Today’s Daily Cup of Joe steps away from the to be determined, hopefully, maybe status of the 2019-20 season as players return to the ice in small groups hopefully building toward a late summer 2020 NHL Playoffs. Instead of the uncertain here and now, today’s Daily Cup of Joe looks at the most immediate future for the Canes prospect pool.
Last summer, the team mostly opted not to pay a premium for veterans like Patrick Brown, Trevor Carrick and others who played key roles in winning the Calder Cup. The team also parted ways with a couple prospects in Nic Roy and Aleksi Saarela who were potentially at the edge of NHL readiness. The combination of moves saw a significant changeover in terms of Canes personnel at the AHL level, but arguably the changes were from players who either did not fit long-term and/or were unlikely to be more than depth NHL players.
But now on the clock for the Canes prospect pool are two players with higher pedigree and significant potential upside.
First is Jake Bean who is fresh off of being named the AHL defenseman of the year after a stellar sophomore campaign in Charlotte. For a player drafted in the top half of the draft, his development has been more step-wise than explosive. He played both of his remaining years in juniors after being drafted in 2016 and has now logged two years at the AHL level with only a handful of NHL games. That gradual development puts him behind the type of players who emerge more rapidly. From Bean’s 2016 NHL Draft class, Mikhail Sergachev, Charlie McAvoy and Jakob Chychrun have already established themselves as NHL regulars significantly with McAvoy and Chychrun being players that the Canes passed on to select Bean. But only four years after the draft with these players just reaching 22 years of age, this story is still being written, and Jake Bean figures to very soon receive a chance to play a bigger role in the story’s plot.
Though Bean might be behind these other players, this is not at all a story of him not making progress or of him being a flop at the NHL level. He still very much has the tool set of a good modern day NHL defenseman. He has NHL level skating ability and the skill set to generate offense both at even strength and on the power play. And he has made progress development-wise as evidenced by his 2019-20 season at the AHL level. Finally, Bean has not at all failed at the NHL level; he just has not really received a chance yet. Just when it looked like he was set to receive a chance in 2019-20 in a next man up role after a series of Canes injuries, the team opted instead to make two trades to add veteran depth for the stretch run, and then even that was derailed by COVID-19.
But one way or another, Jake Bean figures to finally receive chance during the 2020-21 season. Bean will still be waivers exempt for the 2020-21 season, but the following year he would have to clear waivers, which he likely would not, to return to the AHL level. Combined with Bean having mostly mastered the AHL challenge, the time is now for the Hurricanes to figure out if/where Bean can contribute at the NHL level.
On the one hand, his upside is high. At lower levels, his greatest strength has been his ability to play with the puck on his stick and generate offense both at even strength and on the power play. Increasingly, that ability to be part of the ignition switch offensively is strongly desired if not required at the NHL level. On top of that he has the skating ability and mobility to skate the NHL game on both sides of the puck. Add in a dose hockey IQ and Bean’s ceiling is still potentially high despite his gradual development.
But the challenge will be whether he can be competent or better defensively. That is the cut line for Bean between being a top 4 defenseman who can log 20-ish minutes in all situations without needing to be hidden a bit versus topping out as a third pairing defenseman capable of logging power play minutes and being a kick-starter late in games when the team is down and willing to dial up the risk for potentially more reward to get back into a game. Many Canes followers point to Bean’s AHL success and cannot fathom why he has not already been given more of a chance at the NHL level. I have never been as high on Bean as the consensus just because I have not seen him as being close to NHL-ready in preseason play/training camp nor have I have seen him as exceptional defensively even against his own age group. The biggest thing for me is Bean figuring out how/when to play more aggressively despite not having a real physical edge. At the NHL level, playing passive and safe and leaving too much for gaps is a recipe for not making huge coverage mistakes but yet still being eaten alive by good NHL forwards who make defenders pay when given too much time. By my book, I said about two years ago that Jake Bean could probably step into the NHL and be a competent or better second unit power play quarterback and could maybe survive limited minutes in a somewhat shielded role. But the cut line between being that fringe kind of NHL player or a very good number #5 of possibly top 4 defenseman will be his adjustment/development defensively against NHL forwards.
Because of his pedigree and upside potential, the 2020-21 will be time to roll some dice and give Bean a real opportunity to both show where he is now and also develop under some pressure at the NHL level.
The other player on the clock is goalie Alex Nedeljkovic. His trajectory is somewhat similar to Bean’s. Nedeljkovic came with high draft pedigree as an early second-rounder. He also entered the AHL with as complete of a resume as one can build at the OHL level. Nedeljkovic had excelled at that level, been as good or better in international competition with a US group for his age that was sometimes overmanned and played his best hockey under bright spotlights of the OHL playoffs and international tournaments. He had a rough transition initially when making the jump to the AHL level. But since then he has resumed his climb toward demanding a trial at the NHL level. His second season in the AHL in 2017-18 was significantly better than his first year, and he again showed his ability to play well when it mattered helping the team to the 2018-19 Calder Cup Championship. He then started a bit slow in 2019-20 but found his rhythm midway through the season and became a leading driver in a mid-season surge. Like Bean, I think Nedeljkovic can legitimately say that he has checked the boxes for the AHL level and earned a chance to show what he can do at the NHL level.
That opportunity seemed to be in process with NHL goalies Petr Mrazek and James Reimer injured in March, but then that opportunity was cut short by the abrupt halt to the 2019-20 season with the global pandemic. Just like with Jake Bean, the time is coming in 2020-21 for the Hurricanes to give Nedeljkovic a shot at the NHL level or otherwise cash out and trade him before he is lost to waivers.
The tricky challenge
The challenge for a team like the Hurricanes is giving young, unproven players a legitimate opportunity with some margin for error and time for growth without sinking a season. For a team that is in full rebuilding mode, it is easy to give young players ice time without worrying about consequences if/when there are growing pains. And for teams near the top of the NHL, the gap above the playoff cut line and resulting margin for error decreases the pressure/risk. But for a team like the Hurricanes that has made the playoffs in two consecutive seasons and is looking to rise but thus far has been at or near the cut line, it is harder to just let a young player learn and development if there are growing pains.
That is especially true in net. The odd combination of the 2019-20 season delay and James Reimer’s contract make for an interesting situation. If the Hurricanes are forced to pay Reimer’s $2.25 million signing bonus that was due to be paid early July, he becomes very inexpensive, only $850,000, in terms of actual salary for the 2020-21 season. His cap hit would be $3.1 million but with the Hurricanes needing to save room for the summer of 2021 to re-sign Andrei Svechnikov and possibly Dougie Hamilton, the team might not need all of its cap space anyway for 2020-21. That could open the door to enter the 2020-21 season with three goalies. That situation is never sustainable long-term, but I could see the Canes going that route at least to start the 2020-21 season. The team ultimately needs to figure out what it has in Nedeljkovic, but maybe it also keeps Reimer and his low remaining cost around as an insurance policy. Reimer’s play in 2019-20 has been good. The only reason he is even a debate is the need to get a go/no-go read on Nedeljkovic.
In some ways injuries could make this easier. Nedeljkovic was seeing NHL ice time in March before the season was halted because the team had no choice with Mrazek and Reimer injured. But regardless, the challenge in front of the Hurricanes is to find a way to allocate ice time to vetting these two young players.
What say you Canes fans?
1) What do you project as the ceiling looking out a year or two or three at the NHL level for Jake Bean? How about for Alex Nedeljkovic?
2) How would you manage their situation, role and ice time at the NHL level for the 2020-21 season if you were in charge?