As we approach the holidays, the 2019-20 season has more or less solidified itself as a transition year for the defending Calder Cup champions. A repeat run is looking increasingly unlikely, as even a playoff spot is likely not in the cards at this point. However, that does not mean there are not some promising performances happening down in Charlotte. A few slow starts have started to turn around, and prospects that look like potentially big pieces down the road for the Canes have taken their games up a notch. The team is lacking the depth and firepower of the previous year, but these are some of the most promising performances as we hit right around a third of the way through the year. Instead of doing a game-by-game breakdown, for this edition we’ll take a look at how notable prospects are performing and what to watch for as we head into 2020.
The good: The young offensive defenseman continues to be lethal offensively and on the powerplay, showcasing the skill that made him a highly-regarded defenseman and led to his first-round selection in 2016. Bean is leading the Checkers in points with 17 (5 goals, 12 assists) and still looks every bit the powerplay quarterback everyone hoped he could be. His shot has gotten significantly better since he first broke in as a pro, as his most recent goal against Syracuse displayed when he wired a wrist shot top-shelf from distance that beat the goalie cleanly.
The bad: His defensive game hasn’t taken the step forward I’d hoped to see thus far. He’s not a physical player, and can still get boxed out in front of his net and in the corners rather easily. He has a decent, active stick that he can use to disrupt play and force turnovers. Paired with his slick feet and hockey IQ ,when he’s able to get the puck turned over he can quickly transition and make a good first pass, breaking the puck out and getting it moving up the ice in a hurry. He’s also good at buying time and space with subtle head-fakes or reverses. Players with his intelligence level know where the open ice is and always have an escape hatch to evade trouble and get there. I think he could be sheltered and still be a moderately effective NHL player right now, but you’d rather a 13th overall pick be a legitimate top-four defenseman and not have to be deployed in such a fashion. He’s still young, as he won’t turn 22 until June, and defensemen do take longer to develop than forwards in most cases, but I’d like to see a little more on the defensive side of the puck moving forward from Bean.
The coveted college free agent has showcased a lot of similarities to Bean, and I could probably repeat myself on many of the same points made above. Priskie has produced nicely for a rookie defenseman, potting four goals and ten assists. Those 14 points have him tied with former tenth overall pick Evan Bouchard of Springfield (Edmonton) for third amongst AHL rookies. The defensive side of the puck has been a struggle at times for Priskie, though. His foot speed is becoming something of a question, and if that’s a problem at the AHL level it probably won’t get any easier in the bigs. On the bright side, He’s 25 games into his pro career. Adjusting from the NCAA to the AHL takes time. He’s a very cerebral player, and in many cases having the brain to read and react ahead of the play can minimize physical shortcomings. Priskie, like Bean, has all the offensive tools you could hope for that make for a weapon from the back end: IQ, the vision to identify vulnerabilities and passing lanes before they open plus the ability to exploit them, and a great shot when the defense gives him room to fire. These two defensemen are a big reason this team is fifth in the league when on the man advantage. I think he has a bright future, though he’s going to need to marinate for a while yet. He is very much a bright spot despite the occasional defensive mishaps that will be one I continue to keep a close eye moving forward on as he develops.
The elder statesman of the Checker blue line (and perennial trade bait I keep expecting to see moved that never is), McKeown continues to provide a steady, calming presence to a somewhat volatile defensive group. He’s produced a bit more offensively this year, with 13 points in 26 games, although just one of those are goals. The defensive game has continued to be his calling card, though, as he is tasked with the opponent’s top line each night and is one of a very select few plus players on a team filled with guys double-digits in the negative (something something +/- is stupid something something, I know. Just saying). McKeown will continue to play heavy minutes and be a staple on the top penalty kill unit in the AHL (at a whopping 91.5%). If needed in a pinch, McKeown will be just fine at the NHL level if the need arises (much like he has, in my opinion when called upon in the past). He’s the safest choice for a call-up that won’t get you into any trouble if anything happens to the Hurricanes blue line, particularly on the right side.
Something of a bonus here, because he hasn’t yet played a game with the Checkers so I haven’t gotten any eyes on him, but Kaski is an interesting pickup. Granted, it is probably best not to read into it too much, seeing as a rebuilding Detroit organization that needs talent any way they can get it was ready to give up on him after just 19 games played. But, Kaski is a 6’3, 195-pound right-shot defenseman that poured in a stellar 19 goals and 51 points in 56 games in Liiga last year. He’s also already 24 without a ton of room for development left. Maybe a change in scenery gets him going and he can rediscover his offensive touch, or maybe he’s not made for the North American game and will be back in his native Finland before too long. I feel like I remember this organization having a little success with a Finn or two, though, so I’m looking forward to checking out his game.
