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Hurricanes Prospects in the NCAA

Many Hurricanes prospects are having career years and playing at a high level, highlighting the organization’s talent for drafting.

Massachusetts-Amherst v Massachusetts-Lowell Photo by Richard T Gagnon/Getty Images

Drafting players out of the USHL, high school, prep school or Canadian Junior A leagues can be tough. A lot of the prospects coming out of these leagues are raw and require at least four or five years of development before they’re ready to make the jump to the NHL. It’s a slow cook in terms of development. You want to give these players as much time to develop and physically mature so that when the time comes, they’re ready for the NHL. The Hurricanes seem to take at least one NCAA-bound player in each draft, partially due to upside and partially because they can afford to let that player develop for four or five years before signing them to a contract. Take a look at Jackson Blake, who was drafted by the Hurricanes in this past draft. He is spending this season in the USHL and will become a freshman at the University of North Dakota in the fall. That gives him a maximum of five years of development before the Hurricanes would have to sign him, meaning they have plenty of time to let him develop.

EP Rinkside scout Lassi Alanen created a visual analytics chart using data from InStat Hockey and was kind enough to share charts on four Hurricanes prospects that I felt were having impressive seasons. This article will focus on those charts and the implications they have on the future of the system. Analytics aren’t the end all be all in terms of hockey analysis. I use them in tandem with my viewings of players to paint a better picture of the player, so these charts provided some valuable insights. Let’s begin with one of the Hurricanes’ top prospects, Scott Morrow.

Scott Morrow

Let’s talk about the good first. Morrow’s offensive game is very clearly among the best in the entire NCAA. His goal totals and points/60 stand out among the best in the entire country. Same with his passes to the slot and successful dekes percentages. In my viewings, Morrow has been poised with the puck on his stick and can dictate the pace of play in the offensive zone. He controls the entire offensive game when he’s on the ice. If a defenseman moves, it’s because Morrow wanted him to react that way and he’ll be able to make an adjustment accordingly. He’s also one of the better puck carriers in the NCAA, capable of carrying the puck in the neutral zone and creating zone entries that result in shots.

Now, let’s talk about Morrow’s defense. Two things stand out immediately, and that’s his successful puck battles numbers and his xGA/60 (expected goals against per 60 minutes) numbers. Morrow isn’t the best defensively and has shown against the better teams in the NCAA that he still has a long way to go in terms of being a confident defender. He loses a lot of puck battles and can turn the puck over under pressure in the defensive zone. These numbers show that Morrow needs to improve his play along the boards and get stronger. At 194 pounds, he certainly isn’t light, but if he can work on utilizing that strength along the boards, he’ll be a much better defender.

So what does this chart say? It says that Morrow is one of the best defensemen in the NCAA both in the offensive zone and in transition and that he still needs work in the defensive zone. His season has been nothing short of impressive, especially considering the fact that he made the jump to the NCAA from high school. Give Morrow another year to develop and we’ll hopefully see some growth in the defensive zone.

Massimo Rizzo

Rizzo has been the biggest surprise in the Hurricanes’ system this year considering he had spent much of the past two seasons hurt. Rizzo is a freshman and playing for arguably the best team in the country, which might boost his stats a bit. Still, any time I’ve watched Rizzo this season, I’ve been blown away by his puck skills and pace. I loved Rizzo in his draft year, too. He could control a shift in the offensive zone and had a certain “wow” factor in his game that made him easy to cheer for. I’ve seen a more complete player in the NCAA this season. Rizzo’s chart shows that he’s one of the best passers in the NCAA and that a large amount of his passes turn into shots. He isn’t much of a shooter himself, however. A lot of his points are assists and I expect him to be more of a playmaker at the NHL level.

Honestly, there’s not much to dislike about Rizzo’s chart. It’s truly impressive considering he’s a freshman playing in his first full season since before his draft year. With his injury issues out of the way, it seems that Rizzo is destined for a successful NCAA career and possibly an NHL deal a year or two into the future. Rizzo’s defensive metrics on this chart don’t jump out at me, but the only real “complaint” I have is that I wish he was able to win more puck battles. That’s teachable, though. Rizzo is averaging just over 13 minutes per game and has 27 points in 24 games as a freshman.

