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Prospect Storylines To Keep Up With This Season

With a pipeline full of promising prospects, there are plenty of stories to keep an eye on this season.

Carolina Hurricanes v Tampa Bay Lightning Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images

Now that the Chicago Wolves have begun their season, I feel that now is as good of a time as any to talk about certain storylines that I’m going to be paying close attention to this season. Whether it’s a player’s contract year, someone in need of development or something else, this should give you all an idea of some of the players that I’m keeping a closer eye on.

I’ll be starting with one of two prospects due for a contract this year: Jack LaFontaine.

What Happens With LaFontaine?

LaFontaine won the Mike Richter award last season as the NCAA’s top goalie along with being named a first-team All-American, the Big Ten’s best goaltender, an All-Star in the Big Ten, the Big Ten tournament MVP and a Senior Class All-American. Oh yeah, he was also a finalist for the Hobey Baker, the award given to the best player in college hockey. Needless to say, it was a fantastic season for LaFontaine and one that’s going to be hard to top as he heads into his fifth NCAA season. LaFontaine has started in all four of Minnesota’s games this season and currently boasts a 3-1-0 record.

I was admittedly confused after seeing LaFontaine’s decision to return to the University of Minnesota for the upcoming season, and I’ll have to admit, that sense of confusion hasn’t dissipated. The Hurricanes currently have three goalies in the AHL: Beck Warm, Alex Lyon and Eetu Makiniemi. Lyon should be the team’s starter while Warm and Makiniemi get the occasional start as backup before one heads to the ECHL.

That’s a crowded roster and one that LaFontaine would have a tough time on, but the problem is that next season’s roster will be just as tough to break into. Sure, the Hurricanes could say goodbye to Lyon and Warm in free agency, but that still leaves Makiniemi under contract. Pyotr Kochetkov will likely make the jump from the KHL to North America next season and, barring a very impressive training camp, will start in the AHL.

Kochetkov is without a doubt the goalie of the future for the Hurricanes and will be given every opportunity to develop once he gets to North America. So there’s still as much of a logjam in net next season, barring any major trades.

Note: Pyotr Kochetkov could be sent to AHL Chicago once his KHL season ends this season, assuming that there are no travel complications due to COVID.

LaFontaine received broadcast attention and the team seemed to pump his tires after an impressive season, leading me to believe that he will sign his entry-level contract when his season ends. LaFontaine is ready for the pros and might make a solid NHL goaltender in the next few years. If he and Kochetkov can split starts, it’s possible that both goalies become NHL ready around the same time. Still, the sudden logjam in net makes me wonder if the Hurricanes could package his rights in a deadline trade down the line if they can’t make something work.

Ryan Suzuki’s Development

In a normal year, this would have been Ryan Suzuki’s first AHL season, and we would have been excited to see what he can do at the pro level. That being said, I’m happy with his development, particularly away from the puck. Suzuki has all of the talent in the world with the puck on his stick and his vision allows him to make some truly remarkable things happen. Suzuki’s game wasn’t very well-rounded in his draft year, however, which is why he fell to 28th overall. At this point in his development, I’m seeing a new player that has seen what has made his brother a successful NHL player and implementing those skills in his game.

Suzuki is a much better player along the boards and is taking the puck to the middle as opposed to playing on the perimeter. His defensive game has grown leaps and bounds since he was drafted and seeing him play on the penalty kill is fantastic to see. I’m also seeing Suzuki play with more of a physical edge than ever, which is nice to see as well. Physicality won’t ever be his defining trait, but it has made Suzuki less of a passive player and a better player on the forecheck.

These changes in Suzuki’s game bode well for his future as a pro. There have been positive signs of growth in his offensive game as well, but the fact that Suzuki is working on rounding out his game will help him stick in the NHL. Look at how Rod Brind’Amour runs his team, for example. You can’t take a shift off and you have to be competent on both sides of the puck. If you take a look at the players that haven’t worked out under Brind’Amour, it’s usually because of their defensive play falling well short of expectations. Suzuki is turning into a nice player for the Hurricanes and this season should be a big one for him. I expect to see Suzuki break out offensively over the course of this season as he gets more and more adjusted to the pro game.

