Editor’s note: This is the first of a three-part series recapping the 2020-21 season for each Hurricanes prospect
This was a tough season to be an NHL prospect. They had to deal with shortened schedules, travel restrictions, COVID tests, and much, much more on their journey to the NHL. Development was a challenge this season for prospects that played in Canada due to shortened schedules or no seasons at all, and so it’s even tougher to evaluate how a player grew over the course of this season. Nevertheless, I’m here to provide you all with an update on the state of the Hurricanes’ prospect pipeline, starting with the forwards.
Jarvis was one of a handful of NHL prospects that split time between the AHL and WHL this season. During his time with the Chicago Wolves in the AHL, Jarvis seemed unstoppable and led the league in goal scoring at one point before departing for Portland in the WHL. During his time with the Winterhawks, Jarvis scored 15 goals and finished with 27 points in 24 games. Jarvis also had seven goals and four assists in nine games for the Wolves, which puts his season totals at 38 points in 33 games. Jarvis was a primary point machine this season in the WHL, only recording three secondary assists while being a catalyst of his team’s offense. This type of production is encouraging because it shows that Jarvis can produce at an elite rate in both the AHL and WHL. I still believe that Jarvis could use another year or two of development before carving out an NHL role, but he is closer than I initially thought.
Seth Jarvis (@Canes) has been on a tear to start his professional career with the @Chicago_Wolves.— EP Rinkside (@EPRinkside) February 10, 2021
Yesterday's goal gives Jarvis goals in three straight games to start his @TheAHL career.#Canes
Jarvis is up to four goals in three games.https://t.co/wMo8JN4FZ0 pic.twitter.com/GKT4e74JVr
Suzuki spent the entire year in the AHL due to the OHL cancelling its season. His 10 points in 26 games may not seem impressive on the surface, but Suzuki developed in a big way this season. He was able to play with more of an edge, starting with the World Juniors, where he played on the fourth line and had to play in a checking role. Suzuki adapted to his role and developed a snarl to his game that had been missing since he burst onto the scene as the first overall pick in the OHL draft. Suzuki became less passive as the season went on and started to attack the puck on the forecheck. As a 19-year-old player in the AHL, Suzuki had to work that much harder to stand out. This aggressiveness will give him a leg up next season and will result in an increase in production.
Jamieson Rees was able to adjust to the pace and style of play in the AHL relatively quickly. He plays more of a gritty game that is suited for the AHL and it showed in his early success with the team. Over the course of the season, Rees was able to dazzle with his puck handling skills and speed while putting up 14 points in 29 games. His ability to transition to the AHL almost seamlessly is another source of encouragement for Canes fans. Rees is an exciting prospect that plays exactly how Rod Brind’Amour wants the Hurricanes to play, so this season might have accelerated his development. Rees was recently named the Wolves’ Rookie of the Year in a fan vote. In the following tweet you can see an example of Rees’ skill, where he toe drags some poor defenseman into the Shadow Realm.
Our roster was loaded with great rookies this season — and several of them have a ton of fans.— Chicago Wolves (@Chicago_Wolves) June 17, 2021
Let's find out which one earned The Ubie for Rookie of the Year! Our finalists were @CottonDavid, @jarvy44, @_jamiesonrees and @philtomasino26. #WeAreTheWolves#ChicagoHockey pic.twitter.com/XgHeOYbxrM
Bokk struggled in Sweden this season before heading to the AHL. There were concerns that Bokk would be unable to reach the potential that enticed St. Louis when he was selected in the first round back in 2018. Enter Ryan Warsofsky. As I’ve stated multiple times this season, it’s amazing what can happen when you give a player ice time and put him in situations where he can succeed. As a result of an increase in ice time, Bokk went on a goal scoring tear and finished the season with 18 points in 29 games. I still have issues with Bokk’s play with the puck on his stick, as he can be a bit selfish at times, but there’s no denying his skill. Bokk’s play this season was encouraging and he showed the Wolves’ staff that he will always be in the right place at the right time in order to score a goal. These are promising signs.
