The long 6-month, 82-game NHL season is a demanding one that invariably requires some stretches of ‘next man up’ when injuries mount and take a toll. Because of that, it is important to have ready depth that spans positions and skill sets available at the AHL level.
Today’s Daily Cup of Joe is part 1 of 2 looking at the fringe AHL/NHL players in the Hurricanes system heading into the 2019-20 season. Today’s part 1 looks at the success of this group for 2018-19 and categorizes the players.
Strong contributions from AHL call ups for 2018-19 Carolina Hurricanes
The Carolina Hurricanes scored incredibly well in that regard during the 2018-19 season. Warren Foegele won a roster spot in training camp. When Victor Rask lost his battle with a sweet potato, Lucas Wallmark stepped up into an NHL role and never missed a beat. When Martin Necas proved not yet ready for an NHL role, the team rotated through a series of AHL call ups who all held their own. Nicolas Roy and Janne Kuokkanen were competent in short stints before Clark Bishop won the job at least temporarily and hit the ground running as a serviceable NHL forward. Later in the season, Greg McKegg more permanently seized a place in the NHL lineup and was part of the group that pushed up into the the playoffs in the second half of the year. A string of injuries during the playoffs pushed Patrick Brown into the lineup with shorter runs for Aleksi Saarela and Clark Bishop.
The ability for multiple players to jump into NHL action without seeming to be in over their heads or like a deer in the headlights trying adjust is a testament to Mike Vellucci and the Charlotte Checkers’ ability to prepare players for NHL action.
Need for different types of players at the AHL/NHL fringe
The group of players who were involved in the early season revolving door also highlights the need for different types of players at the ready at the AHL level. I view these players in four categories with some players who straddle a couple of them.
Proven depth with decent amount of NHL experience who can fill in as needed
For 2018-19, Greg McKegg was a perfect example of an experienced AHL/NHL fringe player during the regular season and Patrick Brown was the same in the playoffs. Having a couple veterans available is important for when the injury bug hits.
2019-20: Brian Gibbons, Saku Maenalanen, Anton Forsberg, Gustav Forsling.
Handicapping the group: Based on his play down the stretch in 2018-19 Maenalanen is likely to find his way onto the opening day roster. Especially if van Riemsdyk is not ready to start the 2019-20 season, Forsling will be given every chance to win a spot in the bottom pairing. He enters training camp with more NHL experience than anyone else in that competition. Forsberg is deep on the depth chart for now, but useful goalie depth with NHL experience. Gibbons is a valuable addition for the top of the depth chart in the AHL and with NHL experience should injuries require deeper NHL depth.
High-end prospect with the potential to become top half of the lineup difference-makers
While there is always a need for capable depth, the Holy Grail of player development and the AHL is to develop a handful of players who can be difference-makers at the NHL level. Martin Necas’ tough start in the NHL followed by a nice rebound at the AHL level highlights the uncertainty of this group in terms of schedule and even just if they ever make it at all. But because buying quality players at escalated prices that incurs significant risk is not a viable long-term strategy, this group is critical. Teams must be able to develop some number of higher-end players internally.
2019-20: Martin Necas, Jake Bean, Alex Nedeljkovic, Julien Gauthier.
Handicapping the group: After a strong rebound in Charlotte after failing to launch at the NHL level last season, Necas should again be given a chance to win an NHL roster spot. With a strong rookie professional season and room made at the bottom of the NHL blue line Bean figures to get a shot at the NHL level sometime during the 2019-20 season. Nedeljkovic may be temporarily pushed back to the AHL with the addition of Reimer, but with the need to clear waivers starting in 2020-21, the Hurricanes have every incentive to get him some NHL starts. Gauthier is not as certain to see NHL ice time but like Bean is reaching the point where it is time to see if he has NHL chops.
Developed prospects maybe with a lower ceiling but who fit a role and are capable
In addition to having a few proven veterans and as many young, high ceiling prospects as possible, true depth comes from being able to develop players, especially from the middle rounds, to become capable NHL players who can fill a certain role. For 2018-19, Warren Foegele, Lucas Wallmark and Clark Bishop would be great examples of this, though Foegele and Wallmark could prove to have much more upside entering only their second NHL seasons. This category is where true system depth lives as good organizations find the right recipe of drafting and developing to convert a decent number of mid or even late round draft picks into capable NHL players.