Domenick Fensore

It’s no secret that I love Dom Fensore and that I believe he can be an NHL player. There’s too much to like about his game. He’s one of the most creative players with the puck in the entire NCAA, his pace and transition game rank among the best in the NCAA and he keeps improving in every aspect of his game. Fensore is one of the smartest offensive minds in the Hurricanes’ pipeline. He has the ability to dissect the play and act on it better than almost anyone, save for maybe Scott Morrow. What stands out here is how strong Fensore’s transition game is. He isn’t afraid to carry the puck out of the zone and often enters the zone before passing it off to a teammate. Any time I’ve watched Fensore this season, he’s been the best defenseman on the ice.

Point totals aren’t everything, and nothing about Fensore’s point totals scream “elite.” Points aren’t everything, though. Fensore’s teammates struggled to score for much of the first half of their season despite his best efforts to create offense. He’s more of a distributor than a shooter, so a lot of his passes either went wide or were saved. He was making outstanding pass after pass to players like Tyler Boucher, who couldn’t score on a soccer net. What I care about is that Fensore is actively working to create as much offense as possible while also becoming a stronger defender. That alone is impressive. From day one, I noticed that Fensore was one of the hardest workers out there and that he was going to do whatever it took to make something happen.

Now, here’s the question. Do the Hurricanes try and sign Fensore this year or let him play his senior year at Boston University? It’s a tough call to make. On one hand, Fensore’s offensive and transition game is ready for the pros and he would more than likely fit into the Wolves’ lineup next season. On the other hand, it wouldn’t hurt to give him another year to add some more muscle and continue rounding out his defensive game. But then you run the risk of Fensore deciding to sign elsewhere if the Hurricanes elect to sign some of their other defensive prospects next year. The Hurricanes currently have Ronan Seeley and Aleksi Heimosalmi under contract and could possibly sign Anttoni Honka and Scott Morrow between now and the end of next season. There’s also Bryce Montgomery, whose rights expire on June 1, 2023 if left unsigned by the Hurricanes. That’s a lot of defensemen for Fensore to jump over, but he’s talented enough to do just that. Needless to say, it’ll be something to keep an eye on as Boston University’s season nears its end.

Kevin Wall

Finally, there’s Kevin Wall. He’s a natural goal scorer with a wicked shot and his passing game has developed over the course of his NCAA career. Wall’s chart shows that his offensive game is right where it needs to be and that his defensive game is a little underwhelming. It’s something that I’ve noticed over the past two seasons as well. I absolutely love Wall’s speed and goal scoring ability but I’ve found his effort in the defensive zone to be a little inconsistent. It’s a lot better this year, but there’s still more that I need to see from him. I feel that if he’s given one more year at Penn State, we’ll see more improvement in that regard. He has the tools to be successful in the defensive zone. He’s quick, smart and a strong body that can play physically if needed. He just needs to work on his positioning and improve his gap control. His takeaway numbers stand out in a good way, too. Penn State is in a bit of a tough place right now. The program has lost a lot of its top players in recent years and Wall has been counted on to be one of the team’s primary producers this season. In recent games, he has seen a dip in both ice time and production, but it’s not a cause for concern. Like I said, give him another year and we’ll see more improvement. Then he’ll be free to sign with the Hurricanes.

The Hurricanes are one of the best teams in the league at finding talent in every round of the draft. Morrow was drafted in the second round, 40th overall. Fensore was drafted at the end of the third round, 90th overall. Wall was an overage skater picked in the sixth round, 181st overall. Finally, Massimo Rizzo was the second to last person drafted in 2019, drafted 216th overall. Talk about getting value with every single pick. Despite not having a first round pick in the 2021 draft, the Hurricanes pipeline remains one of the best in the league due to this team’s ability to draft high upside players with every pick. And despite the fact that the Hurricanes are once again without their first round pick, I expect them to do the same in the 2022 draft.