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Prospect Pipeline Recap: Defensemen

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Carolina’s defense prospects shone bright in a shortened season.

NHL: MAY 10 Hurricanes at Predators Photo by Danny Murphy/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

In spite of tough circumstances this season, Carolina’s defensive prospects were able to develop and make an impact on their respective teams. In part two of this three part series on the Hurricanes’ pipeline, we’ll look at the defensemen that are in the Hurricanes’ system and how they fared this past season.

European Defensemen

Anttoni Honka

Honka had an impressive season with JYP in the Finnish Liiga, finishing with 31 points in 58 games. His offensive game was on full display as he led his team’s defense in scoring and finished fourth in team scoring overall. What stands out about Honka’s offensive play is that he was able to be this effective on one of the worst teams in the league, both in the standings and in terms of creating offense. He was able to quarterback JYP’s power play and improved tremendously at even strength over the course of the season, both of which are encouraging about his NHL odds. Scouts such as Scott Wheeler commented that Honka’s defensive play had improved tremendously and, while he was still a bit of a liability, there was tangible growth. Honka has some elements in his game that remind me of Ryan Murphy, but I believe that Honka is getting the extra development time that Murphy did not get. The fact that the Hurricanes can let Honka develop on his own time and slowly improve in the defensive zone is going to do wonders for his chances at making an impact at the NHL level. This is a player that could be a staple on the Hurricanes’ power play for a long time, after all.

Jesper Sellgren

Two years ago, Sellgren was brought to the Charlotte Checkers on an amateur tryout contract. He then earned a full-time role on that roster, taking the place of veteran defenseman Dan Renouf, and helped the Checkers win a Calder Cup. Sellgren has spent the past two seasons in the SHL establishing himself as a top pairing defenseman in one of the best defensive leagues in the world. His play style is unique for a defenseman under six-foot tall, as he doesn’t lean on his offensive game as much as you would think. Instead, Sellgren is a steady presence on the back end that can join the rush and contribute offensively when he sees fit. In short, he is a responsible defenseman capable of chipping in a goal or an assist here and there. Sellgren’s forward skating is effortless and his defensive play reminds me of the style Jaccob Slavin plays. It’s not overly physical, but Sellgren excels at using his stick to break up plays. Given the flat salary cap and other issues that could arise on defense, I wouldn’t be surprised if Sellgren saw a few NHL games for the Hurricanes this season. He projects as a reliable third pairing defenseman that could eat up more minutes than your average third pairing defender.

Alexander Nikishin

Alexander Nikishin’s nickname is “Boom” and that should tell you all you need to know about the 69th overall pick in the 2020 draft. He’s big, physical, skates well and has a surprising amount of offense to his game for a player in his archetype. Nikishin also plays a fairly clean game, only taking five penalties in 32 total games this season. Everything about Nikishin intrigues me, because behind the physical play is a skilled puck handler and offensive mind. Very few physical defensemen can weave their way through the opposition like Nikishin can, and very few have played at as high of a level as he has at this age. My biggest concern with Nikishin is his injury history, however. He tends to miss a lot of time due to injuries and that can stunt a prospect’s growth. It will be a few years before the Hurricanes can convince Nikishin to come to North America due to his contract with Spartak Moscow, but I think he has top four upside. Here are some clips that showcase his skills.

Boom.

This is my favorite clip, showcasing three highlights. In the first section, Nikishin skates through three defenders and nearly roofs a backhander in what could have been the goal of the year in the KHL. These are grown men that are defending him and he’s making them look like children. The second part shows Nikishin’s confidence with the puck once again, as he carries the puck and gets a shot off allowing for a rebound goal. The third and final part of this clip shows a stretch pass that may not have been the best pass ever, but is another example of his on-ice vision.

Ever seen a guy get hit so hard he leaves the frame?

As you can see, Nikishin is clearly known for his physicality. The nickname “Boom” suits him and I can’t wait to see him grow in all areas of his game.