Cotton showed off his goal scoring abilities for Chicago this season, scoring 14 goals in 26 games. While his skating isn’t going to be his strongest asset, I did notice that he was able to keep up at the AHL level. That was my biggest area of concern in Cotton’s game this season. It’s not clear if Cotton has a future on the Hurricanes’ roster, but it’s obvious that he can score goals at the professional level. I’d keep an eye on him next season as a potential call-up option.
Spencer Smallman and Stelio Mattheos
I’m grouping these two players together since the two players spent the majority of their time in the ECHL this season. Mattheos should receive more opportunities with Chicago next season since there will no longer be a shared affiliation with Nashville, while Smallman will likely hit the free agent market.
Murray spent his season with Surahammars IF in the Swedish third tier league, HockeyEttan, and returned to North America in March. It’s difficult to make much of an impact in 16 games, but Murray had 16 assists and seven goals en route to an impressive season against men. If I were to say that I knew anything about HockeyEttan, I’d be lying to you, but it is encouraging to see Blake Murray playing against older competition. He had scored 30+ goals in each of the last two seasons in the OHL, so he was in need of a different challenge. He developed as a playmaker and is less of a one-dimensional threat now than he was in his draft year. Murray signed a three-year contract with the Hurricanes and will likely start next season with the Chicago Wolves.
The Hurricanes made sure to sign Ponomaryov almost instantly after the draft, showing faith in a player that fell to them in the second round. This year, Ponomaryov proved that he can be a dangerous offensive threat both at the World Juniors and in the QMJHL with Shawinigan. I would argue that he was Russia’s most consistent forward at the World Juniors in both the offensive and defensive zones. Ponomaryov is a complete player that plays a 200 foot game, something that Rod Brind’Amour stresses in his system. Assuming the next couple of years go as planned, we could be seeing Ponomaryov take on a third line role with the Hurricanes. Ponomaryov recently signed a one-year contract with Spartak Moscow in the KHL, where he will be loaned out until the end of that season.
NCAA and USHL
I knew nothing about Mercuri when the Hurricanes drafted him other than the fact that he was tall. The 6-foot-3 center is a primary point producer and prefers to make plays rather than shoot the puck. This year, a lot of Mercuri’s success came from around the net, and he was able to impress with his slick hands and hockey sense. Mercuri’s stride needs some work and he could stand to get faster, but he’ll have plenty of time to do that while enrolled at UMass.
Wall had a breakout season at Penn State, scoring eight goals and finishing with 19 points in 22 games. His speed and ability to get up to top speed quickly made him an effective player in transition for the Nittany Lions and may have helped cement his role in their top six. Wall still needs two more years in college before turning pro, as his play in the defensive zone leaves much to be desired. Still, the Hurricanes look to have found a diamond in the rough in the sixth round of the 2019 draft.
Rizzo did not play this season (he was injured according to the Chilliwack Chiefs) but did commit to the University of Denver. Rizzo’s injury history has me wary of his odds of turning into an NHL player, but he definitely has some NHL skills.
Pashin was one of the Hurricanes’ most interesting picks in the 2020 draft. Originally projected to go anywhere from 22nd overall to 184th, Pashin fell to the Hurricanes at 199th overall. Why is it that a prospect with elite offensive skills and speed can fall all the way to the seventh round? Two major factors play into it. For starters, Pashin is undersized, and secondly, Pashin is rumored to love the team he plays for in Russia. That complicates a move to North America, and teams don’t like drafting players that likely won’t make the jump overseas. Pashin was one of the best players in the Russian junior league this season with 45 points in 41 games. He should see some more KHL time next season.
Drury was a finalist for the SHL’s Rookie of the Year award and captured an SHL Championship to cap off an impressive season. Drury had 30 points in 41 games and saw time as a top six center for the league’s top team. Drury excelled around the net this season and didn’t shy away from an increase in physicality in the SHL, all encouraging signs for his development. This may not guarantee an NHL role for Drury, but it does bode well for his success at the NHL level. Drury remains unsigned and has one more year remaining before the Hurricanes lose his exclusive signing rights. As always, it’s a beautiful day for the Canes to sign Jack Drury.
