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Carolina Hurricanes System Overview: Defensemen

Carolina’s defensive depth isn’t as strong as the forward depth, but it may have more exciting defensive prospects at the top.

COLLEGE HOCKEY: MAR 19 Hockey East Championship - UMASS v UCONN Photo by Fred Kfoury III/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

It’s time to look at the defensemen in the Carolina Hurricanes system. Last week, I unveiled the forwards portion of my system overview. This week, we’re taking a look at the defensemen and goaltenders that Carolina has in their system. Now, obviously, the Hurricanes have drafted more forwards than defensemen in their recent drafts, but from what I’ve seen, the Hurricanes have a lot of strong players at the top end of their pipeline.

Players such as Scott Morrow, Alexander Nikishin and Aleksi Heimosalmi headline a group of promising defensive prospects. Heading into the 2021 draft, the Hurricanes’ defensive depth in the pipeline was a little underwhelming. Jesper Sellgren and Joey Keane were arguably the top defensive prospects in the system, and while Nikishin was showing promise, there weren’t any true top prospects. Two drafts later, the Hurricanes have added premier defensive prospects and seen exceptional growth from Nikishin.

The Hurricanes have seen a few prospects move on from the organization this offseason, most notably Keane and Sellgren. Keane had a decent AHL season but was likely going to be stuck in the AHL the next season, so he has signed in the KHL. Sellgren, however, was a bit of a shock. I felt that Sellgren had an outside chance at making the NHL roster given how strong of a defender and skater he was. It would’ve been tough, but Sellgren seems content with staying in Sweden for three years. Even with those two departures, the Hurricanes still have a strong pipeline of defensive prospects. Adding players such as Simon Forsmark, Vladimir Grudinin and Alexander Pelevin in this draft helps to build up an already strong pipeline.

Before we begin, a quick note on the pipeline. Someone commented talking about projections last time, and so I figured that I should clarify. The projections are simply when I believe that a player will be ready for the NHL, not necessarily when they’ll be making the Hurricanes. Obviously, there are only so many spots on an NHL roster and not every prospect is going to make the team out of camp. Some of these players may be traded around this time, as their value is peaking and the Hurricanes are looking to add assets. Others may take longer than the projection. Right now, these projections are just my best estimate of their NHL readiness based on what I’ve seen.

Ronan Seeley, LHD

Projection: 2024

The Hurricanes’ 2020 draft was excellent and they made a sneaky good pick when they selected Ronan Seeley in the seventh round. Seeley was projected to go just outside of the top 100 but fell to the Hurricanes, who have to be excited about his potential. Seeley’s skating is his best trait and it influences how his game is played. This is a player that can move with a ton of pace, fluidity and little difficulty in all three zones. His smooth stride gives him an edge over players his age. Very few players can keep up with Seeley’s speed, but fewer are able to turn as quickly as he can, or adjust the pace of the game entirely. The borderline elite skating makes him an efficient player on the rush and in the offensive zone, where he carries the puck and darts through defenders in order to create sustained offensive pressure.

Over the past two seasons, I’ve seen Seeley grow his all-around game. He had some flashes of potential in his draft year but was fully able to take advantage of his role with the Silvertips after he was drafted by Carolina. I started to see him utilize his shot in order to create rebounds or passing opportunities as opposed to dumping the puck in or making a simple and predictable pass. I saw Seeley gap up while defending rushes as well as utilize the physical side of the game a lot more often than he did in his draft year. Now, Seeley won’t ever be the strongest player, but his efficient gap coverage and skating ability allow for him to be an effective defender. Seeley’s strengths are in the offensive zone as well as on the rush, although as I just noted, his defensive play has undoubtedly improved as well. Let’s take a look at how Seeley’s skating is able to make him a threat on the rush.

His skating looks effortless, which is why he’s able to surprise the defenders here. They’re forced to play “matador” defense, a term that my father loves to use. The defenders wave their sticks at Seeley but then let him skate right by them when he gets close, allowing for this chance to occur.

Seeley has grown into a capable offensive defenseman and a solid defender in his own end, but I’m ultimately leaning towards him being a fifth or sixth defenseman at the NHL level. He doesn’t have a true dynamic element to put him on the power play, and his defensive play does need a fair amount of work. Seeley has flown under the radar since he was drafted, but he did turn some heads this past year after being named to Canada’s World Juniors roster. I felt that he was one of their more consistent defenders at the World Juniors, playing key minutes both on the power play and the penalty kill. He’s now a gold medal winner and will look to carry that momentum into training camp with the Hurricanes.

Anttoni Honka, RHD

Projection: 2024

Honka was the most polarizing player in the 2019 draft class by an undebatable margin. His biggest supporters raved about his incredible passing, elite hockey sense, strong skating and wow factor in the offensive zone. Honka’s biggest detractors pointed out his awful defensive zone play, poor decision making in his own end, iffy compete and more. When the Hurricanes selected Honka, it was clear that they knew the risks associated with the player and were prepared for a long developmental process. At this point, the Hurricanes have to be pleased with Honka’s growth. He has been one of the top scoring defensemen in Finland for two years now and has done so on an atrocious team. The offensive side of his game has continued to improve, and while I have seen improvements defensively, he’s far from perfect.

