Coming into the 2022-23 season, the Carolina Hurricanes starting lineup featured two players who had played the previous season primarily with the AHL’s Chicago Wolves, Stefan Noesen and Jalen Chatfield.
But over the course of the season, other callups joined the roster at various times and all saw success coming into Carolina’s system: Pyotr Kochetkov, Jack Drury, Max Lajoie and Mackenzie MacEachern.
The Hurricanes have utilized their affiliate not just for the development of their younger prospects, but also to shape all players within the organization to fit into the Hurricanes’ systems.
“I think most organizations do it that way now because of that reason,” said coach Rod Brind’Amour. “You don’t want to bring up a player at any point of the year and have them not know what you’re doing. We try to run similar systems and terminologies and all that. It just helps the player when he gets here. There’s still lots of differences, the little details are maybe a little different, but the main scope of it is the same.”
This unity has given every player called up to the big club that extra step to not just be ready, but to find success.
It’s important to always remember that development isn’t linear. There can be ups and downs and sometimes it also takes the right fit. But more than anything, especially in Carolina, it’s about working hard and doing the little things to earn that chance.
It’s a main reason why the Canes is finding these gems in older players in the AHL. They know how to recognize talent and are willing to give them the chance to try to earn their way into the NHL.
“That was one of the main reasons why I signed here,” MacEachern said on signing with Carolina. “I had a couple of different offers, but I thought this style and this organization fit my game the most. Whether it was at the NHL or AHL level, I know they both have resumes of winning. I just wanted to be in a winning organization that played the right way. That was what attracted me to Carolina.”
Carolina doesn’t care about if a player has passed that “peak prospect age,” because they know they can get players hungry to compete and are willing to step up in big ways, especially in a system like the Hurricanes have.
“The way we play is very simple,” Noesen said. “I hate to say that it’s kind of dummy proof, but it’s kind of dummy proof. You do your job and you do it well and as long as you work hard, Rod rewards that. If you work hard, you’re going to be rewarded for it.”
“At the end of the day, hockey is hockey and there’s certain things where it doesn’t matter what your systems are,” Brind’Amour said. “There’s things that are universal. At the end of the day, if you go out and play hard, you’ve got a chance.”
So here are three examples of players who spent significant time with Carolina’s AHL affiliate, but made big differences in the first round series victory.
Sometimes, the time in the AHL isn’t so much learning the speed and expectations of professional, North American hockey as it is rediscovering your game and regaining confidence.
Take Stefan Noesen for example.
The journeyman forward was a first round pick in 2011 but didn’t get significant time in the NHL until 2017 with his third team.
The Texas native had a big season in 2017-18 with the New Jersey Devils, and looked like he could be an NHL regular, but ended up dancing between the NHL and AHL again.
Four teams later, Noesen is now an actual NHL regular in Carolina, having set career highs in all scoring categories along with being a power play specialist, and he’s continued that success by being one of the top performers this postseason, leading the team with four power play points, and he credits it all to his time with the Chicago Wolves.
“I got a chance to really get my game back last year,” Noesen said. “I feel great because of that. I actually owe the Carolina Hurricanes a lot because they allowed me to go down there and really play. It would have been great to be up here and do that, but to get that confidence going down there last year and kind of just get my game back and get that confidence that I needed, it kind of reminded me of playing junior hockey. That’s really what I personally needed.”
Noesen was never a big scorer in the AHL, but just one season in Chicago was all it took to get him feeling good about his game once again. He led the league in scoring with 48 goals along with 85 points and was the driving force behind the teams Calder Cup run.
Now he’s battling it out in the NHL and helping to drive another team through the playoffs.
After the 2022-23 training camp, the Hurricanes had eight defensemen on their roster. The blueline was looking to be crowded and the jobs for the bottom pairing were anyone's to earn.
But for Game 1 of the regular season, there was one clear player who had most earned a spot on the third pair.
Carolina had signed Chatfield as a free agent before the 2021-22 season to a two-way contract and he quickly became a top pairing defenseman for the Chicago Wolves.
It was clear that the young blueliner had talent, especially with his skating ability, and he was one of the first callups to the Canes’ blueline after the midyear COVID incident last season.