Number One Defenseman Dom Fensore

Now that David Farrance has signed with Nashville, it’s Domenick Fensore’s time to shine for Boston University. The Hurricanes’ 2019 third-round pick is a fantastic player with the puck on his stick and one of the more dynamic offensive defensemen in the NCAA this season. The question now becomes whether Fensore can develop the other aspects of his game and become a true number one defenseman for a young and inexperienced team. I fully believe that he can.

Fensore currently leads his team in scoring with a goal and four assists in four games and has two multi-point games already this season. Fensore can weave his way through defenses and plays a high pace game, something that should translate to the Hurricanes’ system. The defensive side of his game is still developing, however, and that’s his biggest barrier to the NHL. Getting top pairing minutes for the next two seasons should allow for Fensore to develop that aspect of his game, though.

Can Kochetkov Emerge as a Starter?

That’s the biggest question I’m asking myself about Kochetkov this season. Through eight starts, Kochetkov has a .912 save percentage and a record of 3-3-2. Of those eight games, I would say that five have been stellar and three have been poor. Kochetkov’s five stellar starts have all come in the last six games, however, so it’s possible that we’re seeing him finally round into shape at the KHL level.

This is a big season for Kochetkov because if he does well, he could find himself at the top of the depth chart next season and one of the first names on the list to make his NHL debut in net for the Hurricanes. If not, it’s possible that he’ll have to battle with LaFontaine like I mentioned earlier. His goaltending style is unique and would make him a fan favorite once he gets to the NHL, especially if he continues to make saves like this.

One of Kochetkov’s weaknesses was that he had trouble saving shots that were taken from further away. This year, his tracking has improved and I’m seeing tangible results because of that.

If Kochetkov continues to receive steady starts at the KHL level, I believe he could at least make a push for an NHL job in the next year or two. The Hurricanes may start him in the AHL in order to get more comfortable with the North American game, but he’ll be ready for the NHL sooner rather than later.

Drury and Rees

Both players are close to NHL ready, that’s for sure. Drury is a reliable center that can play a variety of roles for the Hurricanes in the future, while Rees is a skilled forward that plays a gritty, agitating game. Both players should be NHL players as early as the 2022 season, but it all depends on how they develop in the AHL this year. Now that the AHL is back to normal and more competitive, how does Rees develop? I believe that he’ll be fine because after all, his game is almost perfectly suited for both pro hockey and the Hurricanes’ system.

As for Drury, I’m curious to see how he looks in a league that’s a different style of play than the SHL. These are the two prospects not named Seth Jarvis that are closest to the NHL right now, so tracking these players’ development should be interesting this season. If both players perform well enough, it’s possible that we see some NHL debuts at some point this season, too.

What Does Bryce Montgomery Bring to the Table?

Finally, something that I’m very curious in is what made Montgomery stand out to the Hurricanes. Due to the OHL not having a season last year, it was hard to get any sort of quality film on Montgomery. Because of that, I don’t have a ton of information on the player himself. From watching him at the Prospects Showcase last month, I could tell that his size and skating were two of his best assets, but there wasn’t much else to go off of due to the brief sample of the tournament.

After watching his first two OHL games from this past weekend, I have a better idea of Montgomery’s skill set. His puck skills are impressive and I think that he has more to give offensively than we’ve seen so far. The Hurricanes clearly see a player with a ton of raw skill, and when you’re as good at developing as the Hurricanes are, you take those types of players. Montgomery is one of the bigger stories in the pipeline because he’s playing in his first OHL games in over a year and a half. The fact that he was able to make enough of an impression in the limited games that he received is impressive enough.

There are a few other minor things to keep an eye on this season, such as whether or not Lenni Killinen earns a contract, Patrik Puistola’s season with Jukurit, whether Anttoni Honka earns a contract, and how our freshmen in college look this season. With roughly 44 prospects in the pipeline (not counting AHL players on two way deals), it’s tough to fit everyone in one article. Still, these are some of the most interesting topics in the pipeline this season and ones that I’ll be revisiting as the season goes on.