To be honest, I wasn’t sure what to write about with Honka before he signed. I thought that it was odd that it took so long for him to sign a contract with the Hurricanes, but that’s all in the past now. Instead, I’d like to talk about what he could bring to the organization. Honka will likely be a power play quarterback for the Wolves this upcoming season, providing offense from the back end. He’ll make a lot of smart passes and be the first catalyst of offense both on the rush and during an extended shift in the offensive zone. Honka isn’t always going to get the primary assist, but he’ll often make a play to start a scoring chance. He’ll likely have a brief adjustment period to North American ice, where there’s less space and less time to make decisions.

Honka’s playmaking ability is his calling card. It’s what makes him such a good offensive defenseman. His skating speed is average for the NHL and he’s fairly elusive, so he has to rely on the mental side of the game in order to make an impact. Here, he spots a teammate and threads a nice, yet simple, pass to the teammate for a goal.

These types of plays are pretty common when I watch Honka, and they happen with enough regularity that I’m inclined to believe that he’s better than his point totals indicate. I can’t stress enough how abysmal JYP was this past season, and Honka was one of that team’s only bright spots. One thing that I’ve noticed while watching Honka is that he’s very fond of dump and chase hockey. He’ll fire the puck into a corner on a breakout and his teammates will try to gain possession of the puck. This may be more of a system thing rather than the player himself, but it’s still worth pointing out because of how frequent it happens. If he doesn’t dump the puck in, he may try to beat defenders one on one or make a simple pass to the wings. Honka recognizes that he doesn’t have the skills to beat defenders one on one in the NHL, so he usually takes a different approach.

Honka’s biggest obstacle for his defensive play is himself. He can be guilty of trying to do too much with the puck and skating it into a corner or turning the puck over entirely, neither of which are something you’d like to see him do at this stage in his development. While he has shown improvements, there’s still a ways to go. This is a big year for Honka. It’s only year one of his entry-level contract, but Scott Morrow and Domenick Fensore are both likely to turn pro at the end of this season. He’ll need to prove that he is ahead of those two players, or at least a bit better than them.

Aleksi Heimosalmi, RHD

Projection: 2025

Heimosalmi had a rough season this past year, playing on one of the worst teams in Finland. His stats reflected that, too. The three assists that Heimosalmi had this past season were all secondary assists and it’s clear that he wasn’t much of an impact player on the power play. It’s not as if he wasn’t generating chances, though. Heimosalmi’s puck carrying ability and offensive flair showed in flashes, but nothing came of it. Part of this is due to the fact that Assat was one of the worst teams in the Finnish Liiga this past season, but you’d still like to see more production from Heimosalmi if he’s in a top four role. It’s still very early in Heimosalmi’s development and the Hurricanes liked him enough to sign him to an entry level contract before this past season began. He’ll remain in Finland at least through this upcoming season, where he’ll look to take another step forward.

Heimosalmi’s skating and play along the boards are impressive, and he’s a fairly good defender at this stage as well. There’s definitely some offensive flair to his game, but I’ve always been a little surprised as to how strong of a defender Heimosalmi can be. There’s some physicality in his game, he’s quick to stop plays along the boards, he’s smart and can react to the play quickly, makes strong stick checks and can disrupt a good amount of offense. He’ll need to get stronger before he can be an impact defender at the NHL level, but the tools are there. I mentioned that Heimosalmi showed flashes of offensive potential in Finland this past year. This is one of those plays where he showed potential. His vision to spot his teammate by the net and use a shot pass to create a scoring chance is a really nice look, and it’s a shame that his teammate couldn’t convert.

Here’s another play that I liked from this past year. I’m a sucker for defensemen that can create zone entries with ease, so this one was a nice play to see.

The deke isn’t a very complicated one, but it doesn’t have to be. Heimosalmi doesn’t attempt to do too much with the puck but instead makes a smart play and tries to generate a scoring chance. Unfortunately, the goalie is able to swallow the puck, so the shot doesn’t result in a rebound, but you can see what Heimosalmi was trying to do. Again, there are flashes of promise but it’s clear that more development is needed. Overall, I see Heimosalmi having top four upside due to his borderline elite skating and hockey sense, but until he starts to take over shifts, I find it more likely that he’ll end up as a third pairing defenseman.

Scott Morrow, RHD

Projection: 2023 or 2024

Morrow is without a doubt the Hurricanes’ top prospect. At this point, there’s no debate. Gleb Trikozov has the potential to contend for the title of top prospect, but as of right now, Morrow is the guy. He combines elite skating with elite skill and hockey sense, making him one of the top offensive defensemen in the entire NCAA. Morrow’s ability to scan the ice and think two or three moves ahead of the competition gives him an advantage. Not only that, but he combines the skating ability and puck skills to carry the puck deep into the offensive zone and weave through defenders in the process.

