Keeping up with the Hurricanes’ goaltending prospects was a thrilling ride this season. We had a Hobey Baker candidate, two entry-level deals and one surprise mid-season signing. On top of that, a former prospect put together a Calder-worthy performance for the Hurricanes, emerging as the team’s starter. In the third and final installment of my pipeline recap, we’ll take a look at the Hurricanes’ depth in goal.
LaFontaine put together an impressive season, leading the University of Minnesota to the NCAA tournament and finishing with a .934 save percentage over the course of 29 games. LaFontaine allowed fewer than two goals on average and had a 22-7 record on one of the best teams in the country. Here are most of his awards and accolades this season, taken from EliteProspects: NCAA Third Team, NCAA Big Ten All-Tournament Team, Big Ten Best Goaltender, Big Ten Champion, Big Ten First Team All-Star, Big Ten Tournament MVP, NCAA West First All-American Team, NCAA Senior Class All-American 1st Team, Mike Richter Award for Best Collegiate Goaltender and Hobey Baker Award Finalist. LaFontaine is remaining at the University of Minnesota in order to chase the National Championship that eluded his team this past season, and with the majority of that roster returning next season, it’s possible that they win it all. The Hurricanes seem confident that they can sign him to an entry-level contract after his season ends in 2022, which would be a huge move for the team. LaFontaine is one of, if not, the best goalies in the NCAA and has the potential to be an NHL starter. LaFontaine could also step into an NHL role as early as the fall of 2022 as the backup to Alex Nedeljkovic.
So what makes LaFontaine special? He’s a 6-foot-2 goaltender that can take up a decent amount of space in net, and he’s not the most explosive goalie you’ll ever see. So what is it about him? For me, it’s LaFontaine’s positioning. He is always square to the puck and is able to adjust to rebounds and passes quickly, meaning that he doesn’t have to make those sprawling saves that we see some NHL goalies make. Instead, he keeps himself square and makes it hard for the shooter to beat him, making routine saves out of what could have been a difficult save. LaFontaine’s positioning and ability to read the play makes playing the position easier for him, in a way.
The Hurricanes signed Makiniemi to a two year entry-level contract shortly after his season with Ilves in Finland ended. On paper, Makiniemi’s stats don’t inspire a ton of confidence, but bear with me here. Through 34 regular season games, Makiniemi posted a save percentage of .907 and a GAA of 2.59. His record was 13-14-7 over the course of those games. In five playoff games, Makiniemi went 1-4 and had a .915 save percentage. So why did the Hurricanes sign him? Let’s break down his game.
Makiniemi played on a team that lacked depth as well as a defense that could prevent shots from getting to the net. He was constantly put in a position where he had to bail his team out, and of course you’re going to let in the occasional goal when your team gives you no support. Think of how the team played in front of Nedeljkovic during the Tampa series, but worse. That’s what Makiniemi was doing on a game by game basis. Ilves had no business being a playoff team, and yet Makiniemi was able to steal just enough games for his team to make it into the first full round of the playoffs in Finland. As for his playing style, Makiniemi’s athleticism reminds me of Petr Mrazek in a way. Here’s an example:
His positioning isn’t fantastic here, but that explosiveness reminds me of how Mrazek plays. He steals a goal from a player that had a wide open net to shoot at.
Another impressive save from Makiniemi. Tappara makes two quick passes to keep Makiniemi’s eyes moving, and he explodes out with the left pad and glove to make a fantastic save.
I mean, come on. Two more highlights for you all:
What a save part two, this time on fellow Canes prospect Tuukka Tieksola https://t.co/2T66WGzXk5— Canes Prospects (@CanesProspects) February 23, 2021
Makiniemi’s 6’3” frame allows for him to make some of these saves, but it’s clear that he’s a very athletic goalie with a ton of potential. He’ll get a chance to prove his worth in the AHL next season, likely splitting starts with Beck Warm in Chicago.
I was a little surprised when the Hurricanes signed Kochetkov to a two year ELC this season. It wasn’t because I thought Kochetkov was bad and not worth a contract, but because I felt that he needed more time to develop. Now that we know that he’ll burn the first year of that contract and stay with Torpedo in the KHL, I’m a little more understanding of the deal. Sign him now, let him emerge as a top goalie in the KHL, and then bring him over to the NHL in 2022 once he has more experience under his belt. There’s always a risk involved with Russian players since they can make more money in Russia than they can make on an ELC in the NHL, so I understand the urgency that the Hurricanes might have felt. Kochetkov has the potential to be the goalie of the future here, even better than Alex Nedeljkovic. He’s strong, athletic, agile, dynamic, you name it. Kochetkov has happy feet and can drift occasionally, but he’s strong enough to snap back into position to make a save when he needs to. This next season could be tremendous for his development. Whether he’s the starter, the backup, or whether he splits starts with another goalie, Kochetkov is likely to see more KHL starts than he has in the past. He could establish himself as a legitimate goalie in that league as well as some consistency on his way to becoming an NHL goaltender. Here’s a clip of Kochetkov to tide you all over for now.
Warm was impressive during his first few games of the season on an AHL contract with Chicago, so the Hurricanes elected to sign him to a two-year contract. I was familiar with Warm since he had played with Morgan Geekie for a brief period in the WHL, and thought that he could be a nice depth goalie for some team. That team ended up being the Hurricanes, funnily enough. While I’m still skeptical of Warm’s odds at becoming an NHL goaltender, I like that the Hurricanes have him in their system. He’s a steady presence in goal and can be the starter for Chicago for a number of years, if the Hurricanes elect to keep him around after the 2021-22 season.
I’m not sure what to make of Kucharski. He hadn’t played in well over a year and currently plays in a conference that is known to be significantly weaker than most other conferences in the NCAA. Let’s get into the stats first. Kucharski went 5-0-0 and appeared in seven games for American International College (AIC) this season. In those seven games, Kucharski posted a respectable .916 save percentage and a nice 1.69 GAA. Not too shabby for a goalie that is finding his footing in college hockey. AIC finished as the top team in their conference and we could see Kucharski return as the starter next season. All that to be said, I still don’t know what to make of these numbers. Kucharski’s size and overall athleticism make for an intriguing package, but I’m not sure if playing in the AHC is going to be enough to prepare Kucharski for professional hockey. Not many players coming from that conference ever make it in the AHL, much less the NHL. So while it’s great that Kucharski is experiencing success on the AHC’s best team, I’m not sure if I can read too much into those numbers. These next few seasons should provide more insight into Kucharski’s future as a professional goalie, and there’s always the possibility that he transfers to a better program in a year or two.
At the start of the season, the Hurricanes had a bunch of unknowns in their goalie pipeline. Now, they have Beck Warm and Eetu Makiniemi as the likely tandem in Chicago, Pyotr Kochetkov signed to a contract as the possible goalie of the future, and Jack LaFontaine waiting in the wings. While the Hurricanes may not be as deep in goal as they are at forward, I believe that the team is much deeper in goal than they are on defense. As for the upcoming draft, don’t be surprised if the Hurricanes select at least one goalie in the later rounds. It never hurts to stock up on goalies, after all.