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January Hurricanes Top Prospect Rankings: 10-1

Seth Jarvis graduating to the NHL leaves the Hurricanes with less high-end talent but no shortage of depth in the pipeline.

Los Angeles Kings v Carolina Hurricanes Photo by Gregg Forwerck/NHLI via Getty Images

As promised, I’m bringing you all the top 10 of my prospect rankings. Had we not broken it up into two parts, the rankings could have easily eclipsed 5,000 words, and I wouldn’t blame my editor one bit if he didn’t want to read through all of that.

Let’s be honest, here. The Hurricanes’ pipeline took a bit of a hit once Seth Jarvis graduated to the NHL. He was a legitimate top prospect on the border of an elite level prospect, something that the Hurricanes are lacking now that he is in the NHL. Still, the sheer depth of the Hurricanes’ system is astounding and can make up for the lack of a truly elite prospect.

Miss the 20th to 11th ranked players? Here’s my rankings and explanations.

10. Eetu Makiniemi, Chicago Wolves

Previous Ranking: 17

Credit where credit is due, Makiniemi has been outstanding for the Wolves this season. He has come up big when needed, especially early on in the year when Chicago was handing out breakaways like they were candy on Halloween. I’ve always liked how Makiniemi plays but was worried that he would get lost in the shuffle among a very deep group of goaltenders in the Hurricanes’ system. That hasn’t been the case, thankfully, and he has emerged as one of the AHL’s better rookie goaltenders this season.

I’m still not convinced that he’ll be a starter at the NHL level, but he should see some NHL games and will be able to be at least a capable backup in a year or two. He seems to fit the mold of what the Hurricanes want, too. He’s a stable goaltender with the ability to make explosive saves when needed. All he needs to work on is his rebound control and I think he can play in the NHL.

That was the story of a lot of Makiniemi’s early starts. They still give up a lot of high-danger chances, but Makiniemi has proven to be up to the task.

Again, another good stop. I would have liked to see him cover the rebound here but he makes a really nice stop on the follow up chance, so no harm done.

9. Jack LaFontaine, Carolina Hurricanes(?)

Previous Ranking: 12

Get your bag, king. LaFontaine is in prospect limbo right now where he’s signed with the team but not playing in any games, so it’s tough to see where he fits in. I’m not reading into his first NHL game, either, because the Hurricanes as a whole were beyond bad that night. Since LaFontaine is in the pros now, it’s a little easier for me to rank him in the top 10 without having as many “what if” questions pop up. We know he’s going to be an RFA and the Hurricanes can hold onto his rights. We know that he can play professionally and should see at least one more NHL game this season given Don Waddell’s comments when LaFontaine signed.

What I’m still unsure of, however, is LaFontaine’s upside. He took a step back this year with a weaker defense in front of him, and I’m still unsure if he’ll be a starter, fringe starter or backup at the NHL level. I’d really like for him to see a game at the NHL or AHL level in the next few weeks that way I can see how he matches up against the pros. Once again, the fact that LaFontaine is closer to the NHL now is the reason he has been bumped up from 12th to 9th on this list.

8. Alexander Nikishin, Spartak Moscow

Previous Ranking: 18

Before the season started, I liked Nikishin but was unsure as to whether or not he’d be more than a physical shutdown defenseman at the NHL level. Now, I’m fairly confident that he has top four upside as well as an offensive flair to his game that wasn’t there when I watched him play last season. Nikishin is a confident puck carrier and plays in all situations for his KHL team. He’s used both on the point and in a net front role on the power play, kills penalties, plays in overtime and at even strength. Simply put, Nikishin can do it all. His puck carrying skills are rare for a defenseman of his size and he’s the top scoring U23 defenseman in the entire KHL this year. That’s an impressive feat, moreso when you consider the fact that this is Nikishin is only 20 years old and in his third KHL season.

Personal bias aside, Nikishin is a fascinating prospect. Very few defensemen have Nikishin’s combination of size, speed, physicality, puck skills, hockey sense and offensive awareness. Nikishin could step into an NHL role today and be comfortable at this level. He can keep up with the pace of the NHL and contribute in all three zones immediately. I honestly cannot believe that Nikishin is still a relatively unknown prospect in the public scouting sphere. And for goodness sake, the guy’s nickname is “Boom.” You have to love that. I’ve tweeted so many clips of Nikishin this season, so let’s take a look at some of his greatest hits, both literally and figuratively.

Boom.

Boom.

Boom.

Boom.

I’ll end it with this clip. Nikishin hit that poor guy so hard that he flew out of the frame. Still, Nikishin is much, much more than his hits. He still has to work on a few aspects of his game before he’s ready for a full-time NHL role, but I have no doubts in my mind that if he were to lace them up for the Hurricanes in their next game, he wouldn’t look out of place.

