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January Hurricanes Prospect Rankings: 20-11

Carolina boasts one of the deepest pipelines in the NHL and many of these players could play in the NHL.

Shawinigan Cataractes v Quebec Remparts Photo by Mathieu Belanger/Getty Images

It’s time for my midseason prospect rankings, which means I get to give you all my take on the players in the system and you all get to argue about how wrong I am. It’s a fun time for everyone, and I’m excited to bring you this list.

A lot has changed since I wrote my last list, including a few signings, some strong performances and some not so strong performances. Here’s a quick refresher on the last list that I created, which was published right after the draft.

20. Wall

19. Nybeck

18. Nikishin

17. Makiniemi

16. Keane

15. Sellgren

14. Heimosalmi

13. Ponomaryov

12. LaFontaine

11. Gunler

10. Anttoni Honka

9. Ville Koivunen

8. Pyotr Kochetkov

7. Scott Morrow

6. Tuukka Tieksola

5. Jamieson Rees

4. Dominik Bokk

3. Jack Drury

2. Ryan Suzuki

  1. Seth Jarvis

Jarvis has since graduated to the NHL, and while he is still only 19 years old, I’m not including him on this list. He’s an NHL player now, no doubt about it. No other players considered for these rankings have aged out, so Jarvis will be the only player no longer considered a prospect.

This was a tough list to create, and I bounced back and forth between whether or not to include a handful of players. Ultimately, I felt that the list I created was reflective of what I had seen in the prospects this season.

I’ve tried to watch all of the players on this list at least three or four times over the course of this season in order to gain a better understanding of the player and how they project to the NHL. My rankings are an assessment of a player’s NHL upside, system fit and likelihood of making it to the NHL. A player with lower upside may be ranked higher than one with top-six upside based on their likelihood to A) make it to the NHL, and B) fit into the Hurricanes’ current system.

20. Massimo Rizzo, Denver University

I liked Rizzo in his draft year and thought he had a solid D1 season afterwards, but injuries were a concern and kept him out of a lot of games. His decision to decommit from North Dakota and play for Denver University has been fantastic for his development, though. Rizzo’s speed and skill with the puck have always been strengths of his, but I’ve been surprised as to how seamlessly his transition to the NCAA has been. There aren’t any doubts in my mind about his ability to impact the game on a consistent basis and I’m more confident in his NHL upside. Rizzo is playing second line minutes as a freshman, albeit a slightly older freshman at that. Still, Rizzo could be a prospect to keep an eye on in the coming years. R to the Izzo is an interesting part of The Blueprint for the Hurricanes.

19. Kevin Wall, Penn State University

Prievious Ranking: 20

Wall has had a strong season for Penn State, albeit a streaky one. Penn State is in a bit of a rebuilding state, having lost many of their top players in recent years. As a result, Wall’s season has been up and down, with times where he’ll dominate the competition and times where he’ll struggle to make an impact at even strength. I believe in Wall, though.

His skating and shooting are good enough for the NHL, and there are some other tools that can be fine tuned once he reaches the pros. He can only do so much by himself, however, so I see him more as a complementary scorer rather than a play driver on his line. Wall needs a fourth year in school, that much is clear. He’s struggling against the better teams in college hockey and another year at this level will be beneficial for his development.

18. Alexander Pashin, Toros Neftekamsk

Pashin is incredibly skilled and would thrive in Carolina’s system. I believe that he is still a few years away from making it to the NHL, but the Hurricanes drafted him much later than he should have been drafted. We’re talking about a winger that could slot in an NHL top six at some point in his career, after all. The biggest questions I have with Pashin involve his defensive zone play and his odds of coming to North America. It was rumored near the draft that Pashin was loyal to his Russian team and that he might not want to make the jump overseas. After two years of development and no full-time KHL role in sight, I’m wondering how he feels about making the jump now. Pashin will need to be eased into the pro game in North America but could quickly become one of Chicago’s top players once he gets going.

17. Anttoni Honka, JYP

Previous Ranking: 10

I’ve cooled on Honka a bit since the season started. Part of it is because I haven’t seen more than marginal improvements in his game since the start of the year, but in his defense, JYP is one of the worst teams I’ve ever watched. The other reason why I’m a little cooler on Honka than I was at the start of the season is due to the fact that his deficiencies in the defensive zone will be a tough barrier to overcome in this system.