Teams can’t take a shift off while defending Morrow. When the puck is on his stick, any opportunity for offense is a dangerous opportunity. This is a player that can and will beat you in a variety of ways. Morrow excels at creating high danger scoring chances for his teammates and looked like a man amongst boys for UMass this past season. Obviously, Morrow will need to improve defensively, but the tools are there. He’s fairly strong and needs to work on utilizing his strength in order to win battles along the boards. He’ll need to be able to predict where the play is going to end up at a quicker pace in order to keep up at the NHL level as well.

There’s a lot to like about how dangerous of a player Morrow is. Very few defenders are as good with the puck as he is, and fewer are able to push the pace of play as well as he can. You don’t normally see a 6’2” defender weave through the neutral zone and create a scoring chance off the rush, but then again, you don’t normally see players like Morrow. I mentioned that Morrow’s skating was elite, and I wouldn’t lie to you, dear reader. Please reference the following clip of Morrow sending someone’s ankles to the shadow realm.

Remember when I said that he is great with the puck on his stick? See this clip.

He’s an absolute treat to watch with the puck on his stick and there’s legitimate top four upside in his game. Due to his poor decision making in his own end, as well as some suspect defense, there are still a lot of questions surrounding the player and his ability to defend against the pros. Still, Morrow has enough skill with the puck to create offense at the NHL level. With another year in college as well as one or two years in the AHL, I believe that Morrow’s defensive play will improve.

I can’t say enough good things about Morrow. This is a player that could legitimately be a top pairing RHD at the NHL level and he’ll easily be a top power play quarterback as well. I fully expect Morrow to turn pro at the end of his college season, as do the Hurricanes, according to General Manager Don Waddell. Adding a player of Morrow’s caliber to the organization would be a massive win for the Hurricanes.

Alexander Nikishin, LHD

Projection: 2025 due to KHL contract

Alexander “Boom” Nikishin is an aptly nicknamed prospect. The dude hits like a freight train, has a cannon of a shot and is one of the top young defensemen in Russia. He’s so highly valued that it took nine players plus monetary compensation to pry him from Spartak Moscow, so now he’ll be playing in a top role for SKA St. Petersburg. Nikishin’s game is well rounded and likely puts him in a top four role whenever he does make it to the NHL. He’s a strong skater with great top speed and decent edges, responsible defensively, smart and physical. Nikishin has shown flashes of strong offensive ability at the KHL level, albeit not on a consistent basis. Yes, his shot is heavy and accurate, but you’re not really scoring from point shots at the NHL level unless there’s a deflection. I’d like to see Nikishin scan the ice and make better passes, because I feel that most of his play in the offensive zone revolves around shooting from the point. If he can work the puck down low, he’ll be much more effective, even if it doesn’t always result in a goal.

Nikishin excels at stopping offensive rushes at the blue line, usually by delivering a thunderous hit. When he’s not hitting, however, Nikishin is able to poke the puck off of the stick and outwork the attacking forward, forcing them to lose the puck. Nikishin negates a large amount of offensive opportunities and will do whatever he can to prevent shots on goal. This is a player that could play NHL games as soon as he comes over to North America. While it’s unclear as to how long Nikishin will be in Russia (he is currently under contract until 2025), it’s safe to say that Nikishin will be an NHL defenseman if and when he does come to North America.

First, let’s take a look at Nikishin’s physicality. His presence is always felt on the ice because of his physicality, which he uses to seal gaps, get players off of the puck, prevent players from reaching the puck and more. This play is one of my absolute favorites from Nikishin due to how he keeps the player away from the puck and hits them further from the play, preventing a scoring chance.

Now, would this play be called interference in the NHL? Who knows. It’s certainly possible, but with NHL officiating, who can really say what is interference and what is not? Players that try to hit Nikishin often end up like this poor soul.

There are times when Nikishin can be too aggressive and will seek out a hit before falling back and playing defense, which can be a bit of a concern. He moves well for a big guy, but his skating speed is far from elite and he can get burned on occasion. This is a play where you can see Nikishin’s average skating get exploited a bit, leading to a goal.

There are some kinks in his game that need to be worked out, and improving his skating is at the top of his “to-do” list. It’ll lead to improvements in his game in all three zones, as well as his ability to join the rush. Still, Nikishin has shown that he is skilled with the puck and smart enough to make some great plays in all three ends.

It’s a small deke, but it creates enough space for Nikishin to notice the player up ice and make a nice pass. What’s that? You want to see another hit. Very well, I’m a man of the people.

Finally, here’s an example of Nikishin’s willingness to sacrifice the body in the defensive zone.

What’s that? You want to see another hit? Fine, but this is the last one.

Okay, it’s pretty obvious that Nikishin is my favorite Canes prospect. There’s so much about his game that translates to the NHL, such as his physicality, hockey sense, shooting and passing ability. If he can get a bit faster and continue to improve his overall game, Nikishin could be a legitimate top four defenseman for the Hurricanes. It’s going to take time though. With Nikishin signing an extension through the 2024-25 season, he’ll have plenty of time to develop. The biggest concern is that Nikishin will not come to the NHL when his contract with SKA is up. It’s a legitimate concern with Russian players, especially top Russian players. I still believe that we’ll be seeing Nikishin in a Hurricanes jersey in the future.

