On Thursday, the Carolina Hurricanes announced that the team had signed 2015 draftee Callum Booth to a 3-year entry-level contract. Booth who was selected in the fourth round of the 2015 NHL raft. Booth has progressed since being drafted, so it was expected that he would be signed during or shortly after the 2016-17 season and likely prepare to start his professional career in the Hurricanes organization for the 2017-18 season. The contract is a vote of confidence for Booth, as not all mid-round draft picks ultimately win a contract from the NHL team that drafted them.
As timing would have it, the ‘Midterms’ update on Callum Booth’s 2016-17 season will be posted on Canes and Coffee before mid-day on Friday, so please look for that article later today.
The matriculation of Booth to the next level raises the interesting question of who fits where in the hierarchy of netminders in the Hurricanes organization and prospect pool, and what does that mean for schedule?
When I look at the situation, I break goalies into 3 tiers each with different time frames for being relevant to the NHL equation.
The NHL level
Both Cam Ward and Eddie Lack are under contract through the 2017-18, so as of right now that would be the goaltending tandem for next season. I have written about the Hurricanes goalie struggles and possible directions forward multiple times. At a basic level, none of the other goalies currently in the Hurricanes’ system are expected to be NHL-ready to start the 2017-18, so it is up to Ron Francis to figure out a goaltending tandem for 2017-18 with a starting point but not necessarily ending point of having Cam Ward and Eddie Lack already under contract.
Today and tomorrow
For 2016-17: Cam Ward and Eddie Lack.
For 2017-18: TBD. My best guess is that Ward returns but the Eddie Lack is either bought out or traded to make room to add another NHL-level goalie.
The professional/minor league level (AHL/ECHL)
The next tier is the AHL level which ideally can hold 2-4 developing goalies. Ideally, the AHL team houses a combination of good young goalie prospect or 2 who will ultimately play in the NHL and in a perfect world a #3 goalie for the NHL level in the event of an injury.
I thought Francis handled this incredibly well in the offseason adding Michael Leighton who is an experienced AHLer. As a veteran, he was capable of mentoring Alex Nedeljkovic who was entering his first year at the professional level. But as a veteran with NHL experience, Leighton also gave the Hurricanes a possible third option at goalie without having to pay an NHL salary to do it.
But I think Peters (not sure if Francis had a say in it or not) mismanaged the situation with Leighton and use of the backup in general. Early in the season, Leighton was red hot at the AHL level, yet Peters was hesitant to to turn to him even when Ward and Lack were struggling. When Peters finally gave Leighton a turn, the leash was too short. Leighton had a strong first outing in a win and then a single bad outing which took him out of the picture for more than a month. In the challenging role of a backup who must try to stay reasonably sharp despite lack of work, 1 win/solid effort in 2 tries is not at all bad.
My best guess is that Leighton will not be re-signed though depending on what Ron Francis does at the NHL level, I think one could make a strong case for having a strong #3 available at the AHL level just to make more options to improve at the goalie position in 2017-18.
If Leighton is not re-signed, the Hurricanes currently have young prospects Alex Nedeljkovic and now Callum Booth under contract and also Daniel Altshuller who is a restricted free agent likely to be re-signed this summer. If you count 4 slots as potentially available (2 in the AHL and 2 in the ECHL), there could potentially still be room for a veteran AHLer who basically becomes an NHL #3, but best guess is that the team will allocate AHL and ECHL ice time between the 3 prospects.
Today and tomorrow
2016-17: Michael Leighton (veteran depth/mentor); Alex Nedeljkovic (top prospect); Daniel Altshuller (prospect).
2017-18: Alex Nedeljkovic (top prospect); Callum Booth (top prospect); Daniel Altshuller (prospect). (Interesting will be to see if Francis possibly uses a fourth goalie spot to add a veteran who might be able to help at the NHL level if needed and also if that addition comes at the expense of Daniel Altshuller.)
Wildcards: I think it is possible that Booth plays another year in the QMJHL as an overage player, but my best guess is that his development is better-served by moving up to the challenge of the AHL.
Hurricanes goalie prospects expected to play at AHL level
Alex Nedeljkovic: He has had an up and down 2016-17 season with his share of growing pains making the transition from Canadian juniors to the AHL. This is not so much a glaring negative as a reminder that even good goalies can take 4-5 years after their draft year to develop.
Daniel Altshuller: To be honest, I am not sure what to make of his development and standing in the Hurricanes long-term. He had 1 incredibly hot run in net in Charlotte last season but otherwise has not really staked a claim to a try at the NHL level. Still only 22 years old, Altshuller has time, but he also has a pack of other goalies who will be challenging him for limited slots and ice time in net in the coming years.
Callum Booth: As a fourth-round draft selection, Booth made the progress necessary to win a contract 2 years after his draft year (not all players, especially mid-round draftees, do). He would theoretically enter the 2017-18 season as the franchise’s #2 young goalie prospect behind Nedeljkovic, but once they are playing in the same league theory will quickly be tossed to the side, and the 2 players will be evaluated based on what they do in AHL play.
Prospects below the AHL level
With the uncertainty of young goalies even among those who are tracking well, it is important to have a pool of goalies. The basic idea is to play the field by having multiple options at different stages of development figuring that the pool will yield an NHL-capable player every couple years.
Now through 2 drafts that seems to be Ron Francis’ approach. He drafted a goalie in the middle rounds in 2015 (Callum Booth in the fourth round) and then 2 more in the middle rounds in 2016 (Jack LaFontaine in the third round and Jeremy Helvig in the fifth round).
If Booth graduates to the professional level as expected that could leave the Hurricanes with 2 players still below the professional level on the depth part. Plus with a good number of extra draft picks for the 2017 draft, I would expect Francis and his team to add another goalie, likely during the middle rounds, this summer.
Today and tomorrow
2016-17: Callum Booth, Jeremy Helvig and Jack LaFontaine.
2017-18: Jack LaFontaine, possibly Jeremy Helvig playing as an overage player in Canadian juniors and possibly another goalie or even 2 from the 2017 NHL draft.
Hurricanes goalie prospects below the AHL level
Jack LaFontaine: LaFontaine had a decent 2016-17 season splitting starts 3 ways in a crowded crease at the University of Michigan. He is still early in his development which should continue at Michigan next year. LaFontaine’s ‘Midterms’ report featuring comments from his goalie coach, former NHLer Steve Shields, is HERE.
Jeremy Helvig: To be honest, Helvig is the goalie prospect that I am least up to date on. I am hoping to have a ‘Midterms’ article on him in hand soon. At the superficial stats level, his 2016-17 numbers (2.68 goals against average and .909 save percentage) are not as eye-popping as the 2015-16 numbers (2.13 goals against average and .929 save percentage) that got the Hurricanes’ attention leading into the 2016 NHL draft, but without context, it is impossible to draw conclusions.
I like where the Hurricanes are in terms of volume of goalie prospects at different stages of development.
For this position more than any other, the name of the game is playing percentages and numbers to hopefully find a winner capable of at least being a serviceable backup at the NHL level every couple of years. There are no guarantees on individual players, but I like the Hurricanes chances of doing this with 5 goalie prospects in the system and a seeming commitment to regularly stocking the position with more prospects.