I do like that Honka is the highest scoring player on his team, even though he has gone scoreless in five straight games. There are moments where Honka’s skill can take over and you can see why he warranted a selection in the 2019 draft.

The pass retrieval and shot placement were both perfect on this play, and it ended up being the game winning goal. But there are also moments where Honka makes you want to scream, such as in this clip.

He doubts himself twice, which allows the attacking forwards to pressure him into a turnover. That sort of thing has happened less often this season, but these types of plays are concerning. Still, Honka’s upside is high enough to warrant a spot on this list. The Canes can help mold him into an NHL player, it’ll just take time.

16. Ronan Seeley, Everett Silvertips

Previous Ranking: Not Ranked

I’ve always been high on Seeley, but I was hesitant to put him on the preseason rankings for two reasons. First, Seeley’s sample size from his first post-draft season was small, and although he performed well, I would have liked to have seen him more. Secondly, I wasn’t entirely sure what Seeley’s upside was. He had some raw tools that I liked, but I wasn’t able to pinpoint his exact upside. I’m now able to and can confidently say that he’ll be an NHL defenseman, maybe even one with second pairing upside.

I’ve followed Seeley closely this season, from the Prospects Showcase in Tampa to now, Seeley has consistently impressed and has taken a large step forward this season. Seeley’s skating has been a consistent asset and his offensive game has come to light this season now that he’s getting power play time. Seeley still has some work to do defensively, but the tools are there. Seventh round picks rarely have this much upside and projectable tools.

I wouldn’t call him an offensive defenseman, even though he has the skills to be a solid offensive presence. Seeley has more two way upside, but I still love when he makes plays like this happen.

15. Jesper Sellgren, Chicago Wolves

Previous Ranking: 15

Sellgren plays a reliable game with very little panic. He isn’t the flashiest defenseman and I don’t believe he’ll ever be an offensive contributor, but I have no doubts about his defensive game and play in transition. He’s averaging just under 20 minutes of ice time per night on a very good Chicago team, which shows you how much the Wolves’ staff trusts him. Sellgren likely ends up being more of a third pairing defenseman at the NHL level, which would be tremendous value for a sixth round pick.

14. Joey Keane

Previous Ranking: 16

Keane proved on Saturday that he’s on the verge of carving out a full-time role in the NHL. The biggest challenge will be outperforming someone on the current roster, though. How does Keane fit in with the NHL team in win now mode? Does he factor into the Hurricanes’ plans? Honestly, I hope we see Keane more in the coming months in order to hopefully get an answer to those questions. Keane plays well in all three zones and plays a much stronger defensive game than he did last season. Keane likely plays a third pairing role with the occasional power play minutes if he does make the Hurricanes. Keane ranks ahead of Sellgren simply due to the fact that he appears closer to making the NHL than Sellgren is.

13. Tuukka Tieksola

Previous Ranking: 6

This pains me because I really, really love Tieksola. He sees the ice better than most players in Finland and has legitimate skill as a top-six forward. The problem is that his slight frame and “meh” defensive play are going to make it difficult for Tieksola to break into the NHL.

If he can add some muscle and improve defensively, however, there’s a good chance that Tieksola becomes one of the Hurricanes’ most electrifying prospects. He’s truly one of my favorites to watch because when he’s on his game, he’s elite. Hockey sense, skill, speed, you name it, Tieksola has it. There’s more to come from him, but it may take a move to North America in order for Tieksola to achieve his potential.

Look at the precision on his passing and how he knows exactly where his teammate will be. It’s a perfectly executed pass, one that Tieksola can execute often.

12. Aleksi Heimosalmi

Previous Ranking: 14

Heimosalmi has had an interesting season. His Liiga team is one of the worst in the league, but it’s not all bad. He’s averaging just a tad over 16 minutes of ice time per game and playing some solid defensive hockey. Heimosalmi was able to prove that he can be a top defenseman in his age group during his brief stint at the World Juniors last month, quarterbacking Finland’s power play and playing up against top lines. I’m a little more confident in Heimosalmi’s upside upside than I was when I last published rankings, too. He’s poised with the puck and a confident defender, giving the Hurricanes yet another solid defensive prospect in the pipeline. I’d still give Heimosalmi one more year in Finland before he comes over to North America, just so he can work on improving his defensive game and play with the puck.