Domenick Fensore, LHD

Projection: 2024

Fensore is a personal favorite of mine. He’s quick, smart, great on the rush and a gifted passer. Fensore makes a lot of smart decisions when the puck is on his stick and can completely take over a shift in the offensive zone. He’s undersized but doesn’t play like it, utilizing his quick skating to gain separation from defenders or to close gaps in the defensive zone. He’ll outwork anyone on the ice, creating turnovers, knocking players off of the puck and maintaining possession in the offensive zone. Fensore’s work ethic makes him an easy player to coach because they’ll never have to question where his effort is. He always gives his best every shift, and you’ll be hard pressed to find a player that works as hard as Fensore does. And he has to work this hard because at his size, he isn’t going to be winning a lot of battles if he isn’t giving 100%.

From the first time I watched Fensore at Carolina’s development camp, he was outworking players that were 6’3” and absolutely smoking them on the one on one drills. This past development camp, Fensore stood out as one of the best players for once again being one of the fastest and hardest working players. Fensore has returned to Boston University for his senior year and should be one of the top offensive defensemen in Hockey East, right up there with Scott Morrow. I expect the Hurricanes to sign Fensore once his college season wraps up. There’s a lot of potential in his game and I feel that moving up to the AHL will be good for him. Chicago will be happy to receive him as well, as I would imagine that adding a player like Fensore would mean that their power play would get an instant boost.

Fensore is a great playmaker and a lot of his offense comes from the rush. He’ll carry the puck out of the zone and work his way into the offensive zone, picking apart the defense and making a gorgeous pass for a goal. Plays like this show me that Fensore’s shot can be used as a passing option, or at the very least, a way to generate deflections.

Fensore has a fine shot that can score goals from a distance at the NCAA level, but I’m not convinced that it’ll be good enough to score on NHL goalies.

Plays like this next clip are why I’m a believer in Fensore. This is a fantastic play, starting with a rush up the ice and a smart play to use his shot as a way to get a rebound out of it.

Creating offense off of the rush is the name of Fensore’s game. Typically, the play begins with Fensore initiating the rush, entering the zone with the puck, separating himself from the defender and making a pass to a wide open teammate. He’s so quick and skilled with the puck that he draws two defenders towards him, and, despite his size, they still can’t stop him.

There are some questions with Fensore’s game as he heads into his final season with Boston University. The most obvious question is whether or not Fensore’s size will be a hindrance to his overall effectiveness at the professional level. There’s a good chance that Fensore is what he is, a great college defenseman, and nothing more. But when I look at the skating, hockey sense, compete, and skill, I see a player that could make an impact at the NHL level. There’s so much talent with this prospect and I feel that it would be a shame if he doesn’t at least see a handful of NHL games.

Cade Webber, LHD

Projection: not likely

I believe that Webber is the tallest player in the Hurricanes’ pipeline, standing roughly at 6’6”. Most players that size are poor skaters, but Webber’s skating is actually quite good. He possesses good mechanics and a clean, quick stride that allows him to cover large distances quickly. He’s a great defensive defender because of his skating and reach, too. Pretty much any area in the defensive zone is a part of Webber’s coverage because if he can’t reach it with his stick, he’s able to get there in a stride or two, rendering a play null. Webber can anticipate where a play is going and react accordingly, shutting down a lot of offense in the process.

I don’t see Webber ever being a strong offensive player, and his lack of transitional skill makes me skeptical of his chances at playing NHL games. I haven’t seen a lot of improvements since he came to Boston University, largely due to the fact that he has mostly played in a third pairing role for the Terriers. While his defensive game has been good, he hasn’t carried the puck in transition or been able to make an impact offensively. One encouraging thing about Webber is that he was in the lineup on a regular basis as a sophomore this past season, whereas he was in and out of the lineup during his freshman year. My hope is that Webber can make more of an impact offensively during his junior year. I’m not asking for him to be a power play quarterback, but making plays off of the rush and making more than simple passes would be a nice change.

Webber’s hockey sense is a bit underrated, at least from my viewings of the player. His ability to read the play and react in order to make a stop defensively is truly impressive. Seeing a step or two ahead of the competition is going to help Webber make his presence known on the ice, even if the fans don’t see it. Oftentimes, I don’t notice Webber when I’m watching him play. That isn’t a bad thing for a defensive defenseman, because normally when you notice a defender, it’s because they’re making a mistake.

I’ve come to accept the fact that Webber is a defense-first defenseman with very little offense to his game. While watching his game tape, it’s pretty clear that there isn’t much excitement to his game. He gets in the way of a ton of shots and is able to prevent a lot of offense this way. One thing that I will say is that Webber can look a little lost at times and will need to work on locating the puck quicker this upcoming season. He’s big enough to take up space in a hurry, but I’d like to see him locate the puck and move to block the shot a little quicker.