Tieksola has been one of my favorites since I first saw him play during his draft year. His skating and all around hockey sense and offensive skill reminded me of a combination of Teuvo Teravainen and Sebastian Aho. Tieksola sees the ice at a level that few in Finland can, allowing for him to make phenomenal passes through opposing defenses and weave through multiple opponents en route to a goal. Tieksola finished with 18 points in 37 Liiga games with Karpat this season, working his way into the top six after starting the season on the fourth line. It was clear that Tieksola was too good for Karpat’s U20 team, as I got the sense that he decided to do it himself on most occasions.
There were times when this happened at the Liiga level, too.
Tieksola makes the game of hockey look easy and, while he does need to bulk up a good bit, I believe he could be a top-six forward on the Hurricanes in the very near future. The Hurricanes seem to think so too, as they signed him to a three-year, entry-level contract after his season ended. Tieksola will spend the first year of that contract on loan with Karpat and will then come to North America.
Nybeck, like Pashin, is on the smaller side. The odds are against him as far as making it to the NHL is concerned, but there are few players that can control the offensive side of the game as well as Nybeck can. Nybeck struggled to earn more than fourth line minutes this season and finished with just 7 points in 39 games. The good news is that Nybeck’s team was demoted to Sweden’s second tier league, HockeyAllsvenskan, so he’ll be able to see more ice time at a relatively high level. (Note: Allsvenskan is a competitive league considered to be around the level of the Finnish Liiga) Nybeck should develop a lot more next season and should also take on a top nine role at the World Juniors.
Gunler had a frustrating season. He couldn’t cut it with Lulea in the SHL, so they loaned him to Brynas, one of the league’s worst teams. Gunler then proceeded to showcase his speed and elite shooting ability at the World Juniors. He then disappeared for a while with Brynas and finished the season with 15 points in 39 games with Lulea and Brynas.
Gunler’s lack of ice time has been a barrier to his development thus far, but he has been as big of a barrier to his own development as his lack of ice time. His defensive zone play leaves much to be desired and he tends to disappear when the puck is not on his stick. I did see some flashes of improvement this season as I saw that he looked more engaged in the defensive end, but he’s still a far cry from where he should be. Positive signs include seeing him backcheck, seeing him be more open to physical play in his own end and seeing his awareness improve. All good signs, but it’s clear that Gunler will take some time.
Puistola was the Hurricanes’ most frustrating prospect this season, in my opinion. He had an opportunity to carve out a top six role on an inexperienced team and establish himself as an elite player in Finland. Instead, he floundered and was stuck on the third line with two other U20 skaters. Puistola clearly needs more time to develop and turn into that dominant player that he has shown he can be. I thought it odd that Finland did not include him on the roster at the World Juniors, but perhaps his performance this season was the reason. He’s still a promising prospect, just one that will need a lot of time to polish his game into something usable.
Slepets is still very much an unknown for me, as he has spent a lot of time in Russia’s second tier league since he was drafted in 2019. Slepets’ production dropped this season and he was unable to carve out a role in the KHL like he had during the season prior. As of right now, Slepets is a free agent in Russia, although there were rumors that he would be signing with Vityaz Podolsk in the KHL.
Killinen has a lot of tools that make him a desirable NHL prospect. He skates well, has a good shot, produces from around the crease, and plays well in his own end. The problem is that he can’t think the game at a high enough level, so his ability to anticipate plays on both ends of the ice is weaker than most. It almost seems as if Killinen is lagging behind his teammates, but instead of the issue being his skating, it’s his brain. I like the player a lot and think that he could be a lesser version of Nino Niederreiter or Warren Foegele, but his head has to catch up with everything else.
The Carolina Hurricanes have a vast amount of forward depth in their pipeline, which should help keep the team competitive for a long time. While this may not have been the most normal season ever, it was encouraging to see each prospect grow and continue their development in spite of the circumstances. The future is just as bright as the present for the Hurricanes and it’s a great time to be a Canes fan.