The Hurricanes’ system depth got a nice boost a few weeks ago, with the team adding 13 new prospects to the pipeline over the course of day two of the draft. With 13 new prospects added to the pipeline, it’s time to talk about the top 20 prospects in the system.
The Hurricanes drafted well and received good reviews from most draft experts regarding their selections, even without their first-round pick. The Hurricanes’ strategy made a lot of sense: draft as many high-upside players as you can. As of right now, there aren’t many players from this draft class that will make it on this list. That’s not a knock on these players, though. A lot of the players the Hurricanes drafted are raw talents, meaning that it’ll take a little more time to develop them. Some of the players I left off the list might burst onto the scene next season and make next year’s list. Some of the players on this list might fall off a bit or get bumped down due to incoming talent. Such is the way of these things.
As for how I’ll be evaluating players in the rankings, I’ll be looking at a few things. The first is a player’s overall upside and potential. This includes how likely it is for a player to reach their potential and how high their ceilings/floors are. Second is how close a player is to the NHL. Sometimes a player may not have the highest upside but he’ll be closer to making an impact at the NHL level than someone that I decided to put below him. Third and finally is how the player fits the system. Say what you will about this, but if a player doesn’t fit the system that Rod Brind’Amour has put in place, they’ll be hard pressed to carve out an NHL role for themselves. For example, look at his deployment of Jake Bean and Morgan Geekie.
Before we start, I want to talk about Ronan Seeley and Blake Murray. Both players narrowly missed the cut for the top 20 and deserve some love as well. Murray has potential as a depth scoring option due to his size, great shot and skating ability. Consistency has been an issue with him in the past but I think that he has grown more consistent since he was drafted. Seeley is a prospect that fell further than he should have in the 2020 draft and has some potential. He skates incredibly well and closes gaps effectively in the defensive zone. I’m starting to see more confidence from him in the offensive zone, as well. Seeley still has to earn a contract but I believe that he has some NHL skills.
20. Kevin Wall, RW
2020-21 Stats: eight goals, 11 assists, 19 points in 22 games
2021-22 team: Penn State (NCAA)
Wall burst onto the scene this past season and became a top scorer on a rebuilding Penn State team. It’s clear what the Hurricanes saw in Wall when they drafted him: solid hockey sense, a great shot and elite skating speed. Wall is still a raw prospect in the defensive zone and will need two more years in college to develop, but I’ve enjoyed seeing him take control of the game when he’s on the ice. He works hard and is dangerous on the forecheck due to his speed and strength. Wall projects as a bottom-six scoring option in the future.
19. Zion Nybeck, RW
2020-21 stats: one goal, six assists, seven points in 39 SHL games
2021-22 team: HV71 (HockeyAllsvenskan)
Nybeck is so much fun to watch. He’s one of the smartest players on the ice and can take over a game in the offensive zone. He possesses an elite shot and high-end hockey sense and is one of the best offensive talents in the Hurricanes’ pipeline. The odds are against Nybeck, though. He stands at 5-foot-8 and is an average skater, both of which are enough to cause teams to not give Nybeck a chance. A player’s size does not determine their skill level, but when they’re an average skater on top of that, it can be nearly impossible for that player to make it to the NHL. Still, Nybeck’s upside is high and he could be a top-six contributor if he continues to progress well. This season should be a fun one for him, as he’s likely going to see top-nine minutes in HockeyAllsvenskan. I don’t think that Nybeck’s skating is that bad in the second clip, but I do think that his first few steps are weak.
Add a shorthanded assist for Nybeck. Goal by Daniel Ljungman (DAL). pic.twitter.com/BUZeOZUCLS— Adam Herman (@AdamZHerman) July 31, 2021
18. Alexander Nikishin, LHD
2020-21 stats: one goal, four assists, five points in 20 KHL games
2021-22 team: Spartak Moscow (KHL)
Oct 25, 2020 KHL: Sasha Nikishin hit on Amir Garayev pic.twitter.com/0vgTXORB9B— HockeyRU20 (@HockeyRU20) October 25, 2020
Nikishin is more than his big hits. He’s a solid defender with an underrated confidence in the offensive zone. Nikishin is still a few years away since his KHL contract doesn’t end until 2024, but when it ends, he could be ready to step into a top-four role right away. Nikishin moves well, hits everything in site, covers up gaps well and could be more of an offensive force. Nikishin’s ceiling is that of a second-pairing defenseman, although that may be a little optimistic. With how he plays, he could see time on the penalty kill and see third-pairing minutes, and that’s probably a more realistic projection. Best case he’s your number four defenseman and a penalty killer. Still though, there’s some skill to his game that intrigues me.
Nov 18, 2020 KHL: Sasha Nikishin 0+2 vs Severstal pic.twitter.com/HhO1rNhVrQ— HockeyRU20 (@HockeyRU20) November 18, 2020
17. Eetu Makiniemi, G
2020-21 stats: 13-14-7 record, .907 save percentage
2021-22 team: Chicago Wolves (AHL)
Makiniemi earned an NHL contract with his play this past season, keeping an underwhelming Ilves team afloat and leading them to a playoff berth. He’s an athletic goalie capable of some fantastic saves. I’m not sure where to place his NHL potential, though. He could definitely see some NHL starts, although I’m not sure if he’s going to be consistent enough to carve out a full-time starter or backup role for himself. I think that he will be a fun player to watch with Chicago this season, though. With Alex Lyon and Beck Warm likely ahead of Makiniemi on the depth chart, perhaps he starts the season in the ECHL.