Simon Forsmark, LHD

Projection: 2026

Forsmark is a 2022 draft pick that is going to come with a lot of intrigue this season. He appeared in 41 SHL games as a first year draft eligible skater, an impressive feat for a defenseman. Forsmark showed flashes of playmaking ability when he was in U20 this past season but was not put in an offensive role in the SHL, so he didn’t get much of an opportunity to showcase his offensive abilities. I see a player whose skating is almost effortless because of how smooth his stride is. It’s almost as if skating comes more naturally to him than walking does.

He’s a very calm defender with good size, which means that he could fill a role on an NHL defense somewhere down the line. The Hurricanes do a good job of identifying players with certain tools that would help them at the NHL level. Usually, those tools end up being a player’s skating or hockey sense. With Forsmark, it’s his skating, size and overall defensive ability. There’s not a lot of panic in the way he plays, and I see some willingness to join the rush. The toughest part about evaluating Forsmark’s play in the SHL is that the sample size per game is pretty small. Forsmark averaged roughly 9:55 in ice time per game over 41 games, so the hope is that his ice time increases by a few minutes next season. My hope may be a little misplaced, however, as Forsmark has been held out of the lineup in a number of his SHL team’s preseason games. Even if he begins the season in U20 or the Swedish second league, it’ll still be a good opportunity for development.

From my early impressions of Forsmark, I get the sense that the Hurricanes may have drafted a good defenseman. I have yet to see anything that has wowed me, but what I can appreciate is the fact that Forsmark is the type of player that does everything well. There’s value in having a player like that since they’re so versatile. Forsmark could fill in on a power play, play some penalty kill minutes, lead a rush, defend when you need to protect a lead and more. Early viewings of Forsmark have led me to believe that his stick is one of his best tools when he’s on the ice. Here’s another example, where he is able to prevent a high danger scoring chance.

Once again, Forsmark remains calm, cool and collected. There’s very little panic in his game, which gives him the poise to make this play without taking a penalty in the process. Forsmark seems like a prospect that could turn into a solid third pairing plug and play option in the future. It’ll take time, because there aren’t any true elite elements to his game, but he’ll be a good prospect to have in the pipeline.

Vladimir Grudinin, LHD

Projection: 2026+

Ah, Vladimir Grudinin. A public scouting sphere darling that fell to the fifth round because of his size. A lot of public scouts thought highly of Grudinin because of his elite skating ability and superb puck skills for a defenseman. There’s also the fact that Grudinin made Russia’s roster for the World Juniors, which is more impressive when you consider how heavily Russia favors its older players. Grudinin is a prospect with high upside based on how strong of a player he is in the offensive zone, but teams were likely wary of how his game would project at the next level due to his size and lack of muscle. Now, I have seen some scouts talk about Grudinin’s skating in two ways. One camp believes that he’s an elite skater in every capacity. The other camp acknowledges Grudinin’s elite edge work and ten and two style skating stride, but they question his average skating speed and whether or not the ten and two will work at the NHL level. Both are valid, in my opinion. Grudinin’s skating is a major part of his game and leads to a lot of success in all three zones. In that same breath, I do see how his average top speed isn’t going to lead to much separation at the NHL level. As for whether or not his edge work and Jeff Skinner-like ten and two skating will work at the NHL level, that’s likely contingent on his top speed improving alongside his overall game.

Grudinin is a fascinating prospect because even though he is undersized, I actually find people talking about how good of a defender he is. He can make plays in the offensive zone, but when I watched Grudinin at the U18s and at the World Juniors, I found that he was able to disrupt a lot of plays while defending the rush as well as in his own end. Grudinin stood out as one of the best defensemen on that Russian World Juniors team, too. Their defense was poor to say the least, but Grudinin stood out as a bright spot, outperforming four NHL draft picks. Grudinin’s size is going to be brought up a lot over the next few years, as people find that it’s tough to project a player of his size making it to the NHL. Considering the fact that Grudinin doesn’t have a true dynamic element to his game, outside of perhaps his skating, it’s a valid concern. However, with the Hurricanes selecting Grudinin in the fifth round, it’s a worthwhile bet on a player that they can afford to leave in Russia for as long as they need to.

When I watch this play, I’m more inclined to believe that Grudinin will be just fine at the NHL level, if he makes it. His speed is fine, he’s clearly comfortable with the puck on his stick and he can change his angles quickly. What I will say about this clip is that it won’t fly at the NHL level. If it’s a turnover in the Russian junior league, you can bet that it’ll be one in the NHL.

As I mentioned in the tweet, I have no idea if Grudinin is an NHL player. The skating and defensive zone play are excellent, and he has some offensive tools, but he’s definitely a project and one that could take 5+ years to reach maturity. At the end of the day, when you’re drafting in the fifth round, these are the players that you want to draft. Sure, Grudinin may be a bust. If he does make it to the NHL, however, there’s a good chance that he’ll be more than just a third pairing defenseman.

