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2021-22 Hurricanes prospect breakout candidates

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Many prospects in the Hurricanes’ pipeline are poised for big seasons that could cause them to skyrocket up the depth chart.

Portland Winterhawks v Everett Silvertips Photo by Christopher Mast/Getty Images

The hockey season seems to be right around the corner. For prospect nerds such as myself, the season is already here. By the time this article gets published, the KHL season will be underway and other European leagues will be getting ready to begin their seasons. It won’t be a normal season due to COVID restrictions and various other circumstances, but it’ll be as close to normal as possible.

After all, the past two seasons have been shortened and many prospects haven’t gotten a chance to showcase their skills in a full season. The Hurricanes have a deep pipeline and more than a handful of prospects poised for breakout years. I’ll be taking a look at those prospects, discussing expectations for the upcoming season, giving short summaries of their style of play and my reasoning for why I believe they’re due for a breakout year. Not every prospect will have a breakout year just because I say they will (wouldn’t that be nice?) but these are prospects that have shown me reasons for optimism heading into the season.

Ronan Seeley

As the header photo for this article would suggest, Seeley is my top candidate for a breakout year. Seeley had a short but strong 2020-21 season with Everett in the WHL and was on pace for a career year. When he was drafted, Hurricanes Assistant GM Darren Yorke raved about Seeley’s skating and defensive play, both of which were on full display last season. Seeley has tremendous speed and edgework and is able to close gaps quickly because of it. He’ll get in the lanes, and while I wouldn’t say that he’s like Jaccob Slavin in the defensive zone, he does have that innate ability to get in the way of any sort of offense that an opponent will try to create.

Seeley has an active stick in the defensive zone and uses his body to defend as well, making him a strong defender. His offensive game was a little lackluster in his draft year and started to blossom last season, with Seeley using his shot to create offense more often and seeing the ice at a higher level than he had in his draft year. Seeley’s offensive game could take off and we could see him develop into one of the WHL’s top two-way defensemen over the course of this season. I’m not expecting Seeley to turn into an NHL defenseman this year, but I believe that his play could earn him an NHL contract that will allow for him to build off of the potential success from this season.

Ryan Suzuki

Last season was a blessing for Suzuki. It was clear that there wasn’t much left for him in terms of development at the OHL level and he got to spend the entire season in the AHL. This time in the AHL was a year ahead of schedule. In a normal year, Suzuki would have been ineligible for the AHL and would have had to play the entire season with Saginaw in the OHL. Some accelerated development time is never a bad thing, even if it was only for 26 games. Over the course of the season, we saw Suzuki become less passive and more of an aggressive player in the offensive zone.

The points weren’t necessarily there, but Suzuki’s game took a positive step forward over the course of the season. This year, Suzuki will be on track and should see a much larger role with the Chicago Wolves. He’ll continue to see time on the power play and fully adjust to the competition in the AHL. This is his “rookie” year in the AHL since he wasn’t supposed to play in the AHL until this year under normal circumstances. I’m expecting Suzuki to be an offensive driver for the Wolves while continuing to work on his play away from the puck.

Bobby Orr

Orr had a strong rookie campaign in the QMJHL, leading to the Hurricanes selecting him 136th overall in the 2021 draft. Orr was already seeing top minutes and playing time in all situations, but with some additional NHL training under his belt, he could be poised for a breakout year. In the profile I wrote about Orr, I wrote about how Orr’s style of play is perfectly suited for the NHL. He could easily fill a depth scoring role while providing some grit and defense, and I’m looking forward to seeing Orr continue to grow his game this season. Given the way he plays, it’s not unreasonable to expect Orr to become one of the QMJHL’s more dominant two-way skaters over the course of the next two seasons.

Alexander Nikishin

Nikishin should be an NHL player someday. He’s a quick skater, physical, good in his own end and a player with a lot of untapped offensive potential. At the time this piece is being written, Nikshin has played in three games and has two primary assists. Both assists were on breakout passes, so while the forwards may have done most of the work on both plays, they’re still important passes to make. Nikishin could surprise a lot of people this season if he stays healthy. He’s getting top four minutes for a good KHL team and won’t turn 20 until Oct. 2.

Very few defensemen are able to break into the KHL at this age. I’m not expecting Nikishin to keep up this rate of scoring, but I’m expecting him to take a major step forward in all aspects of his game this season. Getting top four minutes in the second best league in the world will help prepare Nikishin for an NHL role as soon as his KHL contract expires in 2024. This year, I’m hoping Nikishin takes a step forward offensively. He shows promise carrying the puck in transition and even gets time on Spartak’s power play, but he still needs some work before I see Nikishin becoming a legitimate threat in the offensive zone. Still, the tools are there and he’s a fun prospect to watch, even if his only major highlights as of right now are his hits.

Expect a profile on Nikishin in the coming weeks. I’ve watched a handful of his preseason games and one regular season game so far this season and I feel like he could be a perfect fit for the organization.

Noel Gunler

He has been getting top six minutes during the SHL preseason and has spent some time on Brynas’ top line in some preseason games. That’s a big deal for Gunler, who hasn’t been able to see consistent ice time in the SHL since he broke into the league. I shudder to think what Gunler could be capable of when he is given the right amount of minutes and power play time. It’ll help his game on both sides of the puck and we’ll be able to see why the Hurricanes were so high on Gunler when they drafted him. Gunler could be one of the top scorers on his team, or at the very least a bigger contributor than he was last season. I feel that this year, Gunler could be at least a half a point per game player in the SHL. If he exceeds those expectations, then it’s not unreasonable to suggest that Gunler could sign his ELC with the Hurricanes at the conclusion of Brynas’ season. Anything is possible when you have a player with as much talent and upside as Gunler has.

Those are my top five breakout candidates for this season. With as many prospects as the Hurricanes have, it’s tough to pick the top five players in the system without feeling like you’ve left someone out. Due to that, here are some honorable mentions with a sentence or two as to why they could have a breakout year.

  • Cade Webber: Will be able to carve out a role for himself with BU this year. Should see consistent minutes and PK time.
  • Kevin Wall: Could very well be Penn State’s top scorer.
  • Patrik Puistola: Judging from what I’ve seen in the Liiga’s preseason, Puistola looks more comfortable on the ice. That could bode well for his season.
  • Jamieson Rees: His game is suited for the pros and I could see Rees being one of Chicago’s best all-around forwards this year.
  • Justin Robidas: I love his goal-scoring ability and he could be one of the QMJHL’s top scorers on a great team this year.

Most of the team’s other European prospects begin their seasons this week, so this is an exciting time to follow the prospects. As always, I’m looking forward to covering another season of Hurricanes prospects.