As we eclipse the halfway point of the prospect season following the World Juniors, we tend to have a wider body of work on how prospects are developing over the course of the year. Players are getting comfortable on new teams, in elevated roles, and sometimes in leagues that they have not yet played in.
The Hurricanes don’t have as many “top-end” prospects to follow this year, as many have graduated to the AHL to form a roster that is currently blowing away the other teams in the league to the tune of 61 points in 41 games. However, that doesn’t mean that there aren’t players worth watching in the pipeline. Many of the players currently below the AHL level for the Canes will continue to build on the prospect depth that has been built over the past few draft classes.
Standout: Stelio Mattheos
It’s about as easy a choice as you can get to tab Mattheos as the standout of the Canes junior group. After a 90-point campaign in 2017-18, the Brandon (WHL) forward has kept the momentum rolling. The Wheat Kings captain brings it night in and night out for a team pushing for a wild card spot in the WHL’s Eastern Conference, carrying his group offensively on many occasions. His point-per-game pace has increased from 1.32 a year ago to 1.44 this season, leading him towards a 100-point pace.
Mattheos was a surprise omission from Canada’s World Junior team, especially after wearing a letter for the U-18’s in the past. His offensive-zone energy and net-front presence could have helped Canada in the tournament as they finished a disappointing sixth in Vancouver. Having nothing left to prove in Junior hockey at this point, his next stop will be in Charlotte.
Development Spotlight: Jack LaFontaine
So this is a skirting the rules a bit, as LaFontaine could just as well be listed as an NCAA player. After his sophomore season at Michigan, the 2016 third-round pick announced he would play for the BCHL’s Penticton Vees in 2018-19. Because the BCHL is not one of Canada’s major junior leagues, the netminder is able to return to Ann Arbor, and intends to do so for the 2019-20 season.
LaFontaine has settled in nicely as Penticton’s starter this season, posting 20 wins in 30 games while allowing just 67 goals. His 2.23 goals against average ranks second among qualified goaltenders, and his .915 save percentage ranks third. Hopefully this will be the confidence booster that LaFontaine needs to finish out his career strong at Michigan starting next season.
- Brendan De Jong is in the midst of his best offensive season in Portland (WHL), surpassing a half-point per game for the first time in his career.
Standout: Adam Fox
Much like Mattheos above, Fox is an easy choice here at the midpoint of the season. He has been nothing short of outstanding for Harvard in his junior campaign, leading all college hockey blueliners in assists-per-game and points-per-game. Fox is fourth among NCAA defensemen in points, despite playing just 15 games due to Harvard’s late start to the season.
Since the trade from Calgary, signing Fox has been a priority. The right shot defenseman represents the next addition to an already talented blueline core in Raleigh if they can get him inked. However, if Fox comes in, it’s likely that someone else on the right side will be moved out for some added scoring punch.
Development Spotlight: David Cotton
If you’ve read this column in the past, you know that Cotton has long been a player to watch for the future. From the time when he was drafted in the sixth round in 2015, the Texas native was always going to be a longer-term development project. Each year he has steadily improved at Boston College which has culminated in a junior breakout season. Cotton’s skating has progressed, as has his ability to use his power forward frame on both the offensive and defensive sides of the puck.
In 19 games for the Eagles this year, Cotton has scored 12 times and added 8 assists, the first time in his college career he has eclipsed a point-per-game pace. He has already surpassed his career high in goals (12) and is well on his way to passing his career high in points (28) with nearly half a season left to be played. Cotton will still need some time in the minors after turning professional, but the hope is that he can be another in the line of big, puck possession focused forwards with an added scoring touch.
- Both Fox and Cotton were named among the preliminary 2019 Hobey Baker nominees. If you feel like voting, you can do so here.
- Jack Drury has a three-game point streak since returning with a silver medal from the World Juniors (1G, 2A), giving him 15 points in 14 games during his freshman year.
- After an up and down season, Matt Filipe has three points in his last four games, including two game-winners for Northeastern.
Standout: Eeto Luostarinen
Luostarinen has developed nicely since hearing his name called in the second round of the 2017 draft. The skilled pivot played his first full season in his post-draft year for KalPa (Liiga), where he finished among the top-ten scorers on the team while playing in a secondary role as a 19-year-old.
In 2018-19, the narrative has changed a bit for Luostarinen, who leads KalPa in scoring with 23 points in 35 games and is playing top line and power play minutes for the first time. He has already surpassed career highs for goals (9) and points (23) and is an assist away from passing his career high with 14 helpers, all while keeping the edge that he commonly plays with, leading the team with 59 penalty minutes. Luostarinen’s play was on course to be rewarded with a World Juniors nod by Finland, and surprised many when he was a late cut from the roster.
Development Spotlight: Lenni Killinen
Following his selection by Carolina in the fourth round in this past summer’s draft, Killinen has spent his first full campaign in Liiga playing in 22 games, and chipping in six points for Assat. This doesn’t seem like a huge dent in the scoresheet, but Assat is Liiga’s worst team by far, scoring just 76 goals on the season, a number which is last in the league by an astounding 23 goals. After splitting time a year ago between the second-best league in Finland, Mestis, and the Finnish Jr. A league, playing a full season in Liiga is quite a substantial jump.
Killinen is a long-term project, but is still very young as he will play this full season as an 18-year-old. Next year will be a better barometer of the type of player he can be moving forward as he continues to grow into his frame and get more comfortable with the league.
- As has been his history, Eetu Makiniemi continues to hold a good save percentage when between the pipes in Finland. In his eight starts after being loaned to Mestis, his save percentage is .918%. His parent club, Jokerit, has a pair of older goaltenders blocking Makiniemi’s path to the net at this time, so getting playing time a level down will help his development.
- Jesper Sellgren has had similar production this season for Lulea, following his jump from the Swedish second division to the top tier league. His six points in 32 games rank fourth among Lulea defensemen at this point in the season.
Give Kevin a follow at @kleblanchockey for prospect talk and happenings.