Bryce Montgomery, RHD

Projection: 2025+

When the Hurricanes drafted Montgmery, he was largely an unknown player. Since the OHL didn’t have a season in his draft year, there wasn’t a lot to know about Montgomery aside from a handful of games during his D-1 season. This past season, Montgomery played on a deep London blue line and played well in a shutdown role, seeing time as a key penalty killer in the process. His shifts were almost strictly limited to defensive zone shifts, and while he would occasionally see time in the offensive zone, the vast majority of his role was to shut down any sort of offense. Montgomery did well in that role, growing more confident in his abilities, continuing to improve on his already impressive skating, and working on his breakouts.

Montgomery was impressive at development camp, showcasing his above average skating ability, physicality and defensive coverage. It’s pretty clear that moving forward, Montgomery will be a shutdown player as a pro. There isn’t a ton of offense in his game, and while he can break the puck out of the zone and make decent passes, he isn’t ever going to be a scoring or playmaking threat. Montgomery’s game is built on his reliability. He’ll make the smart play every time and won’t panic when pressured in his own end. Now, I’d like to see at least some offensive growth from him this season, but I’m mostly looking for Montgomery to make passes in transition and keep joining the rush.

Montgomery’s biggest strength is his skating. He’s a big defenseman at 6’5” but he skates like he’s 5’11”, which allows for him to cover a ton of space in the defensive zone. To this point, I haven’t seen his skating ability shine outside of the defensive zone aside from a few occasions. Here is one of those moments.

Like I said in the tweet, there have been glimpses of strong puck skills. Montgomery can lead with his eyes and fake out defenders, make simple dekes and move the puck, but he doesn’t often get the opportunity to do so with the London Knights. London seems content with giving him the bulk of the defensive zone starts and penalty kill minutes, which is better suited to Montgomery’s game at the present moment.

At this point, I’m still unsure of whether or not Montgomery earns a contract this year. On one hand, he has the physical tools and skating needed to play in the NHL. On the other hand, I’m not sure if that’s enough to justify an ELC. You can build on the size and skating ability, but the question is going to be whether that is enough to mold him into an NHL player. He’ll be a long term project for sure, and if he does sign, he likely spends his first year as a pro in the ECHL.

Alexander Pelevin, LHD

Projection: 2026+

The Hurricanes selected Pelevin in the seventh round of this past draft, taking a flyer on one of the best shutdown defensemen in his age group. Nothing gets done when he’s in his own end because he is constantly moving around to break up plays and prevent shots on goal. He rarely touches the puck but does an incredible job of keeping the play to the perimeter and preventing attacking forwards from getting to the middle of the ice. As a result, a lot of shots that do wind up being taken while Pelevin is on the ice end up being low danger shots.

Pelevin can be a bit of a tough watch because not a lot happens when he’s on the ice, one way or the other. He isn’t involved in the rush and doesn’t control the puck in the offensive zone at all, so his games can get a bit sleepy. As of right now, he’s purely a shutdown defender, albeit one that is quite good at what he does. Over the course of his development, I’m curious to see if he can carry the puck more often. His skating is a strong point of his game, so I’m wondering if he can carry the puck on a breakout or something more.

Pelevin’s biggest strengths lie in his own end, and his ability to take players out of the play is certainly impressive. I like the above referenced clip because Pelevin creates enough contact to get the puck loose and have it go right to a teammate that can initiate a breakout. I also enjoy Pelevin’s physicality. It’s one of the underrated aspects of his game that makes him such a strong defender, and if he can continue to grow stronger, he’ll be more of an imposing presence.

The Hurricanes didn’t shy away from Russian players during the 2022 draft and capped off their draft with Pelevin. Ultimately, he’s a seventh round pick that may or may not even come to North America. But, if he does, he’ll be ready for the NHL and should make an impact in the defensive zone. I see Pelevin as a team’s sixth defenseman that can play in a variety of defensive situations.

Joel Nystrom, RHD

Projection: 2024+

Nystrom was a bit of a late bloomer, playing in U18 for his first year of draft eligibility. His overage season was impressive, where he managed to make his SHL team and play in about half a season at the top men’s level. This past year, Nystrom was able to play in a consistent role with Farjestad, normally appearing on the second pairing and getting the occasional shift on the power play. Nystrom was able to showcase his all around game this past year, accumulating 16 points in 46 regular season games. His skating and two-way play make him a solid prospect, and while I’m unsure if there’s ever going to be a true elite aspect of his game, he’s a prospect without many glaring weaknesses. Nystrom made Sweden’s World Juniors team in December, but unfortunately opted out of the August tournament, likely to prepare for his season with Farjestad.

Nystrom and Forsmark are fairly similar players. Both players are two-way defenders with excellent skating ability and strong two way play. They can contribute offensively, and while neither is ever going to be incredible in the offensive zone, they can put up points when they need to. Nystrom’s ability to move the puck out of harm’s way is impressive, whether it’s by skating it out of trouble or making a pass to a teammate. He’s a smart, reliable two-way defender that sees a lot of ice time on a good SHL team.

This pass from Nystrom is an indicator that he is growing offensively. He joins the rush and makes a pass to the front of the net, showcasing great vision and a quick burst of speed.

It’s a nice play, and one that I’m hoping to see more from Nystrom as the year goes on. Here’s an example of Nystrom’s play in his own end.

