The Hurricanes entered the summer with a decent stable of young defense prospects, and it got significantly better when Noah Hanifin fell to the Hurricanes at #5 in the 2015 NHL draft. The situation got better as the summer wore on as the prospects performed well in summer prospect camp, the Traverse City prospect tourney and then the NHL training camp. The 2-month span from the prospect camp through the NHL training camp was the first chance to get an apples to apples comparison of these players coming from a variety of different leagues last season. Seeing them in NHL preseason action also provided a better indication of their strengths/weaknesses at near NHL game speed and a measure of how close/far they were from being NHL ready.
Most of these players are still a year or even 2 away from stepping into the NHL, and rankings are subject to change as they work to take the next steps in their development. And it is also important to note that the team is obviously mum on exactly who it likes more versus less. But with those caveats aside, here is my 2 cents on where these players fall on a depth chart coming out of the NHL training camp and entering the 2015-16 season and also how I categorize them.
In a category of his own
Ryan Murphy. I have talked about 2015-16 being a fork in the road for him as a Hurricanes defenseman. The short version is that I think he needs to fairly quickly seize at least a third pairing role on the depth chart in Ron Francis’ mind; otherwise he runs the risk of being surpassed by the next generation and becoming trade bait for the Canes to get younger/better at forward.
The old guard
Danny Biega, Keegan Lowe, Rasmus Rissanen. This group includes the set of Hurricanes defenseman who are in the couple classes ahead of Ryan Murphy. I think at a general level, this group has already been surpassed by the kids rising up behind them. All of Biega, Lowe and Rissanen were cut and sent back to Charlotte before younger defensemen Trevor Carrick, Jaccob Slavin, Brett Pesce and Noah Hanifin. Dennis Robertson, who would also have been in this group, was sent away in the Versteeg trade. Unless something changes significantly, I think this group has been surpassed on the “hope for the future” chart and has mostly been relegated to being good, experienced AHLers and emergency NHL depth in the event of numerous injuries.
Michal Jordan. He is the one player from this group who is still in the mix. The 1-way contract that he signed this summer (all of the others are on 2-way deals) is a clear sign that he ranks at the top of this group. He is a little bit like Ryan Murphy in that he needs to quickly dig his feet in as solid NHLer. If he does, he could stay longer-term in the #6/#7 role in which he starts the 2015-16 season. If he does not perform this season, he could find himself back with the rest of this group and mostly in an AHL role.
Past Jordan being the clear #1 in this group, I am not sure how the other 3 rank, but I also am not sure it matters at the NHL level unless 1 of them rises significantly and manages to climb above at least half of the young prospects below.
The young guns
Based on how training camp finished up with Hanifin making the team and others from this group being the last to leave Raleigh, it is reasonable to expect that the future of the Hurricanes blue line will be built primarily from this group.
In order of rank:
1-Noah Hanifin. He is physically ready and has the full set of tools. And despite making a jump from college, he looked to be ready to learn on the job at the NHL level. His strengths are his raw physical ability including size, skating ability and hands that are on par with skilled/scoring forwards. He clearly projects to be a good NHL player. His room for improvement is what you would expect for his age. He needs to tighten up his game and clean up the miscues.
2-Brett Pesce. I would probably have figured Pesce for ranking below Slavin and Carrick before the summer. I put him #2 now because I thought he looked the best of the rest overall in preseason game action. His preseason finished with a pretty eye-opening game playing in the top 4 next to John-Michael Liles at the end of preseason when the real NHLers were in the lineup. He played a simple game, generally stayed out of trouble and did not look to be in over his head in that game. His strength is his crispness playing a simple game and playing with poise under pressure when things do not work. I think you could make a decent argument that out of the entire bunch in this post, he would be the safest/soundest player to drop into the lineup if you had a single must-win game. At least per scouting reports, I guess his weakness might be that he is not expected to have quite the ceiling as a few of the other players. The other thing about Pesce is that he is 1 of only a couple right shots. Ryan Murphy and Roland McKeown are the 2 others from the emerging group.
3-Jaccob Slavin. He too had a solid rookie camp and also drew rave reviews from Coach Bill Peters in the preseason. He did finish the preseason with a real rough outing trying to step onto Just Faulk’s top pair against Alexander Ovechkin and a powerful Caps team. He finally cracked a bit and showed signs of being a (still promising) young player who still had work to do to make the NHL. His strength is that he is cut from the same mold as Noah Hanifin and Haydn Fleury as a big lefty who can skate and carry the puck. His weakness was maybe exposed in that Caps game. He still has some work to do improving his play without the puck.
4-Haydn Fleury. He was noticeably better than last summer (which was not a bad starting) point in the prospect camp and probably the Canes prospects best player at the Traverse City tourney. He carried that forward in the NHL training camp before hitting a bit of a wall toward the end in a tough game against John Tavares and the New York Islanders. He is yet another big lefty who can skate and carry the puck. His strengths are his size and mobility. His weakness is that he still needs work at being able to play with poise and mostly without mistakes at NHL speed.
5-Trevor Carrick. He was the only player in this group with anything more than a few games experience at the AHL level. He had a good season in Charlotte last season and seems to be on track to play in the NHL. He made cuts past the ‘old guard’ group, but I still think he rates at the bottom of this competitive group. If I am right that Carrick rates at the bottom of this list, it will be interesting to see if he becomes a trade asset to improve the team’s depth at forward. His strength is his above average ability to move the puck and a bit of a rough and tumble style. At least in limited viewing this summer, I thought his weakness was that he struggled sometimes moving the puck from his own end when pressured and forced to make decisions.
6-Roland McKeown. In terms of raw ability, scouts do not usually project McKeown as high as Fleury, Hanifin and maybe even Slavin. But he has a fairly high pedigree as a second rounder and comes with real high marks in terms of character and work ethic. Not every defenseman in a lineup will be an elite player. McKeown could be positioned to quietly just work his way up and arrive a bit later. He is a right shot which puts him theoretically in competition with Murphy and Pesce for the 2 slots below Faulk. His strength is probably his work ethic and character in addition to being a fairly sound all-around player in the international amateur tourneys. His weakness is probably simply that he does not have quite the mobility or puck-moving ability as the players rated higher on this list.
7-Tyler Ganly. As a player who was not drafted highly but played his way up to the NHL, Ganly is a bit of a different flavor as a rough and tumble, old school, physical defenseman. He projects more to be a third pairing or a #7 defenseman in a few years, but because of his slightly different style could fit as a depth guy. His strength is his physical, difficult to play against style. His weakness is that he does not have the elite skater/puck mover potential as some of the others.
8-Josh Wesley. He made progress in his first season in juniors and needs to do so again to make progress toward the NHL. He has NHL pedigree in his family and projectable NHL size. He just needs to keep improving his game across the board to earn and ready for a jump to the AHL next fall. His strength is his NHL size and above average offensive ability/instincts. He needs to improve his skating and basic defensive ability to make the next steps.
If I had to project a Hurricanes blue line 3 years out, I think it looks like:
Noah Hanifin – Justin Faulk
Haydn Fleury or Jaccob Slavin – Brett Pesce
Haydn Fleury or Jaccob Slavin – Ryan Murphy or another player who rises up through ranks.