squad. Anybody who watched the World Juniors this year witnessed something of a coming out party for both of these big boys, often playing together on the same line. A French and Finnish line may not be out of the question in the near future.
Would Bill Peters run out a team with multiple rookies on it, in important roles, at the beginning of the season? Past experience says probably not. More likely, two or three of the guys from Charlotte break camp with the big club. As much as fans want to see Gauthier and Roy, they’re almost certainly destined for Charlotte for the next step in their seasoning, although a Gauthier-Aho-Di Giuseppe line sounds mighty appetizing down the road.
While there is the off chance that one or both of those guys make the case to stay in Raleigh, it seems clear that both the club and the players would benefit from a start with the Checkers.
Look for Wallmark to make a strong case for the fourth-line center role, one for which he's building his resume right now. Currently back with the Checkers for their playoff run, Zykov will almost certainly be in the mix with McGinn, Di Giuseppe, and whomever of Nordstrom and/or Stempniak that isn't selected by Vegas. Frankly, from an offensive perspective, Zykov has more upside than either player.
Does Lightning Strike Twice on the Blue ine?
So who else represents the next man up? Last season’s back-end offensive revelation, Trevor Carrick, missed nearly 20 games earlier in the season and is just now rounding into form. Also coming off injury, last season’s #13 pick, Jake Bean, is putting up points at a higher rate than at any time in his career. But he’s still got a good bit of development to go.
Which brings us back to Fleury, who is showing what the scouts seemed to have seen talent-wise, leading the Checkers in plus/minus (yes, we all know the relative value, or lack thereof, of this statistic). While he was injured for seven games early in the season, Charlotte was somewhat adrift defensively. He’s been a stabilizing force since his return.
Roland McKeown has been characterized as “on track”, “playing really well”, and “solid”. Still, his AHL season could also be characterized as unremarkable. Other than Fleury, none of the other defensemen in Charlotte have really shown enough to make a strong case for themselves. Look to Fleury as the lone serious contender in Charlotte for a bottom pairing role next season.
What about some of the other “wunderkinds”? The three other guys to keep an eye on are Warren Foegele, currently playing lights out for the Erie Otters; Janne Kuokkanen, fresh off his brand new entry-level contract; and newly-signed Checker Aleksi Saarela. Foegele and Kuokkanen still need to get used to the speed of the professional game, and Saarela will also need to acclimate to the smaller surface - although the fact that he scored in his first AHL game does say something.
In the end, look for a conservative play by the Hurricanes. They will likely secure a “nice” offensive player via trade, nobody spectacular but a solid contributor. They will promote a player or two from Charlotte. This will ameliorate the need for forcing more of the youngsters into the NHL too quickly. Wallmark and Fleury remain the best bets to break camp with the big club, and Zykov likely has an outside shot. Without a doubt, the rest of the youngsters will be adhering to that old adage, “...you can’t keep a good man down”. They will be hoping that the Canes won't keep them down for too long. That kind of depth is the type of problem consistent playoff teams have.