7. Noel Gunler, Brynas IF

Previous Ranking: 11

Noel Gunler is good and I’m sick and tired of seeing him play for a bad team. He has the best shot in the Hurricanes’ system and can create offense at an elite rate, but the problem is that he’s smarter and more skilled than his teammates. Often, offense gets killed once the puck leaves Gunler’s stick because he’s thinking the game at a higher level than his teammates are. And sure, there are moments where Gunler can struggle and make poor decisions. He isn’t a perfect player. There are times where I’ve seen Gunler dominate and times where it’s difficult to notice him out there. His consistency is still an issue but has improved since he was drafted. I think my biggest concern with Gunler is that if he comes to the AHL, he might not fit into our system right away. We’ve seen this with Dominik Bokk this season, where he’ll play limited minutes when he isn’t scratched and fail to make too much of an impact at even strength. Gunler might be a more complete player than Bokk, however, so I’m more inclined to believe that he’ll be alright.

Seriously, it’s the best shot in the pipeline. He’s a sniper, but he has more to offer than just goal scoring.

Lastly, I’ve been impressed with how Gunler has looked in a net front role since the move to Brynas. Here’s a nice deflection, something he’s becoming much better at.

6. Ville Koivunen, Karpat

Previous Ranking: 9

Canes fans were able to get a small sample of how good Koivunen can be when he played for Finland at the World Juniors. Koivunen might be the smartest prospect in the Hurricanes’ pipeline and a hard worker, making it difficult for teams looking to stop him from producing. Koivunenis able to dissect the play and execute on his passes and shots perfectly, creating offense and managing to be in the right place at the right time for a goal. Koivunen’s biggest weakness is his skating, which is only average at the Liiga level and will need to improve before he makes it in the NHL. Koivunen keeps his feet moving and is relentless on the puck in order to make up for his average foot speed, but it’ll still need improvement if he wants to have a shot at an NHL roster spot.

Koivunen thinks the game better than most players his age and has the skill to act on it, making him the top U20 forward in Finland this season. He’ll need a little more work before he makes it to the NHL, but his hockey sense and skill should be enough to propel him into a top six role with the Hurricanes. He’s yet another great Finn in a system that has produced some great ones over the years.

Like I said, he has a great shot and isn’t afraid to use it. Now, here’s an example of how hard Koivunen works.

5. Pyotr Kochetkov, Torpedo Nizhny Novgorod

Previous Ranking: 8

Kochetkov has been outstanding in the KHL this season and is keeping his team afloat in the playoff race. In fact, the most frustrating part of Kochetkov’s season isn’t his fault. It’s the fact that his team can’t give him any sort of goal support. It’ll be nice to see what Kochetkov can do with an NHL defense in front of him, because if he’s playing this well on a bad team, he’ll be phenomenal in the NHL. Kochetkov is an athletic goaltender capable of getting a lot of power on his pushes from post to post, giving him the ability to explode out and make saves that few goalies can. Kochetkov is the goalie with the highest upside in the system, no doubt about it. He’s the only one that has definite starter upside and possibly even franchise altering potential. Kochetkov could be the first goalie that the Hurricanes have developed as a starter since, you guessed it, Cam Ward. It’s about time, right?

Here’s another one of Kochetkov’s saves from this season.

Last one. I’m still trying to figure out what his defense was doing here.

4. Scott Morrow, UMass

Previous Ranking: 7

Morrow has surprised a lot of people this season, myself included. I never doubted his offensive potential, but I didn’t expect him to be this good offensively during his freshman year at UMass. Morrow is one of the highest scoring freshmen defenders in UMass history and has drawn comparisons to former UMass defender Cale Makar in his brief time there. Getting compared to Makar is high praise and not very likely to happen, but it shows you how Morrow’s coaches feel about him early on in his time there. I don’t think anyone is doubting Morrow’s offensive game at this point. He’s smart and dangerous with the puck on his stick and can create offense in a variety of ways. His defensive game is lacking, however, and a big reason why he isn’t a spot or two higher on my list. Morrow can turn the puck over and lose his positioning often, especially against the better teams in the NCAA. While I’ve seen improvements over the course of the season, it’s still nowhere near where it needs to be.

Another year with UMass will do wonders for Morrow. He’ll feel more comfortable in his position and will hopefully have an in-person NHL development camp under his belt for the first time, too. I’ve always been a proponent of taking a prospect’s development slowly unless there’s no room for debate about whether or not they’re ready for the NHL. If you have doubts about a player, it’s always good to let them get an extra year of development.

