As Carolina started down the path on their eventual rebuild, they knew it would be a long road towards building a product and organizational depth that would be a foundation for the future. Luckily, that rebuild has been accelerated by the recent successes of some great drafting over the past few offseasons. Sebastian Aho, Jaccob Slavin and Brett Pesce will all be important core pieces for the Hurricanes, all of whom were found outside of the first round.
The 2017-18 offseason and the path forward:
The 2017-18 season will be the start of a huge three to four-year push, where all the picks they have compiled and prospects they have drafted over the past few seasons will begin to turn professional, and will in turn battle for spots in the Hurricanes lineup. Aho started the trend a bit ahead of schedule with a stellar rookie season where he finished fifth among first year players in scoring with 49 points in 82 games, and ninth in Calder voting.
Seeing a rare opportunity to add the right players to the fold to insulate their incredibly young core, the Hurricanes gave contracts to veteran free agents Justin Williams and Josh Jooris, and added Scott Darling, Marcus Kruger and Trevor van Riemsydyk via trade. More impressively, they added these pieces for the most part without having to add a lot of term, which speaks to the flexibility that the organization will have in the coming years. The team only has six players signed past 2018-19, and none making over six million dollars per year. Four of those six are 25 years old or younger (Victor Rask, Justin Faulk, Slavin and Pesce) and the other two are 28 in Jordan Staal and Scott Darling. There will be extensions coming for Jeff Skinner, Noah Hanifin and Aho likely over the next 12 months, but the rest of the roster is adaptable moving forward. So many organizations block their prospects by signing veterans to lengthy multi-year deals each July 1st, but this isn’t the case with the Hurricanes. They have made the right moves and signings to allow for their prospects to not only develop, but not be blocked by expensive contracts once they are ready.
Down on the farm:
Two rookies led the way for the Charlotte Checkers en route to the team’s first playoff appearance since 2012-13. Andrew Poturalski and Lucas Wallmark put up 52 and 46-point seasons in their first professional campaigns, both finding themselves among the top-10 rookie scorers in the AHL. Along with Haydn Fleury, Roland McKeown, Aleksi Saarela and Alex Nedeljkovic, Poturalski and Wallmark’s arrival signaled the next wave in talent to come through Charlotte with an eye on an NHL roster spot.
This season, the Checkers are going to get an even bigger boost of talent. Julien Gauthier, Janne Kuokkanen, Nicolas Roy, Warren Foegele, Spencer Smallman, Steven Lorentz and Callum Booth all will be turning professional, and looking to boost the Checkers to new heights. Some may spend some time at the ECHL level at times, but it will be easily the most talent that the Checkers have had since becoming the Canes AHL affiliate in 2010.
Like with most prospects, the newly turned group of professionals will need some seasoning before making the jump to the NHL, but there are some of the Checkers group who would be able to fill in when injuries occur during the year. Fleury, McKeown and Trevor Carrick are the three most likely to fill the void if any right or left side defensemen go down. Phil DiGiuseppe, Valentin Zykov, Wallmark, Poturalski and Sergei Tolchinsky all have spent some time at the NHL level and would be able to make the jump in if called upon, depending on the role.
As for players who have not made their NHL debut that could make enough of an impact this fall to break camp with the NHL club, I would put my money on Gauthier and Saarela being the front runners. If you know me, you know I’ve been the president of the Nicolas Roy fan club for many seasons now, but with the Canes depth down the middle, I don’t see him jumping into the NHL early, instead getting some time at the AHL level. Given the Canes bottom pairing of Klas Dahlbeck and Trevor van Riemsdyk, I wouldn’t be surprised to see Haydn Fleury doing enough to work his name into the conversation, but the issue lies in whether you would prefer the 21-year-old to spend time in the press box or playing big minutes in all situations in the AHL. My preference will always be the latter.
NCAA’s and Junior:
As for the non-2017 draftees still in junior this season, the Canes have a couple stalwarts out west in Jake Bean and Hudson Elynuik. Hopefully we will see a full, healthy season from Bean this year, which could produce a 70-plus point season for Calgary (WHL) and a leadership role on Team Canada’s World Junior squad. Elynuik will again pair up with the Yamamoto’s in Spokane (WHL), and will look to build off his 73-point breakout 2016-17 campaign.
The Canes have a three pack of impact prospect forwards coming off solid freshman seasons in college hockey in David Cotton (Boston College), Matt Filipe (Northeastern) and Max Zimmer (Wisconisin). All three should have more prominent roles in their team’s offense in 2017-18, and likely will see more power play time. Michigan Goaltender Jack Lafontaine will battle for the Wolverines starters crease and Yale’s Luke Stevens will continue his development in the ECAC.
Warren Foegele – What a great season from the overager. His 63 points in 61 games were a career best for the former third round pick, and he played his best hockey when it mattered most in the OHL playoffs. With 26 points in 22 games, Foegele was named the Wayne Gretzky Award winner for the OHL’s Playoff MVP. He may not have as high of a points ceiling as some of the other Canes prospects, but he could be a fast riser through the system, and a difference maker in the bottom six and as a penalty killer.
Callum Booth – Booth was terrific for Saint John down the stretch helping to win a QMJHL Championship. He won 31 games for Quebec and Saint John, and led the QMJHL in save percentage in 2016-17. For the first time in some time, the Canes have some organizational depth in goal. Although Alex Nedeljkovic’s rookie season wasn’t exactly what he would have preferred, he will likely get the majority of starts in Charlotte from a Canes prospect this season. The team signed AHL veteran Jeremy Smith, who has started nearly 300 games in the AHL as depth and as a mentor for the two young netminders. Look for Booth to potentially be the starter in Florida.
David Cotton – As mentioned above, Cotton continued his development jumping from the USHL to Boston College in 2016-17. He led all freshman scorers for the Eagles with 24 points in 40 games. With four of the team’s top six scorers graduating and sophomore Colin White signing his entry level contract with Ottawa, Cotton will be a big source of offense for BC this season.
Sergei Tolchinsky – The diminutive forward took a step back in his second professional season in Charlotte from a production standpoint with his points-per-game rate falling from .50 to .38. Going into his third AHL season, he still can be a high-volume scorer, but he may start being passed on the depth chart by some of his peers if he doesn’t show something unique this year. He will be an RFA following this season.
Daniel Altshuller – After a 2015-16 season that saw Altshuller play in three different levels (ECHL, AHL and NHL), the former 2012 third rounder could not find consistent playing time in 2016-17. He split time between the ECHL and AHL, starting 24 total games between the two levels. As I noted above, the Canes have goaltending depth coming, and with that in mind they chose not to offer Altshuller a contract following the season.
New Top 10 Prospects (Prospects based on fantasy keeper league relevance)
HM: Roland McKeown, Hudson Elynuik, Valentin Zykov, Andrew Poturalski Graduated: Sebastian Aho
Give Kevin a follow at @kleblanchockey for prospect talk and happenings, and check out The Journey, which he writes weekly for DobberHockey.