Geekie has taken over as 1C for the Checkers, and has done an admirable job filling that role on a team with depleted weapons around him. I’ve been a huge fan of Geekie for a while now, and I think Rod will (and probably already is) share in my sentiments. He plays a mature two-way game, is very good in the face-off dot, and has contributed on the powerplay. He currently sits one off the team scoring lead behind Bean with 7 goals and 9 assists. He’s got a pretty complete package offensively, as he has very soft hands, a nice release on his shot, as well as rock-solid vision and passing ability. He seems to have bulked up a bit this year, as he is now listed at 190 pounds (I saw him mostly at 175 in the past), and that wiry strength has served him extremely well in the dirty areas. Geekie also protects the puck well, using a long reach and good body control to keep defenders on his hip and away from the puck. He’s added a little toughness to his game too, as he’s already set a career high with 26 PIMs and has been a little more willing to mix it up in the corners. The big question has been his skating ability, but he is a very good example of why I said above that smarts and the ability to think the game quickly can cover for physical shortcomings. I keep thinking he may be next in line to get a call-up, as his game would fit just about anywhere in the lineup. He could plug into the bottom six without sacrificing any of the traits Roddy wants to see out of those players, and offers more offensive upside than Gibbons or Bishop. However, the Canes front office probably knows this too, so I’m sure the idea is just keeping him down to develop and play big, all-around minutes in Charlotte. He’s getting pretty close, though.
When this season began, the optimistic side of me expected big things out of Kuokkanen. When he started the season with just five points in thirteen games and didn’t look particularly great doing it, the pessimistic side with a lot of questions started to push to the forefront. However, he has really heated up with three multi-point games in his last five, including five points the last two games to sit at 6-10-16 in 25 games on the year as of this writing. This is a very important year for Kuokkanen in my eyes. He’s still only 21, but with it being his third year in Charlotte it’s really time to take his game to the next level – and stay healthy, after getting shut down for the last third of last season and not playing a single postseason game. Kuokkanen has a lot of nice attributes. He definitely leans playmaker over shooter with his deft passing ability, and has silky smooth hands to dangle in tight spaces along with an underrated shot he gets off very quickly. He’s not a burner speed-wise, but he has quick edges and maneuvers well in the offensive zone to evade checks and protect the puck. I’ve said this before, though – when being completely honest I don’t really know what to make of him. On the one hand, a lot of what I just described above could have been used to describe Aho within the last two years. I mean, what trait really made him stick out? Can you pick out one thing that said “that’s why he was so good, why he was such a highly thought-of prospect?” But then last year he added at least a step or two to his skating speed, we watched the confidence with the puck on his stick skyrocket, and he just took the NHL by storm. On the other hand, tons of prospects come with that same scouting report where they check plenty of boxes… and never amount to anything. I want to see that next big step out of Kuokkanen at the AHL level. He needs to start taking over games, being a calming presence that the team can turn to, one who makes something happen nearly every time he touches the puck. I’m torn on him more than I was a year or two ago, but hopefully the recent hot streak is a sign that the light switch is coming on.
Gauthier has taken a really nice step forward this year. He continues to unlock a little bit more of his tantalizing skill set seemingly by the week, and one of the developments I’ve enjoyed seeing is his willingness to shoot the puck a lot more than ever before (2.9 shots on goal per game, up from 2.2 last year and 1.7 as a rookie). He’s always had that great, heavy wrist shot, and I think he could easily hit the 30 goal mark this year depending on how much time he gets in Charlotte (he’s averaging nearly 0.5 goals per game at the moment with 10 in 22). Gauthier scores in many ways other than beating goalies clean from distance, though, and that’s the best part for Canes fans. A lot of players in this system (and on the big club) have a tendency to be too perimeter-oriented, settling for shots on the outside instead of getting inside the dots to bang home some ugly goals. Gauthier can do that. We know about the size and strength which allow him to take punishment and not get moved off his spot, but the skating ability has really continued to impress me this season. Look no further than the Vancouver game. Tyler Myers isn’t exactly known for his speed, but at 6’8 he’s a long strider that can use his frame and still cover ground in a hurry. Not only did Gauthier absolutely dust him, he was able to fight off Myers’ attempted rub out and gain position without breaking stride or losing balance in the slightest to go in for a breakaway. If Markstrom wasn’t unconscious that night, that would have been a hell of a first NHL goal. While he has been pretty streaky this year, but the only real issue I have with Gauthier’s game was something we saw a good bit of in his NHL stint as well, and something I remember Tripp pointing out a few times on the broadcast – too many times the plays he made were soft. I saw it at both blue lines, and turning pucks over at either blue line is an absolute recipe for disaster. He had a couple dump-ins that didn’t get behind defensemen. Multiple times he failed to get a puck out of his own end. You HAVE to make those little plays to succeed in the NHL, at a bare minimum. The goals and points will come for Gauthier eventually. He just still has a little work to do to lock down his game in-between the two nets. And he only has two assists. But. Whatever. It’s fine.