3. Jamieson Rees, Chicago Wolves

Previous Ranking: 5

Rees is an agitator and a highly skilled one at that. I love watching Rees play because he’ll get under the skin of his opponent and draw penalties because they get so frustrated with him. Then you see the parts of Rees’ game that can translate to the NHL. His speed and unrelenting motor, his skill with the puck and two way play. This past preseason, we saw that Rees was able to compete against the pros and make an impact while playing against NHL players. He’s arguably closer to the NHL than the second prospect on this list, too. Rees’ game can easily translate to the NHL because he doesn’t have to change anything about it in order to make the jump. Having a skilled agitator is something that the Hurricanes could use up and down their lineup, so I could see Rees filling a variety of roles for the Hurricanes. Still, I think that we won’t see Rees in the NHL until the fall at the earliest. He could use some more development in the offensive zone, especially with his consistency. Last year was a good taste of what the AHL would be like, but it’s a faster and better league this year since taxi squads weren’t a thing until recently.

2. Ryan Suzuki

Previous Ranking: 2

With Seth Jarvis graduating, Suzuki is the forward prospect on the Wolves with the highest upside at this moment. He is currently out with an injury that has kept him out of all but five games this season, but he was playing the best hockey of his career before that injury. It’s unfortunate, really. Suzuki was just starting to get accustomed to the pros and was playing with an intensity and aggressiveness that I haven’t seen before. It was needed, too. Suzuki was getting pucks to the middle of the ice, winning puck battles in the corner and using his elite hockey sense to create offense for his teammates.

This was the player that the Hurricanes drafted, finally getting a chance in the spotlight. I still don’t know when Suzuki will come back, and this injury is a major concern, but I’m willing to bet on him. If those few games were any indication, he’s a much better player than what we saw in the preseason. He was always going to need a little more time than most first round picks due to his game needing more polishing, and his injury issues haven’t helped.

Prospect development isn’t linear. There’s no one path that you have to take in order to get to the NHL. There isn’t one formula as to why certain players make it and others don’t. Clark Bishop was drafted in 2014, spent time in the ECHL and AHL before making it to the NHL. Steven Lorentz had a very similar path to the NHL. Just because a player was a first round pick doesn’t mean that they have to make the NHL roster immediately.

Patience is always better than rushing a player into a role they aren’t ready for. I see the people starting to write off Suzuki and it confuses me, to be honest. Suzuki doesn’t turn 21 until May 28 and has barely started his professional career. And just as a reminder, this would have been Suzuki’s first professional season in a normal world. So, maybe it’s time to pump the brakes and just be patient for once. I’m willing to admit that I’m wrong if he doesn’t pan out, but I’ve followed prospect development for years and I know that we’re still very early in the process.

1. Jack Drury, Chicago Wolves

Prevous Ranking: 3

If the Hurricanes weren’t as deep as they currently are, Drury would be in the NHL. We saw how good he was in his call up to the Hurricanes and it’s clear that Drury belongs in the NHL. Honestly, I don’t know what else to say. Drury has taken major strides in his development in the past year and would be in the Hurricanes’ middle six if the team wasn’t in “win now” mode. In the past, my concerns with Drury were with his skating ability. It wasn’t that he was a poor skater, just that his speed might only be average in the NHL. That is no longer the case. Drury is able to play at a high pace and is still the excellent two way forward that he has always been, which in my opinion, has me wondering if he’ll be better than I projected.

Now the question has to be what the Hurricanes do with Drury. If they can’t make a trade work at the deadline, I almost wonder if they’d consider playing Drury since he’s clearly an NHL player. He’d be a nice addition to the roster and could make an impact come playoff time. They could also leave him in Chicago in their quest for a Calder Cup and let Drury try and make the NHL roster next season. That seems like the more likely approach, but I wouldn’t blame the Hurricanes if they called him up.

Drury is a solid middle six center that can contribute in all three zones, something that Rod Brind’Amour values. He’d fit right into the system that the Hurricanes play and should be in the NHL. This is why he’s the top prospect in the Hurricanes’ system. I don’t think that there are any other prospects in the pipeline as close to the NHL as Drury is. Even Joey Keane isn’t as close, and I thought he was impressive against Vancouver last weekend.

Final Notes

Now, you may be looking at this list and wondering where Dominik Bokk is. I struggled to place Bokk on this list and found myself bumping him up and down the list. As of right now, I’m still unsure of where to put Bokk. Even if I did, I wouldn’t be confident in his placement on this list. So there’s a question mark next to his name. Bokk has high upside after all, but his season has been a rocky one and he has been a scratch more than I’d like. I still think he could be something at the NHL level and I’m not willing to give up on him, though. As is the case with Suzuki, you just have to be willing to give Bokk some time to develop and fine-tune some of the unpolished areas of his game. I still need Bokk to utilize his teammates more often as opposed to relying on individual skill. He’s getting better at that, but still needs work.

As I mentioned in the first half of the rankings, this was a difficult list to make. The Hurricanes have one of the deepest pipelines in the NHL, if not the deepest. The fact that I’m sitting here and have roughly 30 players that I could consider ranking shows you just how impressive the Hurricanes’ pipeline is. The Hurricanes’ amateur scouting and development staff have ensured that this will be a competitive team for a long time. It’s a great time to be a Carolina Hurricanes fan, folks.