Now, is Nystrom an NHL defenseman? Time will tell. He’s another prospect in the system that can play games, but the big question is going to be whether or not he can be better than the other prospects in the system with similar upside. I don’t see Nystrom being more than a third pairing defenseman that can be used in a variety of situations, and the Hurricanes have a lot of those. I could see Nystrom being an impact player, but he’ll have to prove that he’s better than players such as Anttoni Honka, Alexander Pelevin and whoever the Hurricanes elect to draft or sign in the next few years.

William Lagesson, LHD

Projection: call-up

Lagesson comes to the Hurricanes after spending the majority of last season with the Edmonton Oilers. He’s likely a depth option for Chicago, who is in desperate need of veteran help after a number of players departed for other teams this summer. Lagesson did play in 30 games for the Oilers last year, however, a lot of fans complained about how he was put into a top four role that he was unprepared for and looked out of place at times in the process. The Hurricanes, being the smart evaluators of talent that they are, likely see Lagesson as an AHL player that can play NHL games if a defenseman goes down to an injury, or if they find that they need someone to play on the left side. It’s a low risk move by the Hurricanes to bring Lagesson into the organization. He has 60 games of NHL experience, so he is familiar with the pace of play and level of competition in the NHL.

Jalen Chatfield, RHD

Projection: 7th D

Alright folks, let’s talk about Jalen Chatfield. He had a hell of a season with Chicago this past year and looked comfortable when he was up with the Hurricanes for 16 games. His quick pace, physicality, intensity and compete made him an impressive player for the Hurricanes when they needed him most. He used that as momentum for the Wolves’ Calder Cup run and was the team’s best defenseman in the playoffs. Chatfield was constantly involved in the play offensively and defensively, doing whatever he could to help his team win. He has experience with winning a championship, being a part of the Windsor Spitfires team that won the Memorial Cup back in 2017, but the AHL playoffs are a different beast entirely. Chatfield earned his two year contract with the Hurricanes and will be competing with Ethan Bear and Dylan Coghlan for a job on the third pairing.

Now here’s where I have to be the unpopular guy for a bit. I try to keep expectations reasonable, so I’m here to say that it’s entirely possible that Chatfield gets sent down to Chicago to start the year. Before the Hurricanes acquired Coghlan, I would have thought that Chatfield would be the team’s 7th defenseman and would rotate with Coghlan throughout the year. Now, I’m not as sure. Chatfield may be sent down initially to give the Wolves’ defense another veteran to help the young players such as Seeley and Honka. Is it possible that he earns an NHL role? Absolutely. Is it possible that he plays in 50+ games this year. Certainly. I don’t see Chatfield being an offensive dynamo and the player that pushes the Hurricanes’ needle that much closer to being a cup contender, though. I see a player that can play on the team’s third pairing and give the team some much needed energy with how he plays. Keep in mind that he only has 34 games of NHL experience, and nearly half of that was from last season.

Maxime Lajoie, LHD

Projection: call-up

Lajoie is another player that is likely bound for Chicago this year. He’s fun to watch in the offensive zone because he’s constantly moving up from the point to the circles and trying to make plays happen. Lajoie isn’t afraid to carry the puck into a board battle because he knows that he’ll come out ahead. When the Hurricanes acquired Lajoie from Ottawa in exchange for Clark Bishop, I was happy to get a defenseman that could play in a top role with the Wolves. Lajoie has essentially been a top four defenseman since his acquisition and has appeared in five regular season and two playoff games with the Hurricanes in two years. Lajoie turns 25 in early November, so it’s likely that he’s about as good as he is ever going to be. He may see the occasional call up if the Hurricanes are down a defenseman or two, but he’ll likely be playing top minutes for the Wolves and seeing time on their power play. Lajoie is a player that you don’t always notice in the defensive zone, going out of his way to make a lot of plays but in a quiet way. He’ll break up passes and get in the shooting lanes, but I rarely find myself noticing that Lajoie is out of place.

Cavan Fitzgerald, LHD

Projection: AHL depth

Fitzgerald is a big defenseman that plays a gritty, in your face style of hockey. He’ll be a bruiser on the back end and is a literal pain to play against. Fitgerald is pretty limited as to what he can do in the offensive zone due to average foot speed, so he’s more of a depth defensive defender. Still, those players are valuable for the Hurricanes to have, especially with the prospects that the Hurricanes have that will be making their AHL debuts this upcoming season. Fitzgerald brings 220 games of professional experience to Chicago this upcoming season.

Jesper Sellgren, LHD

Projection: 2025 but not in Carolina

Sellgren signing back in Sweden was a shock to me. I felt that he had a legitimate chance at an NHL roster spot this fall and that he would have made the third pairing a good bit better. Sellgren isn’t the biggest defenseman but might be one of the better defensemen at limiting chances when he’s in his own end. He’ll get in the passing lanes, seal plays off along the boards and block a ton of shots. When Sellgren is on the ice, teams are rarely able to score. Then, there’s his skating, which is smooth and effortless. Sellgren’s skating reminds me of Joni Pitkanen, in the sense that it comes so naturally to him that it looks as if he is gliding. This is a player that is capable of joining the rush, and while no aspect of his offensive game is elite, he is able to make clean passes and get shots through if the need arises. Sellgren plays like the ideal third pairing defenseman, which is why it’s so shocking to me that he opted to leave for Europe. I suppose that it’s possible that he leaves the SHL before his three year contract is up, but I don’t see it being likely.

