Only a couple days removed from the Charlotte Checkers being crowned the Calder Cup Champions, timing is perfect for another look down to Charlotte to assess the promising group of young players who could factor into the Carolina Hurricanes lineup sooner rather than later.
Checking In with Brandon Stanley
With the NHL postseason winding down, and the summertime markets looming where the Canes have the horses to be massive players, now seems like the perfect time to look back and get a bit of a refresher on what’s happening down on the farm. An imperative for Waddell’s to-do list will be figuring out which of these players can be used in deals for immediate help, and which ones have parts to play in the Carolina Hurricanes’ future. The Checkers are the champions of the AHL after finishing off a 4-1 dismantling of the Chicago Wolves in the Calder Cup Finals, but here I’ll be focusing on the regular season for the most part (largely because I’ve been so busy the last few weeks that I have barely gotten to watch any of this stellar playoff run). We’ll take a look at how each prospect* playing for the Checkers performed in 2018-19, what skills make them projectable to the NHL level, and what they need to work on in order to reach their ceilings. We’ll also give an NHL outlook of when they’ll be ready to contribute, and what role their NHL future likely holds.
*Two criteria: they must still have rookie eligibility (<25 games played in the NHL), and they have to be true prospects with a legitimate notion of contributing in Raleigh. Bobby Sanguinetti and Dennis Robertson play important roles as mentors and organizational depth, but if they ever get the call to Raleigh, something has gone horribly wrong.
This week we’ll look at three of the more exciting prospects in the system in Julien Gauthier, Morgan Geekie, and Janne Kuokkanen.
Julien Gauthier – Winger (Acquired: 2016 Entry Draft, 1st round, 21st overall)
By the Numbers – 27 goals, 14 assists, 41 points in 75 games, 57 PIMs; 5 goals, 8 points in 17 playoff games.
What Got Him Here? In terms of pure talent and physical ability, not many players can match the 6’4, 225-pound Julien Gauthier. The Quebec native is adept at using that size in getting to the net and protecting the puck. He’s a very fluid skater as well for a big man, and is capable of playing a power forward game that’s extremely tough for opposing defensemen to contain. If he gets a step on a defender it’s pretty much all over, as he’ll drive to the outside, keep the defender on his hip, and lean to the middle until he’s right in front of the net for a grade-A scoring chance. He has a heavy wrist shot and soft hands, and scored quite a few highlight-reel goals by dangling around defenders before wiring a shot into the top corner. Additionally, he scored some very timely goals (9 of his 27 regular season goals were game-winners) and was consistently noticeable in the playoffs. His play the last month of the regular season and into the playoffs was extremely promising. Gauthier had a couple mediocre seasons after being drafted, but still has a very high ceiling and many NHL-level offensive attributes already.
Questions/Room for Improvement? Hockey IQ in general. In all three zones, Gauthier needs to process the play a little quicker and make better decisions. He took a step forward in this regard this year, but his play away from the puck and in the defensive zone he sometimes seems unengaged. He had 57 penalty minutes this year, which is a little high for a forward who doesn’t play a super physical style. Many of those penalties were stick infractions from defending without moving his feet or using his body to gain position, penalties which most coaches would label as lazy. As a young, highly skilled player, really what he needs is simply to continue to play and acclimate to the professional game. You cannot take shifts off or lose focus even for a few seconds in the NHL, because the defenseman you’re marking will probably already have slipped behind you for a backdoor cut and scoring chance. If he ever learns how to consistently showcase his talent the way he did down the stretch, where he consistently drove the play and used his size, hands, and shot to score 8 goals in the final 10 regular season games, the sky is the limit.
ETA, Future Outlook: 2020-21. Most North American-born players have at least two years back in juniors before they turn 20, the age requirement to be able to play in the AHL. Because of his late birthday, Gauthier only played one more year in the QMJHL (a year in which his goals dipped from 41 to 17). Therefore, many of his draft peers were rookies in the AHL this past year. If Gauthier had just debuted in Charlotte and posted 27 goals and 41 points as an AHL rookie, I don’t think anyone would be throwing around the “bust” label. It was no secret when he was drafted that Gauthier was very raw, and likely to take a bit longer than some first rounders to develop. Things are pretty much playing out on-schedule. Gauthier has immense offensive potential and took notable steps forward in his game this year. He was far more consistent presence in the offensive zone, and the numbers took a nice step forward as well (11 more goals, 16 more points than 2017-18). Patience will be key, but I still would not be surprised to see him make his NHL debut at some point late next season. Then, assuming he can continue on his current trajectory, I feel comfortable penciling him into the 2020-21 lineup, somewhere in the middle-six. He still has a very high ceiling, and I mean first-line, 30 goal-scorer high, but there is also still a large variance in just what kind of NHLer Julien Gauthier is going to be.
Morgan Geekie – Forward (Acquired: 2017 Entry Draft, 3rd round, 67th overall)
By the Numbers – 19 goals, 27 assists, 46 points, +24 rating, 73 games; 8 goals, 10 assists, 18 points in 19 playoff games.