Roland McKeown

McKeown spent the season in the SHL and as much as it pains me to admit it, I don’t believe we’ll be seeing him in the system for much longer. The Hurricanes could keep him around to be an AHL veteran, but he seems intent on finding an NHL job if one does come his way. Godspeed, Prince Pretty. Note: If you’re unfamiliar with the Prince Pretty bit, let’s just say I’ve never seen McKeown and former NXT Tag Team Champion Tyler Breeze in the same room.

North American Defensemen

Max Lajoie

I’ll admit that I didn’t have high hopes for Lajoie when the Hurricanes traded for him in exchange for Clark Bishop before the season started. I had assumed that Lajoie would be an AHL lifer and stay with Chicago before hitting the free agent market in the summer. I wasn’t entirely right about Lajoie, however. While he did spend the entirety of the regular season in the AHL, Lajoie did appear in two playoff games for the Hurricanes in the first round. During his time in the AHL, Lajoie proved himself a top defenseman in every situation, but particularly on the penalty kill. His willingness to block shots and play with pace stood out to the coaching staff and eventually led to a call-up for the 23-year-old defenseman. Lajoie finished with 21 points in 27 games for Chicago in the AHL. I don’t believe that Lajoie will ever be a full-time NHL defenseman, but I believe that the Hurricanes will hold onto him. He has proven to be a capable defenseman that can fill a role in the event of an injury.

Ronan Seeley

Seeley’s skating stands out as his best asset, and it’s clear that he’s a threat in transition due to his speed. He is able to close gaps quickly and his decision making with the puck improved in a shortened season with Everett in the WHL. There are still a lot of raw elements to his game, but Seeley was a solid seventh round pick and could be a project worth investing in since the Hurricanes have such a strong development staff. He was named an All-Star in the WHL’s U.S. division this past season after putting up 17 points in 23 games.

Joey Keane

Keane’s offensive skills stood out for Chicago in the AHL this season. He established himself as a top pairing defenseman in the AHL with 13 assists in 24 games for Chicago. I won’t read too much into Keane’s NHL game this season due to the fact that the Hurricanes didn’t ice a full roster, however. The team very clearly wanted to avoid any injuries to their core players, and therefore put together one of the worst efforts of the season. Keane’s future with the team is still promising, however, and I do think he could contend for a roster spot in a year or two if the log jam at the NHL level clears up a bit.

Dom Fensore

The odds are stacked against Fensore, but there isn’t an ounce of quit in his game. His skating and hockey sense stood out to me this year, and it’s clear that he can become a successful power play quarterback with those tools. What’s concerning is his tendency to turtle in the defensive zone and turn the puck over, something that Boston University struggled with as a team for the entirety of this season. Given David Farrance’s departure to the NHL, I’m looking for Fensore to step up and take on the role of the team’s number one defenseman next season. I won’t read too much into his play this season since he only appeared in 16 games, but there was a fair amount of growth in his play away from the puck.

Cade Webber

Webber should see a full-time role with Boston University next year after splitting time between the press box and the bottom two pairs of the Terriers’ lineup. During his time in the lineup, Webber impressed with his hockey sense and his ability to break up plays. I did notice a few times where teams were able to move around him, but those plays will occur with less frequency after Webber establishes a rhythm in the NCAA. He hadn’t played in just about a year due to injury, so I’m giving Webber the benefit of the doubt. Next season should be a good benchmark for Hurricanes fans to see where Webber is at in his development.

I believe that the Hurricanes are in limbo right now with their defensive pipeline. Very few players are ready to make the next step, and the Hurricanes don’t have a sure thing as far as a possible top four option in the next year or two. Players like Jesper Sellgren and Joey Keane could be on the NHL roster sooner rather than later, but I can’t see their roles being top four players. It feels like the Hurricanes are waiting on players such as Honka and Nikishin to step into the NHL roster. I wouldn’t be the least bit surprised if Carolina goes out and drafts a defenseman or two in the first four rounds of the 2021 NHL draft.