As an aside, can we kill the term “puck moving defenseman?” In the modern NHL, you have to be able to move the puck out of your zone and in transition in order to keep up. The players that aren’t usually get left behind, unless you’re the Edmonton Oilers and you ice an entire defense that can’t do much with the puck. Heimosalmi isn’t a “puck moving defenseman,” it’s just a part of his game. Look at the Hurricanes’ current roster and you’ll see that every defenseman on the roster can carry the puck in transition and make clean breakout passes most of the time. It’s how the modern game is trending and Heimosalmi will be a perfect addition.

Then there’s this clip that involves Heimosalmi disrespecting a Russian player with a toe drag.

11. Vasiliy Ponomaryov

Previous Ranking: 13

A bit of a trend with my recent picks is that they’ve all moved up two spots with Jarvis graduating and Bokk falling from grace a bit. You could make an argument to put Ponomaryov higher on this list and I wouldn’t disagree with you, but I found it difficult to put him ahead of some of the players with higher upside in our system. Ponomaryov projects to be an NHL player and a good one at that, given his fantastic work ethic and strength in all three zones. I don’t see him being more than a middle six piece, though, and I haven’t seen enough of him in the offensive zone to make me believe that he’ll be a top producer. Where Ponomaryov exceeds is in creating space for his teammates.

He’ll draw attention and make a pass to an open teammate, battle for positioning in front of the net, and bulldoze through the offensive zone so that his teammates have better shooting and passing lanes. Russia did not have a good game against Sweden at the World Juniors, but I thought that Ponomaryov did a great job of creating space for players like Pashin so that he could generate some scoring chances. Here’s an example of how effective Ponomaryov can be when he’s on his game.

The offensive part of Ponomaryov’s game could come once he gets to the AHL. He was a defensive center for Shawinigan in the QMJHL and hasn’t seen as much time as he should be getting in the KHL. There have been flashes of brilliance in his game and times where he stands out as an elite presence, but for the most part, he’s a steady player that you can rely on.

Ponomaryov will fit into Rod Brind’Amour’s system better than some of the other forwards in our pipeline due to his work ethic and strong defensive play. It’s why I see Ponomaryov as more of a third line player than a second line player, but that opinion could change once I see how he looks in the AHL.

Honorable Mentions

There were four players that I considered for these rankings but ultimately decided to leave off for one reason or another.

Jackson Blake - Blake is the first player to reach 50 points in the USHL this season and has been on fire for Chicago. He’s one of the more skilled players in the system when the puck is on his stick, but the rest of his game is still pretty raw. Blake is having a promising start, but I feel that I need to see what he can do in the NCAA before I rank him.

Domenick Fensore - Fensore is so, so talented and smart. The issues that I have with his game are still on the defensive side of the puck and whether or not his size will be a barrier to success at the NHL level. Like Wall, Fensore needs another year of college before I’d consider signing him. Any improvements in the defensive zone will help ease my mind about his chances of NHL success.

Nikita Guslistov - Guslistov has surprised me this season as being one of the better U21 scorers in the KHL. He’s playing on a good team and seeing time on both the power play and penalty kill, a rare feat for a young Russian player. Guslistov’s defensive game is better than I expected and I’ve talked to people who are high on him.

Joel Nystrom - Nystrom has also been a pleasant surprise and one of the better U21 defensemen in the SHL this season. Nystrom’s offensive game has developed nicely in his second SHL season and although I don’t think he’ll ever be a top point producer, he’s showing more promise on that side of the puck. Nystrom’s defensive game is solid and there’s NHL potential.

Once again, this was a difficult list to nail down. Guys like Patrik Hamrla, Patrik Puistola, Justin Robidas and Zion Nybeck were all considered as well, meaning we could have had close to 30 ranked prospects. This is by far one of the deepest pipelines in the entire NHL and will only continue to get deeper this offseason. Even without their first and third round picks in the 2022 NHL Draft, the Hurricanes are poised to add more talent to a system that has consistently produced NHL talent for the past decade.