This offseason is going to feel very short, especially for those of us that are draft nerds. The Hlinka Gretzky Cup takes place at the end of July, followed by the World Juniors Part Two: Electric Boogaloo. Then, we have the prospects showcase in Raleigh sometime in mid-September. There will be time to talk about our drafted prospects, and I expect to have a scouting report on Gleb Trikozov done sometime next week.
For now, I want to talk about five prospects that have something to prove during the upcoming season. It could be proving that they belong in the NHL, but it could also be to prove that they deserve an NHL contract.
It feels as if Suzuki has been in the system for forever now, but he’s only entering the second year of his ELC. Suzuki has had a tough go of things with injuries and COVID shortages during his time as a Hurricanes prospect, so his development has been a little rocky. His defensive game flourished when he was in Chicago’s lineup last season, but I didn’t see a lot of the offensive skills that he was drafted for. This is a big year for Suzuki. He’ll be coming into the season with more pro games under his belt and a full offseason of training. He’ll also be taking on a bigger role with the Wolves, as the team has undergone a lot of changes this offseason.
Suzuki could be a permanent figure in Chicago’s top nine and may even see time in the top six depending on if he is a center or a winger in the team’s eyes. This is going to have to be a big year for Suzuki. He’ll need to show off the offensive creativity and playmaking ability that made him a top prospect in the 2019 draft. Players such as Jamieson Rees and Vasiliy Ponomarev play a game that is suited for the pros, so if Suzuki isn’t able to grow offensively, it’s likely that he’ll be passed on the depth chart by both players. While Suzuki is under contract until 2024, this is going to have to be the season where he shines.
Puistola was considered one of the more polarizing players in the 2019 class. He had an elite shot and some fantastic puck skills, but his skating and so-so defensive play made teams a little wary of his NHL upside. Last year was the first time that I had seen Puistola be a net positive player at the Liiga level, but I still saw some red flags that worry me about his NHL upside. His offensive production did skyrocket, but over half of his points were on the power play and he was very rarely the creator of offense. He has a hell of a shot and can beat pro goalies, but I haven’t seen him beat players one on one like he did against players his own age in his draft year. The skating is still a concern and I’m not overly thrilled about his defensive play.
I’d like to see Puistola make more of an impact at even strength, and while there were improvements in his overall impact this past season, it’s still not enough. This year is going to be Puistola’s last chance to earn a contract with the Hurricanes. His signing rights expire on June 1, 2023, which means that he’ll become a UFA if left unsigned by that deadline. There are tools in Puistola’s game that could carry him to the NHL, such as his hockey sense and goal scoring ability. I just worry about his style of play not gelling with Rod Brind’Amour, especially since Puistola isn’t the most physical player nor the best defender out there.
Morrow has a lot to prove this season, but it’s all positive. He’s out to prove that he is one of the best defensemen in college hockey. Not just the best offensive defensemen, but the best defenseman. Period. Morrow has all of the tools to achieve this, too. He’s a fantastic skater, smart, skilled, and has the size and strength to be a great defender. Morrow is also out to prove that he can play in the NHL. The Hurricanes believe that he is ready to turn pro now, but respect his decision to return back to school for another year. With UMass this season, Morrow can continue to work on his defensive game while being a dominant force in the offensive zone. It’s not out of the question for Morrow to be in consideration for the Hobey Baker award this year, especially since he was one of the top players in the eastern part of the NCAA as a freshman last season.
From what I’ve heard and read, Montgomery had an impressive showing at development camp. It would’ve been great if there was a way to stream it without paying almost $20 through LiveBarn, but that’s none of my business. Montgomery hasn’t gotten the opportunity to break out with the London Knights just yet, and it’s clear that he has more to offer. The offensive side of his game has shown flashes of potential, but as of right now, it hasn’t burst onto the scene yet. Montgomery has this one season to develop and earn an NHL contract, and while it may be a tall task, I believe he can do it.
He’s already a solid defender and his skating and high hockey sense make him an intriguing prospect. There’s third pairing upside, it’s just going to take a while to develop. Montgomery is out to prove that he’s more than just a mobile shutdown defenseman this season. The tools are there, Montgomery just needs to take the opportunity and run with it. I’m excited to watch him play at the Prospects Showcase in September. Now that he has an NHL camp under his belt, he’ll be able to focus his training and improve over the course of the next month and a half.
Fensore turned heads at development camp with his elite skating ability, which isn’t a surprise at all. He might be one of the quickest defenders in the NCAA this upcoming season, after all. Fensore has potential to be one of the top playmaking defensemen in the NCAA, helping Boston University both at even strength and on the power play. He excels at carrying the puck in transition and should be one of their top scorers. Fensore is out to establish himself as a top defender in Hockey East and help captain the Terriers to a Hockey East Championship. After his season, I fully expect Fensore to sign with the Hurricanes and join the Chicago Wolves on an ATO for the remainder of the season. There, he’ll be out to prove that he’s a pro-level player and one that can make a difference in the NHL.
A few other players that I considered were Nikita Quapp, Lucas Mercuri and Anttoni Honka. Quapp didn’t play a ton last season and looked solid in a handful of starts despite his paper stats being underwhelming, so I’m interested to see what he can do on a new team. Mercuri will likely be a top nine forward for UMass this upcoming season after spending much of last season on the fourth line. As for Honka, well, I’m not sure. He hasn’t signed anywhere as I’m writing this, and there haven’t been any rumors of him signing with the Hurricanes or anywhere else. I thought he had a great season on a pretty bad Liiga team, and while I was unsure of whether or not the Hurricanes would sign him, I thought we’d at least have some news about Honka’s next playing destination by this point. It’s something to keep an eye on as we move forward, for sure.