The Hurricanes are one of the few teams in the entire National Hockey League where both the present and future look bright. Can you imagine telling your 2014 self that the Hurricanes would have the best points percentage in hockey, a team that competed every night, a team that drafted well and a team that was one of the most exciting teams in hockey? It’s crazy to think about.
I always look to the future of the franchise, and it’s a bright one. With the Chicago Wolves playing well, the Hurricanes having 10 prospects at the World Juniors and potentially one at the Olympics, the future is so bright. In this post, I want to highlight a few players that could be signing their first NHL contracts in the coming months. First, however, I want to talk about the players that have already signed contracts since they’re almost guaranteed to turn pro next season.
Prospects Under Contract
The Hurricanes currently have six prospects under contract that are not currently playing North American professional hockey. First are the three Finns: Tuukka Tieksola, Ville Koivunen and Aleksi Heimosalmi. Tieksola boasts tremendous amounts of skill and hockey sense and plays with a ton of pace. I love the way that he can drive the play in the offensive zone, and when he’s on his game, Tieksola is one of the best players out there.
We were able to catch a glimpse of what Koivunen was capable of at the World Juniors last week. He can score from pretty much anywhere, is a tremendous playmaker and one of the smartest players on the ice. Koivunen has star potential, and if he can get faster, I truly believe that he can put up over 60 points per season.
Before we talk about Heimosalmi, I want to say that the term “puck-moving defenseman” should be abolished. If you can’t move the puck and play with pace, you’re not going to have much success in the NHL. It’s how the modern game is played and defensemen will need to adapt. Heimosalmi is a modern defenseman whose hockey sense and calm style of play should allow for him to see NHL games.
Out of these three, I wouldn’t be surprised if Tieksola and Koivunen turn pro next year. Both players could use more of an opportunity, and they’d be working with a tremendous coach in Chicago. Heimosalmi might benefit from an additional year of development in Finland. He plays on a bad team and while he is seeing solid minutes, there are a few things I’d like to see before he comes over to North America. Koivunen and Heimosalmi’s contracts can slide another year if they are loaned to Finland next season.
Next, we have the two Russians, Vasiliy Ponomaryov and Pyotr Kochetkov. Ponomaryov is the type of player that the Hurricanes want. He works hard, is strong on the forecheck, plays the body and has enough hockey sense and skill to be a contributor in the offensive zone. I would imagine that we see Ponomaryov in Chicago to start the year, but it wouldn’t surprise me if he quickly rises up the depth chart due to his style of play. Kochetkov has the potential to be the goalie of the future and consistently makes high danger saves. He still needs to work on his rebound control, but I’ve seen major improvements in his game this season. Kochetkov is one of the only reasons why his team is still in the playoff race and should be fun to watch next season.
Lastly, we have Ronan Seeley. Seeley is an elite skater with great offensive instincts and strong gap control. Another modern defenseman, Seeley is capable of moving the puck and playing a responsible defensive game. He’ll thrive in the system that the Hurricanes have created.
Which Prospects Will Sign Contracts?
Jack LaFontaine is one of two prospects whose rights will expire this year if left unsigned. The other is Lenni Killinen. A few weeks ago, I wrote about how I don’t expect Killinen to be offered a contract due to his lack of development and average at best play in Finland. LaFontaine is an interesting case, however. As of right now, the Hurricanes have Eetu Makiniemi and Alex Lyon between the pipes in Chicago, with Beck Warm in the ECHL.
Kochetkov is presumably coming to North America next season, which leaves the Hurricanes with a bit of a logjam. Sure, Lyon and Warm are free agents, but that still leaves the Hurricanes with two quality goalies behind Frederik Andersen and Antti Raanta. LaFontaine has NHL potential and should see NHL games, but at the end of the day, I wonder if he’ll choose to sign elsewhere due there being multiple goaltenders ahead of him on the depth chart.
If I’m the Hurricanes, I would try and see if Noel Gunler is willing to turn pro. Gunler’s contract with Brynas IF expires at the end of this season, and with his team likely out of the playoff picture, it wouldn’t surprise me if he is brought into Chicago for the playoff run. His stats don’t jump out at you, but when you watch him play, you see just how good Gunler can be with the right development. Gunler is skilled enough to play in the top nine in the AHL next season and Wolves Head Coach Ryan Warsofsky is the perfect coach for him. He’ll play Gunler to his strengths, which will help Gunler achieve his potential.
Speaking of players whose European contracts expire, why not explore the possibility of signing Anttoni Honka? Honka has been incredibly productive on a bad team in Finland for two years now and his deal expires at the end of the season. Similarly to Gunler’s situation, Honka’s team is decidedly not a playoff team. He could also join Chicago for their Calder Cup run at the end of the season.
A dark horse prospect that I could see signing is Joel Nystrom. He has another year remaining on his SHL contract but has been playing incredibly well in Sweden this season. He could finish out his contract with Farjestad BK next year, giving him the development time he needs before coming over to North America. Nystrom isn’t as flashy as your typical Hurricanes pick but he plays a responsible defensive game. He might not ever be a top pairing defenseman but he could see PK time and third pairing minutes at the NHL level.
Possible, but Not Likely
Scott Morrow headlines this group. It’s the group of prospects where I could certainly see the Hurricanes signing, but it might be better if they remain in their respective leagues for another year. Morrow has lit the NCAA on fire and is one of the best defensemen in college hockey this season. His defensive game still needs work and can be improved upon while he’s in college, but I wouldn’t be shocked if Morrow is signed once his season is over.
Other prospects in this category include Kevin Wall, Dom Fensore, Alexander Pashin and Patrik Puistola. Wall is scoring a ton of goals this season but with Chicago’s forward depth, I find it hard to see a spot for him next season. It might be better for him to stay in college for another year. Fensore has another year of eligibility in college, so I would imagine that the Hurricanes keep him in college. Puistola could also stand to spend another year in Finland, especially considering the fact that he has only recently been seeing an uptick in points and effectiveness.
Pashin, however, is an interesting case. His KHL contract expires on April 30 and he hasn’t been given much of an opportunity to showcase his skills in the KHL. Pashin currently has 18 points in 24 VHL games and represented Russia at the World Juniors for one game. He has tremendous amounts of skill and plays with an NHL pace, making me feel confident saying that he plays an NHL game. It may take Pashin a while to adjust to the North American game and the way the Hurricanes play, but if he hits his ceiling, he might be one of the better prospects from the 2020 draft.
Regardless of what happens, the Hurricanes have a bright future. They have drafted incredibly well over the past few seasons and have become one of the top teams in hockey top to bottom. As always, I’m looking forward to the future and can’t wait to see what’s in store for this franchise.