2019-20: Haydn Fleury, Clark Bishop, Janne Kuokkanen (torn on whether he still belongs in the higher-end prospect category, but at a minimum, his two-way play puts him here).
Handicapping the group: Fleury is clearly a front-runner to see ice time in the bottom pairing especially early in the season if van Riemsdyk is out. Bishop lacks scoring upside but showed his speed and tenacity on the forecheck are a good fit for Brind’Amour’s system. He likely gets pushed to the AHL to start the season, but if/when the team needs plug and play, he could be it. Kuokkannen is a bit of a restart after missing significant time due to injury.
Teams also usually carry a few players who are AHL veterans who are unlikely to contribute at the NHL level. These players are important for setting the tone and helping teach professionalism to the waves of group of 19-20 year olds that arrive each season. This group is not likely to see the NHL level, but still plays an important role in building a winning culture at the AHL level. Dennis Robertson who departed is a good example of this type of player.
2019-20: None. (Trevor Carrick could slot here as could newcomer Alex Lintuniemi if they do not push up into the NHL mix.)
Handicapping this group: In years past, the Hurricanes have had upwards of five players who might have fit this category. In not being able to retain players like Poturalski, Robertson and Brown, the Hurricanes are nearly devoid of players who would qualify as AHL veterans without much chance for an NHL impact. I think part of this is the team having more true prospects, but there could also be an angle on controlling costs at the AHL level.
To be determined
In addition to the players I slotted into the four basic categories, the Hurricanes have a couple wild cards and also a group of players who are still early in their development and yet to really reach a specific category. The hope is that a couple of these players become success stories like Jaccob Slavin and Brett Pesce who were drafted in the middle rounds. But just becoming capable depth players will be a win for many of these players.
In trying to sort the AHL and fringe NHL players neatly into groups, I struggle to figure out where Roland McKeown go, so I will put them in sort of a TBD category called ‘wild card’.
2019-20: Roland McKeown, Trevor Carrick.
Handicapping the group: McKeown has improved steadily. His propensity to play his best hockey in NHL action (mostly preseason) suggests he could at a minimum be a capable NHL depth defenseman. And with McKeown no longer waiver-exempt, what the Hurricanes do with him in 2019-20 will be interesting. He seems like a player who is ready for a more extended NHL chance, but is not clear that the Hurricanes have room for him. The same is true for veteran AHLer Trevor Carrick. He would likely have received at least an injury fill in audition at the NHL level with most teams but has been relegated to honing his skills at the AHL level. If the Hurricanes can keep him, he seems to fit as veteran, developed depth, but that is only if he can gain some NHL experience. Carrick could also be a player who departs to find a better opportunity like Patrick Brown did.
Early in development process – TBD
The Hurricanes also have a number of players who are still too early in development to be categorized. The hope is that a few of these players will play their way into either higher-end prospect or developed capable role player category.
2019-20: Eetu Luostarinen, Stelio Mattheos, Morgan Geekie, Spencer Smallman, Steven Lorentz, Jesper Sellgren, Jeremy Helvig, Callum Booth, Jacob Pritchard and Alex Lintuniemi.
Handicapping the group: Luostarinen, Mattheos and Sellgren will all be AHL rookies next season, so they are a bit unknown yet though each has at least medium-range potential. Geekie had a strong AHL rookie campaign in 2018-19 and seems to be tracking toward the NHL. I view Smallman and Lorentz as somewhat similar to where Bishop was a couple years ago as a mid/late-round draftee who needed to carve out a role at least at the AHL level to earn a next contract. Pritchard and Lintuniemi are new to the organization but slightly older prospects already.
What say you Canes fans?
1) Which, if any, of my player classifications do you see differently?
2) Where would you put defensemen Roland McKeown and Trevor Carrick? Do you see either as capable of cracking the NHL lineup in 2019-20?
3) Who has other thoughts or discussion points on the AHL/fringe NHL group?