For an update on players named below who are scheduled to move up to Charlotte for 2017-18, please also check out Cory Fogg’s Hurricanes prospect update that covers Canes prospects still active in the Canadian juniors playoffs.
I chatted briefly with Jordan Futrell this week. He is busy wrapping up his school year at UNC-Charlotte. Once he finishes up, he will be writing a couple-part series to put a bow on the Charlotte Checkers successful 2016-17 season and the progress made by the Hurricanes prospects playing at the AHL level.
With Jordan away and need to fill a long summer with daily posts, I am taking a turn talking Checkers hockey, not in terms of directly evaluating the players but more from a structural roster standpoint heading into the 2017-18 season.
2016-17 Charlotte Checkers’ success driven largely by AHL veterans
With the Checkers making the playoffs for the first time since the 2012-13 season, a common narrative was how the Hurricanes’ prospects had led the Checkers back to the playoffs. The evidence for that story was a bit ‘iffy.’
In net, the Checkers turned to veteran AHL/NHL goalie Michael Leighton until he was injured and then made trade deadline deal to add veteran AHLer Tom McCollum who was one of the team’s best players down the stretch.
On defense, newer prospects Haydn Fleury and Roland McKeown played roles as did 23-year old Trevor Carrick, but the group also included AHL veterans Philip Samuelsson, Dennis Robertson and Jake Chelios.
At forward, Aleksi Saarela’s scoring burst after arriving from Finland was a big story as was the play of Lucas Wallmark and Andrew Poturalski. But again, much of the surge was driven by AHL veterans including Andrew Miller, Danny Kristo and Connor Brickley and also recent NHLers Phil Di Giuseppe, Andrej Nestrasil and Patrick Dwyer.
When one nets it out, the story of the Hurricanes’ young guns leading the way to victory at the AHL level in 2016-17 was quite overdone.
Changing of the guard for the 2017-18 season
Charlotte Checkers forwards for 2017-18
But especially at forward, fans can expect to see a changing of the guard for the 2017-18. No doubt, a few of the veterans who played so well down the stretch in 2016-17 will be retained, but there should also be a significant influx of young prospects into the lineup. Julien Gauthier and Nicolas Roy were already signed before the start of the 2016-17 season and will meet the age requirements to depart Canadian juniors and play at the AHL level next season. In addition, spring contract signings include Warren Foegele, Spencer Smallman and Steven Lorentz who are also expected to move up to the AHL level next season. And then there is Aleksi Saarela who impressed in his short stint in Charlotte after the conclusion of his season in Finland. When added to Lucas Wallmark (21 years old), Andrew Poturalski (23), Sergey Tolchinsky (22) and Valentin Zykov (21) who would all still qualify as prospects, the total is up to ten true prospects playing forward at the AHL level for 2017-18. There is obviously a chance that a couple start at the NHL level and also that one or two drop to the ECHL level to make room for another veteran, but regardless of where everyone lands, the Charlotte Checkers forward corps stand to be much younger in 2017-18.
Charlotte Checkers goalies for 2017-18
The Checkers could go a couple different directions in net, but that position also figures to see more games played by younger prospects. For broader background, check out my article from March 16 that detailed the Hurricanes’ goalie depth chart in some detail. Alex Nedeljkovic will enter his second season as a professional and will be joined by Callum Booth who is coming off a strong season in Canadian juniors. The two will likely set up in opposite creases for practices and begin a head-to-head battle to be recognized as the Hurricanes’ top goalie prospect. The question centers around Daniel Altshuller and a potential third minor league goalie slot. Altshuller is a restricted free agent this summer, so Francis will need to decide if he wants to keep Altshuller and go with three prospect-type goalies in minor leagues. The alternative would be to trade or just not re-sign Altshuller to open up a slot for a veteran AHLer like Leighton or Tom McCollum. In such a scenario, Nedeljkovic and Booth would likely shuffle between splitting starts with the veteran in the AHL and being the starter with a bunch of ice time in the ECHL.
Charlotte Checkers defensemen for 2017-18
In terms of stocking the AHL with younger prospects, the blue line is a bit behind. Important to note is that this situation is mostly a positive driven by players like Jaccob Slavin, Brett Pesce and Noah Hanifin jumping so quickly to the NHL level and leaving a gap below them. If one of Haydn Fleury (more likely based on Jordan’s scouting this season) or Roland McKeown jump to the NHL level in 2017-18, the group in Charlotte will likely be heavy on AHL veterans for the 2017-18 season and even a bit beyond until the Hurricanes can restock the prospect pool for defensemen.
Francis’ vision and three-year effort to build a deeper organization is nearly complete
The rebuilding of the Carolina Hurricanes’ prospect pool that Ron Francis has worked on diligently for three years is starting to rise up through the organization. The Hurricanes depth below the AHL level right now is pretty good with a decent mix of college and Canadian junior players of varying draft levels and positions. The transformation hit the NHL level early with players like Jaccob Slavin, Brett Pesce and Sebastian Aho rising up ahead of schedule. And right in the middle the 2017-18 season should see the transformation begin to hit the AHL level with the blue line the only area really lagging right now in terms of prospect pool depth at all levels.
Be sure to ‘check in’ next week when you should find Jordan’s close out on the 2016-17 Charlotte Checkers including his first-hand assessments for the Carolina Hurricanes prospects who played at that level.