He shined in that small sample of games and so the team quickly resigned him to a two-year extension.
Being given a full year to marinate in the AHL and on an eventual championship team at that, gave Chatfield the confidence to play his game and know that he could belong in the NHL.
The game’s he got in the NHL proved he was right.
“I loved this team and I loved the system that we play,” Chatfield said. “Honestly, right from the start I was like, ‘Wow.’ It was a good team last year too, so the guys right away from the first game I played in Dallas, I had a really good game and I felt very comfortable going in. The system… shoot pucks, get it in deep, keeping it simple, skating, stuff like that. Gleason helped me out a lot last year too. Coming in at camp, you second guess a little bit when you learn a new system, but once I got used to it, even the first game before that, I kind of was ready. You stop thinking out there and just play the game.”
Chatfield has really shined this season, being a huge boost to the Hurricanes’ blueline. He controlled a 60.11 CF% in the regular season all while picking up six goals and 14 points.
In the playoffs, he controlled a 53.09 CF% in the first round series. His ability to get to and move pucks quickly helped alleviate the pressure in his own zone and set the Canes up in transition.
The ability for Carolina to roll all three pairs has been a huge boost and is again a testament to their depth and development.
After Game 2 of the first round series against the New York Islanders, it was clear that Carolina was going to need some help.
Teuvo Teravainen had just had his hand broken, leaving another massive hole in the Hurricanes’ lineup.
That’s when Mackenzie MacEachern got the call.
“I kind of had an idea I was gonna Black Ace or practice with the team after our season ended Sunday in Chicago,” MacEachern said. “And then our plan was for me to come here Thursday and then it was kind of a stressful day. I was supposed to just fly to Carolina and kind of get settled but I got a call after Turbo went down that I was gonna fly from Chicago to Carolina and then hop on a plane from Carolina to New York.”
The shorthanded Hurricanes were going to need help and while MacEachern didn’t draw straight in for Game 3, he was in the lineup for Game 4.
And really, there were no worries at all about whether or not MacEachern would be able to fit in to Carolina’s demanding system.
“I watched the last few games of their season, because you just never know and we were shorthanded so I’m like, ‘What if we need a guy,’ and he just jumped off the page,” Brind’Amour said. “So that’s why I say he earned the callup number one, but then you talk to the coach down there too. I talked to Brock [Sheahan] this morning and he’s like, ‘It’s a no brainer. This guy will help you.’ So it’s nice when the guys who knows him the best, and I know he’s going to endorse his player, but he also knows we need help. It was an easy decision.”
MacEachern looked like he belonged too because after Drury went down just minutes into the game, the new guy found himself up on the top line with Sebastian Aho and Seth Jarvis and assisted on the game-winning goal and scored one himself.
“I’d say 95% of the things are pretty similar,” MacEachern said on the system similarities between the two teams. “Maybe a couple of tweaks here and there that are a little different. But it’s very important. It makes the transition easier. I think that’s one of the reasons why it was so easy for me to jump into that game because I knew exactly where to kind of be, when to do this and when to do that. I think it’s pretty imperative to have the AHL and NHL clubs run the same systems.”
MacEachern added the size that the top line needed for Jarvis and Aho to get space and time with the puck. His physicality also helped with the puck retrieval while forechecking and even if his game was simple, it was effective.
The importance of organizational unity between the NHL and AHL can’t be overstated. It’s how your young prospects develop into professional players, but also how you can find hidden gems to boost your team’s depth.
Without the strength of the partnership between the Chicago Wolves and the Carolina Hurricanes, the Canes might not even have made it through the first round of the playoffs. Players like Noesen, Chatfield and MacEachern aren’t superstars, but they are important pieces that chip in at crucial times.
You can go up and down the lineup and keep finding players that also took the time to develop their skills in the AHL. Jaccob Slavin, Brett Pesce, Seth Jarvis and many others.
The depth that the organization provides by being multi-layered and building up players not just to be successful AHL players, but building them up to be NHL ready, is one of, if not the biggest, keys to the Hurricanes franchise’s continued success.