16. Joey Keane, RHD
2020-21 stats: 13 assists in 24 AHL games
2021-22 team: Chicago Wolves (AHL)
Joey Keane made his NHL debut this past season but is still a prospect because he only has that one game under his belt. It doesn’t look like there’s a place for Keane on the roster this season, although he has the potential to step into the lineup and see some decent minutes if the Hurricanes have some injury issues on the back end. Still, Keane is interesting because he has solid offensive upside and plays a decent two way game. While I don’t see Keane being a top-four defenseman, he could be a good third-pairing option that sees time on your second power play unit in the future.
15. Jesper Sellgren, LHD
2020-21 stats: three goals, 16 assists, 19 points in 52 games
2021-22 team: Chicago Wolves (AHL)
Keane and Sellgren are at the same point in their development, in my opinion. While Keane might be a year younger, I believe that Sellgren is slightly more NHL ready given the fact that he is able to play top minutes against the opposition’s top players. Sellgren’s play in Charlotte’s Calder Cup run was impressive and he’s been a mainstay on the blue line in the SHL for three seasons now. I don’t see Sellgren taking a roster spot away from someone like Ian Cole, but I do see him being one of the first players they call up if there’s an injury.
14. Aleksi Heimosalmi, RHD
2020-21 stats: four goals, 17 assists, 21 points in 35 U20 games
2021-22 team: Porin Assat (Liiga)
It’s so hard to rank Heimosalmi this low. I love the way that he plays when he’s on his game. He can take his game to a truly elite level and be one of the best defensemen on the ice, taking over a shift and creating countless offensive opportunities. He doesn’t reach that level consistently and is still pretty raw in a lot of areas. I wouldn’t say he’s as much of a boom or bust player as someone like Anttoni Honka, perhaps, but he definitely has that boom or bust upside.
Heimosalmi could be a phenomenal offensive defenseman at the NHL level with above average two-way skills, almost guaranteeing him a top-four role on any NHL roster. There’s also the possibility that his development stalls on a weaker Assat team. That’s why I’m ranking him so low at this point. There’s a good chance that he impresses this season and shoots up the rankings. In fact, I’ve gone back and forth between putting Heimosalmi and Morrow in similar positions. The difference between a lot of prospects from 7-14 is razor thin. This is where you have our “B” level prospects, also known as the good-to-great NHL prospects. I’m fully expecting Heimosalmi to make me look silly for ranking him this low.
Just a small example of what Aleksi Heimosalmi can do when he's on his game. Canes prospect Ville Koivunen puts home the rebound. pic.twitter.com/k0R3PvEzUp— Canes Prospects (@CanesProspects) August 2, 2021
13. Vasiliy Ponomaryov, C
2020-21 stats: ten goals, 28 assists, 38 points in 33 games
2021-22 team: Spartak Moscow (KHL)
Ponomaryov plays how the Hurricanes want to play. He’s quick, a pain on the forecheck and a great two-way center. There’s a good amount of offense to his game and while he might not blow you away with his skills, he’s likely going to be good for 40+ points at the NHL level. Ponomaryov will thrive under Rod Brind’Amour’s system once he makes it to the NHL. He’ll need to show more offensive skills in the next couple of years in order for me to feel confident about his offensive upside, but at worst I believe that he could play a similar style to Brock McGinn. Ponomaryov is roughly two years away from the NHL, although I could see it taking longer if he doesn’t get a lot of ice time in the KHL this season.
Vasiliy Ponomarev also has a quick release, here the beneficiary of a USA turnover. pic.twitter.com/kXghELuAaw— Michael Smith (@MSmithCanes) December 29, 2020
12. Jack LaFontaine, G
2020-21 stats: 22-7-0 record, .934 save percentage
2021-22 team: University of Minnesota (NCAA)
Sure, LaFontaine has potential as a starter. It’s even likely that he’s going to be close to NHL ready as soon as he leaves college. He’s getting older, however, and with how many goalies the Hurricanes have in their system, there’s a chance that LaFontaine gets passed on the depth chart by guys like Makiniemi and Kochetkov this season. LaFontaine could be an NHL goalie as early as the 2022-23 season, but he’ll be hard pressed to improve a ton in college after the season he just had. LaFontaine could prove me wrong and improve on his numbers and lead Minnesota to a National Championship, but I feel that he would be better off in the AHL.
11. Noel Gunler, RW
2020-21 stats: nine goals, six assists, 15 points in 39 games
2021-22 team: Brynas IF (SHL)
Gunler is an enigmatic prospect because when he has the puck on his stick, he’s the best player on the ice and a true dynamic talent. When the puck isn’t on his stick in the offensive zone, he’s invisible and it’s hard to notice him. I don’t buy into the “attitude issues” that Gunler supposedly has, however. Sure, he may have pushed an official when he was 16, but he has matured since then and hasn’t done anything like that since. Gunler has the potential to be a top-six, maybe even top-line forward in the NHL. He’s that good offensively. His hockey sense is elite, he has a fantastic shot, he’s a great playmaker and he skates well to boot. He just needs to do all of these things on a consistent basis in order to make it to the NHL. I’m willing to bet that last season was a down year for Gunler and that he’ll come back stronger. After all, Brynas was a bad team and there wasn’t a lot of talent to support Gunler. This season, Gunler needs to show that he can take over a shift on his own and become a true offensive catalyst for his team. I believe he can do it.
Noel Gunler (CAR) unleashing the weapon pic.twitter.com/uniSLsM8U0— /Cam Robinson/ (@Hockey_Robinson) December 26, 2020
Ranking these prospects was tough because anyone from 14-11 could be considered in the top 10. Players like Blake Murray and Ronan Seeley could deserve to be in the top 20 as well, and it’s possible that a player such as Patrik Hamrla, Bobby Orr, Justin Robidas or Jackson Blake plays well enough to earn a spot at this time next season. We’ll have to see. Stay tuned for the top 10 prospects in the system later this week.