I watched Sellgren play against Jukurit in the Champions Hockey League the other day and it made me sad. He was clearly one of the best players on the ice any time he stepped out there and it made me think of how he could have played in the NHL this upcoming season. Sellgren is so, so good at every single aspect of the game, and while he isn’t elite at anything other than perhaps his skating, he is good at everything else. While it’s certainly possible that we see Sellgren sign after his deal with Lulea is up, I wouldn’t hold my breath.

Joey Keane, RHD

Projection: TBD

Keane was qualified by the Hurricanes but has signed with Spartak Moscow in the KHL for the upcoming season. He showed some promise in his lone NHL appearance of the 2021-2022 season, playing in a third pairing role against Vancouver. Keane’s size, skating and offensive instincts make him an intriguing prospect, but his defensive zone play is poor. He can struggle from time to time in his own end, failing to get pucks out or turning the puck over on numerous occasions. This past season, Keane was expected to be a top player for Chicago in the AHL. While his point totals were solid, I felt that he was largely outplayed by Jalen Chatfield. Chatfield seemed more fit for the NHL. I have some belief in Keane’s NHL future, but it’s likely not with the Hurricanes. Currently, the team has five or six right handed defensemen ahead of Keane on the depth chart, and with Scott Morrow likely turning pro this upcoming season, the odds of him making the team in the future aren’t the best.

David Farrance, LHD

Projection: AHL Depth

I was shocked when I saw how disappointing Farrance’s pro career has been thus far. When I watched him in college, Farrance was one of the top players on the ice and was constantly looking to create offense with his speed and elite skating. As a pro, Farrance’s defensive play became a liability and he wasn’t qualified by the Nashville Predators. I found that to be quite a shock given how good Farrance was in college, but Nashville’s loss is Chicago’s gain. He’s joining the Wolves on an AHL contract this upcoming season and I’d bet that he’s looking to earn an NHL contract out of it. Some time with the development staff may help to get Farrance back on the right track in Chicago, which could mean that Carolina could benefit in the long run. Farrance was an elite offensive defenseman in college and was considered one of the top players in college hockey for his final two years at Boston University, so if he can get back to that level of play, he’ll be great. At 23 years old, Farrance still has time to develop. Improving his play in his own end while also getting back to what made him successful could do wonders for him

Griffin Mendel, LHD

Projection: AHL Depth

Mendel was another AHL signing by Chicago and he’s another player that could earn an NHL contract this year. He’s 6’6”, quick, likes to join in offensively and plays a responsible two way game. This is a player that will likely be a good AHL player for a long while, but if he plays the way I saw him play this past year, there may be more untapped potential. Mendel isn’t going to wow you offensively but he’s a very smart player that can make the right plays at the right time. They won’t ever be fancy, but they’ll be simple and effective. I’m excited to watch Mendel continue to grow over the course of the season because when I saw him play this past year, I liked a lot of what I saw.

Final Thoughts

If you’ve made it this far, first of all, thank you so much. Second of all, how about the future here in Raleigh? It’s looking pretty bright, wouldn’t you agree? I’d argue that two of the Hurricanes’ top three prospects are defensemen, with Morrow leading the way and Nikishin likely being number three behind Jack Drury or Gleb Trikozov. Aside from those two, you have roughly eight or nine other prospects that could all play NHL games in the future. Sure, some of them might not be playing for the Hurricanes, but the ones that don’t could be used as trade chips in the future. Carolina has done an excellent job of adding quality defensemen these past three drafts. In 2020, the team selected Nikishin and Seeley. In 2021, the Hurricanes added Morrow, Heimosalmi, Montgomery and Nystrom. They also drafted Aidan Hreschuk, who was traded for Max Domi this past trade deadline. Then, in this past draft, the Hurricanes were able to draft Forsmark, Grudinin and Pelevin. All of these defensemen have a chance to play NHL games. Players like Grudinin, Montgomery and Pelevin may be long term projects, but they don’t have to be ready for the NHL right now.

Gone are the days where the Hurricanes’ top prospects were thrust into the NHL before they were ready and we were left with a whole lot of mediocrity. Now, the Hurricanes can afford to be patient with each prospect, relying on a strong development team and a process that has developed a number of prospects in recent years. Obviously, there’s a chance that none of these prospects end up panning out for Carolina. That’s what happens when you draft outside of the first round, after all. It’s a gamble, and even first round picks don’t always pan out as NHL players. Look at Boston’s first round in 2015. They had three picks in the first round back to back to back and only got one good NHL player out of it. These things happen in the draft, and you truly never know. But with consistent development, I have full confidence in the Hurricanes to get the absolute most out of their draft picks.