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Three Big Prospect Surprises in the First Half

The Hurricanes excel at finding high upside players in each round of the draft, ensuring that the team will stay competitive for a long time.

Carolina Hurricanes Headshots Photo by Gregg Forwerck/NHLI via Getty Images

The Carolina Hurricanes are one of the best drafting teams in the NHL. Even without a true elite prospect in their pipeline, the Hurricanes manage to boast one of the best and deepest pipelines in the entire league. A lot of this is due to the Hurricanes and their scouts’ ability to identify talent in each round of the draft. They’re willing to bet on players with high upside and are in a position to let these players develop for as long as they need to before giving them time to shine in the NHL.

Right now, I’d argue that most of Carolina’s prospects are having good to great seasons. The three players I’m mentioning in this piece are players that I’ve noticed time and time again this year. They’re all players drafted outside of the top 100, too.

Eetu Makiniemi

I’ve always been a believer in Makiniemi’s game, but I didn’t think he would have transitioned to the AHL as smoothly as he has. Makiniemi has been the definition of clutch for the Wolves this season and should see a good amount of starts once he returns from injury. What has always stood out about Makiniemi is his elite athleticism and movement. He’s able to get to the other post quickly, denying opponents on multiple breakaways and odd man rushes. Makiniemi has NHL potential, too. I’m still not convinced he’ll be a starter, but right now he looks like a solid 1b option, sort of like what the Hurricanes have with Raanta.

I’ll be interested to see how the situation in net in Chicago unfolds over the coming months. The Wolves now have three goalies on their roster with LaFontaine getting sent down earlier this week. He should get some starts in the AHL to get acclimated to the pros, something that should have happened in the first place. Alex Lyon is a capable AHL goaltender, and if LaFontaine looks comfortable in the AHL, it’ll make for a fascinating battle between the three goalies.

Jackson Blake

The Hurricanes tend to take at least one or two prep school players per draft. The US high school system is a bit of a wild card since the level of competition varies and most players are raw projects that will take four or more years to mature. Still, it’s always a good bet because you can let those players develop in college without having a need to rush them into the pros at 20 like you do with CHL players. Blake arguably had the highest amount of skill with the puck out of all of the Hurricanes’ 2021 draft class and has showcased those skills in the USHL this season.

He was the first player to reach 50 points and currently sits second in scoring in the USHL behind ‘02 forward Stephen Halliday. What makes Blake so dangerous is how deceptive he is with his eyes. He can lead defenders into thinking that he’ll make a pass one way and then find an open area of ice to create a scoring chance. Blake sees the ice better than most players in the USHL and can exploit the tiniest breakdowns in coverage.

Blake’s USHL production is encouraging, but there’s still a long way to go. The USHL is a step up from high school hockey but it’ll take much more to be productive at the NCAA level. Luckily, Blake is headed to the University of North Dakota, a program that consistently produces NHL prospects. He’ll get his opportunity to shine there while also working on his play without the puck. Given time, Blake could be one of the most exciting players in the pipeline.

Massimo Rizzo

Rizzo went under a lot of people’s radars and was one of the last players selected in the 2019 draft. Injuries kept him out of the lineup often in the BCHL, so by the time he was ready to start school at the University of Denver, he wasn’t talked about as much. Rizzo currently sits at 24 points in 20 games, with a vast majority of his points coming from the middle of the ice. He gets pucks to the middle, something that you need to do in order to make it in the NHL, and his creativity with the puck on his stick makes him a tricky forward to defend. Rizzo’s puck skills have always stood out, and I’ve noticed that he can create more space for himself by managing to deke around defenders. He’s currently the number two center behind Carter Savoie in Denver and has made an impact both at even strength and on the power play this season.

This is a player with NHL skill and another example of how picking players with a longer development track can work out in a team’s favor. Yes, Rizzo had injury concerns and some raw skill, but now that those injuries are behind him, we’re seeing what type of player he can be. Had he been drafted from the CHL, it’s not likely that the Hurricanes would have signed him. Rizzo is getting a chance to shine in the NCAA and is playing on one of the top teams in the nation as a freshman. Next season, we should see a more comfortable player and an increase in production. I’ve been pleasantly surprised with how Rizzo has adjusted to the NCAA after not playing last season and playing very little the season prior.

Other News

  • Alexander Nikishin has made Russia’s 25-man roster for the Beijing Olympics. He is the highest scoring U23 defender in Russia this season and should see some minutes against some of the top players from around the world.
  • Suzuki has been out with an undisclosed lower body injury since Chicago’s fifth game of the season, so it’s great to see him practicing again. It’s possible that he plays for the Wolves before this is published, which would be amazing.
  • Finally, enjoy Scott Morrow making a fool out of a Boston University skater