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Prospect Report: December

Hurricanes prospects continue to impress as the season goes along.

Channel One Cup: Russia vs Czech Republic Photo by Mikhail Japaridze\TASS via Getty Images

Welcome to this month’s prospects report, where I give you news, stats and other things you may have missed from the past month. It’s a busy time of year, and even though leagues are starting to pause their seasons, there’s still plenty to talk about.

Olympic Speculation

The NHL will not be going to the Olympics due to the drastic rise in COVID cases league wide, meaning that we won’t be seeing players such as Sebastian Aho, Teuvo Teravainen, Andrei Svechnikov, Jaccob Slavin and more represent their countries for at least another four years. The good news, however, is that it opens up the possibility for Hurricanes prospect Alexander Nikishin to play for the Russian Olympic Committee team. Nikishin has played for the senior national team at two tournaments this season, and it’s essentially the best non-NHL team that Russia ices. At just 20 years old, Nikishin is proving to be a top prospect and could be called upon for the Olympics. Nothing is guaranteed, however, as Russia has been known to prefer older players over their younger talent, but Nikishin has performed well at these tournaments.

Nikishin should be able to fit right into an NHL lineup as soon as he makes the jump. He plays at an NHL pace, is capable of carrying the puck in transition, plays with an edge and has some offensive skill to go along with strong defensive zone play. He’s a modern NHL defenseman that can eat up minutes and wear down the opposition, something that the Hurricanes could use in their lineup at this point. Nikishin is too old for this year’s World Juniors since he has already turned 20, but I’d say that representing your country in the Olympics would be a good replacement. In case you missed it in my World Juniors Preview, Nikishin was named to the KHL All-Star Game a few weeks ago. Another honor for the 69th overall pick in 2020.

QMJHL Pauses Season

The QMJHL announced that they were pausing their season until Jan. 7, meaning that we’ll have to wait a while to see Canes prospects Bobby Orr and Justin Robidas. Orr has been much more productive offensively so far this year, while Robidas has been a steady presence on a rebuilding Val-D’or team. I’m curious to see how this affects both players. The QMJHL had a handful of pauses last season and it often would take teams a few games to get back to normal.

Kochetkov’s Emergence

I would like to formally congratulate the KHL’s Torpedo Nizhny Novgorod for being the first team to discover that if you give a young goaltender playing time, he will improve and win your team more games. It’s revolutionary thinking for the KHL, and we’re starting to see why Kochetkov was drafted so high in the first place. He has been stellar as of late, bringing his team back into the playoff conversation.

Kochetkov has allowed five total goals in his last four wins and currently boasts a .928 save percentage in 18 starts on the season.

Kochetkov is improving with each passing game and it shouldn’t be long before we see him don a Hurricanes sweater for the first time. It’s just a matter of what the Hurricanes decide to do with their goaltending situation over the course of the next few seasons.

Wolves Step Up

The Chicago Wolves are on an impressive 12-game winning streak and they don’t seem to be stopping anytime soon. Despite the Hurricanes’ issues with Covid and the injury bug, the Wolves have been one of the AHL’s best teams. They’re getting big contributions from their AHL veterans and a lot of the Hurricanes’ prospects are stepping up after being given an increased role. To quote Tripp Tracy, the Wolves have “dug in” recently.

Jamieson Rees has five points in his last six games, as does Joey Keane. Jesper Sellgren had three points during a three game weekend against the Texas Stars. The Wolves have given Spencer Smallman an increased role and he rewarded them with a goal and an assist in their most recent win against Milwaukee. David Cotton got off to a slow start this season but has points in three of his last four games and a total of four points in that span. With so many top forwards called up, Chicago has had to rely on those players to make big contributions. It’s a team effort, and while Chicago might prefer to play veterans over younger players, everyone on that team is bought in and will work hard to ensure that the team wins. They’re playing exactly how they would play under Rod Brind’Amour, so credit has to go to head coach Ryan Warsofsky as well.

Speaking of the Wolves, there’s still no update on the status of Ryan Suzuki. He has missed the last 20 games due to a “long-term” injury, but I haven’t seen a timetable for his return. Hopefully Suzuki can get back on the ice soon. He has had some rotten luck with injuries and league shutdowns since he was drafted and he was playing well before the injury occurred.

ELC Deadlines

The Hurricanes will lose Jack LaFontaine’s rights if he is unsigned by Aug. 15, 2022. LaFontaine turns 24 on Jan. 6 and currently has a 10-8-0 record with a .898 save percentage. It’s a far cry from the .934 save percentage he posted last season as the NCAA’s top goaltender, so I’m curious to see what the Hurricanes decide to do. With Makiniemi’s emergence in the AHL as well as Kochetkov’s potential as a franchise goaltender, is there room for LaFontaine? As of right now, I’m 50/50 on whether or not the Hurricanes will sign LaFontaine. He has NHL potential (although I’m not sure if he’s starter material) and is likely close to NHL ready, but the goaltending pipeline is full at the moment.

A few things could change Carolina’s goaltending situation. The Hurricanes could move on from a goalie prospect at the trade deadline, they could sign LaFontaine and try to move another goalie at the draft, or they could elect to trade his rights either at the deadline or at the draft. It’s going to be an interesting thing to track, especially given the hype he received last season.

Lenni Killinen is the other prospect whose rights will expire if the Hurricanes do not sign him to an entry-level deal. Killinen’s rights expire on June 1, 2022 and at this point, I am skeptical about his odds of signing a contract. Killinen’s skating is average and he doesn’t push the needle enough for me to see him as an NHL player. I haven’t seen Killinen take any major steps forward this season and he is too injury prone for me to feel comfortable signing him to a three year deal.

World Juniors

Finally, some brief talk about the World Juniors. Pre-tournament games occur Thursday and the tournament officially begins on Sunday. The Hurricanes have ten prospects playing at the World Juniors this year, and you can read about them in my preview for the World Juniors here. I’ll be posting daily recaps of games as well as live coverage (work permitting) on Twitter @CanesProspects. Here are my predictions for the teams that will medal as well as who I think the Hurricanes’ best prospects will be.

Gold: Sweden

Silver: Canada

Bronze: Russia

Canes Prospect MVP: Vasiliy Ponomaryov

Best Defenseman: Joel Nystrom

Best Goalie: Nikita Quapp, running unopposed

Note: I’ll be doing the occasional watch party for World Juniors games with my co-hosts from the Tracking the Storm Podcast. Check Twitter for updates on when that’s happening.