Steven Lorentz continues to win me over. He has already defied the odds just by earning an entry-level deal as a seventh-round pick, then was an ECHL callup that just carved out more and more playing time last season. This year, he’s continuing his ascent as one of the guys the Checkers rely on heavily. He’s always had a really nice size-speed combination that allows him to get in on the forecheck and create havoc amongst opposing defensemen. His length allows him to succeed in board battles once he gets in there, and he’s not afraid to throw his weight around a little bit. He’s also an outstanding penalty killer, using that speed and reach to harass the opponent powerplay and break up plays. Honestly, he very much reminds me of Foegele, except… probably a little less talented. And as much as I talk about Foegele’s hands and finishing ability on Twitter… well. You can probably put two and two together there. He does have six goals and five assists on the year, but the offensive side of his game isn’t going to get him far. Regardless, I almost expected to see his name after Gauthier was sent down yesterday. He’s cut from the same cloth as Foegele, McGinn, and Bishop, and I think he has an NHL future as a fourth line energy guy and penalty killing specialist.
We’ve seen a decent bit of Luostarinen this year, so I won’t linger here too long. For all the issues the Checkers have had this year, their top two centermen have not been part of the problem. Luostarinen has been the other half of that duo. Just turning 21 a couple months ago, his development is on a really nice track. He’s playing – and producing – in all three phases for Charlotte, and has registered 11 points (5 goals) in 19 games. He had a seven-game point streak right before being called up to Carolina, and his production has tapered off a tad since returning, but I don’t expect that to last long. He’s plays a physical, power forward game but has a little more skill than I thought he did coming into the year. His skating was questioned in the past, but in my viewings I haven’t seen it as a problem. He’s a good face-off man and makes a ton of little plays on the backcheck and in the defensive zone, creating turnovers and breaking the puck out on his own with regularity. Some may see him as a bottom-six guy, but I think he could be a second line centerman who provides a physical presence, secondary scoring, and special teams acumen within the next year or two.
I talked about Ned in my last article’s player spotlight, but his last few starts have cooled down from that scorching stretch. He has been pretty inconsistent in general this year, but I’m hesitant to put too much of it on him behind a team that’s hung him out to dry far too often. Same scouting report: super athletic, able to recover when his positioning or rebound control aren’t up to par, and when he’s hot he’s near-unbeatable and will win you a lot of games, but he can get too overaggressive with both his puck playing and his positioning/attacking shooters that can leave him out of position and scrambling to get back. He also has occasional, I guess, concentration lapses, that sometimes lead to pretty soft goals. Part of this is due to his lack of size to fall back on, comparatively speaking to today’s giant goalie prototype. He’ll be in the NHL for a cameo at some point this year, at least if Reimer ever cools down and it makes sense to give him some run. They need to do it either way, though, to get a read on him going into 2020-21.
Forsberg has basically been the inverse of Ned this year. He started out fantastic, winning his first four starts, all in impressive fashion, then really hit a wall and turned into a sieve. His first two starts of December were much better, then he got shelled again his last start on Star Wars Night for five goals on 30 shots. Forsberg has solid size, good mobility, and has basically single-handedly won the Checkers some games this year. But he’s also played them out of games they could have won with a save or two. Inconsistency has been the name of the game for the Checker goalies – but, again, the young blue line has been in flux most of this year, and haven’t been particularly helpful in far too many games. But the people who thought he was going to end up backing up Mrazek at some point this year can probably forget about that at this point.
So there you have it. If there are any other questions or comments about players not covered here, or areas of a player’s game I didn’t speak about above, always feel free to gimme a holler on Twitter @bwstanley26 or simply post in the comments. As always, I’ll check in regularly and respond to anything I can help with. Happy holidays to everyone, and I’ll see you next year!