What Got Him Here? After a modest draft season playing on a team with multiple future NHLers, Geekie exploded for 90 points as an 18-year old in the WHL. Because of it being his second year eligible, he was available early in the third round when the Hurricanes came on the clock in the 2017 draft. The decision to take him going to turn out to be quite the steal if Geekie continues to play like he did most of last year and in the playoffs. Geekie is a very talented all-around offensive player. He’s always been a gifted passer (109 assists in 140 games his last two seasons of juniors) but has real goal-scoring potential as well. He has good size at 6’2, and does an excellent job getting to the dirty areas to cause havoc in front of the net and create grade-A chances. It helps that he has shown fantastic hand-eye coordination to go with that mentality, netting quite a few deflection goals this year. Geekie also has very nifty hands in close, as he will get a rebound and make a quick move if the goalie is square to him before finishing around him. He doesn’t have the elite shot of some guys like Gauthier or (especially) Saarela, but he has a deceptive, quick release that helps it play up. Geekie was probably in the conversation for the Jack A. Butterfield Trophy (AHL’s version of the Conn Smythe/playoff MVP) as a massive part of the Checkers’ Calder run, and this comes after he posted an absurd 17 goals and 27 points in just 14 games in the WHL playoffs last year. That makes 45 points in his last 33 playoff games. Not only that, but in the Checkers four series close-out games this postseason, Geekie had 8 points (3 goals, 5 assists). Like Warren Foegele, he seems to raise his game in big moments.
Questions/Room for Improvement? I worry a bit about the skating. However, Geekie compensates by being an extremely smart player that knows how to stay ahead of the play and get to his spots before he needs to be there. Or, more importantly, before the opponent knows he needs to be there. As I mentioned above, Geekie lives in the dirty areas and has shown to be strong on his skates, but with a solid 6’2 frame it’d be nice to see him bulk up to at least 195, hopefully 200 pounds (currently listed between 178 and 190 depending on where you look, but the 178 comes from the Checkers website). That extra weight would pay big dividends once he starts running into NHL defensemen in those areas of the ice. Additionally, while Geekie is always going to lean a bit towards a pass-first player, he was only credited with 94 shots on goal all season. That’s surprisingly low, just 1.27 per game. The 20.4% shooting percentage is funny in a ridiculous sort of way, but he needs to get a little more aggressive in putting pucks on the net. Geekie was known in the WHL for being a high-level two-way player and very good in the face-off dot, and has shown versatility playing both center and wing in the AHL. By the playoffs he was the Checkers 1C between Saarela and Poturalski, and this is an area I want to get a better read on him on moving forward. Skating is more important at the center position than any other, so hopefully it is not a detriment to him.
ETA, Future Outlook: 2020-21. Geekie has improved his stock a ridiculous amount since getting passed over in the 2016 NHL draft. He went from undraftable to just-outside-the-second-round pick to now a ridiculous playoff performer who looks like a potential second liner in the NHL. Like Gauthier, I think Geekie could get a call-up at some point this coming season, and he is not far from being ready to make the jump. Because of his strong two-way game, Geekie has a relatively high floor as well as a player who could slot in to the bottom six and be effective. I personally think he scores more than that, and looks like a guy who will be good for 15-20 goals, 40-50 points per season in a couple years.
Janne Kuokkanen – Forward (Acquired 2016 Entry Draft, 2nd round, 43rd overall)
By the Numbers – 12 goals, 26 assists, 38 points in 48 games.
What Got Him Here? Whereas Julien Gauthier is the physical specimen that needs to be fine-tuned around the edges a bit, Janne Kuokkanen is, in some ways, the opposite side of that. That’s not to say he has subpar physical abilities, as he does seem very strong on the puck and in the corners, but more so alluding to how sharp Kuokkanen on the ice. He’s always positionally sound, making the right read, calmly making plays happen in all three zones. He excels as a playmaker and is a wizard with the puck on his stick, with great hands he uses to weave in and out of traffic effortlessly. Like Geekie, he’s a pass-first player but he has shown a surprising shot at times. This includes a heavy one-timer on the powerplay, where half of his goals were scored this year. Kuokkanen is very effective on the powerplay in general, as he dissects and infiltrates the PK box to open up lanes for scoring chances. I really enjoy watching him work in the offensive zone, as he seems to have a knack for getting defenders leaning one way and then darting the other, always causing his opponent to be on their heels. He’s shown a willingness to work the corners and the strength to brace for hits and barely even move on impact, just bouncing off the hitters. Kuokkanen is also a very disciplined and engaged defender, who keeps an active stick and helps support his defensemen and goaltender.
Questions/Room for Improvement? After starting the year off scoring at about a point per game pace, sometime around December Kuokkanen got banged up and his game took a noticeable downturn. He only scored one goal in his final 23 games, and at the beginning of March was shut down for the remainder of the year after having an undisclosed surgical procedure. Hopefully the injury will be behind him and he comes back next season fully healthy. Otherwise, my main concern is what his true ceiling may be. Kuokkanen has scored at every level and is a very cerebral player, but I’m not sold on how much of that scoring will transfer to the NHL. He still will have value even if he doesn’t score consistently at the highest level, thanks to that intelligence and all-around play, but he may be more of a third line, secondary scoring source than a top six playmaker who can drive the offense. Not that this is necessarily a huge issue, I just worry that the whole “second round Finnish forward” thing might give this kid mildly unrealistic expectations. He might be closer to Wallmark than he is Aho.
ETA, Future Outlook: 2020-21. Kuokkanen looked a little shell-shocked at times during his four-game cameo at the outset of this past season. Unfortunately, after going back to Charlotte and playing very well, his season was derailed and his development timeline slowed. Kuokkanen could come back and be ready to help out the Canes by the midway point of next year, and its likely he’s one of the first candidates for call ups when injuries hit. He’ll still be just 21 years old for all of next season, so he has plenty of time to fulfill his potential as at least a second line playmaker and powerplay mainstay. Look for him to be ready for full-time NHL duty for the 2020 season.
Next Week, we’ll look at Roland McKeown, Alex Nedeljkovic, and Andrew Poturalski.