Under cover of the night in the desert of August, we FINALLY have namesake coffee cups. The hope is to set things up to take orders by early next week, but you can see the cups HERE and also help with a quick three-question poll.
In a last week of August series that aims to offer a few short comments on every player either under contract with the Hurricanes or still under draft rights, parts one and two covered a combined 21 players.
Part 3 today takes a look at another batch of Hurricanes players again in categories.
Building a steady and sound fourth line
The fourth line that mostly featured a revolving door on both sides of Jay McClement for the 2015-16 season was a weakness throughout much of that season. When the dust settled on the following offseason, all of Chris Terry, Brad Malone, Nathan Gerbe and Riley Nash were gone. Viktor Stalberg was brought in to add size, speed and defensive acumen on one wing, and veteran defensive forward Joakim Nordstrom mostly manned the other wing. Fast forward to the current offseason, and the Hurricanes training camp will be full of promising young prospects who could provide a bit more scoring on a fourth line. But Francis’ work this summer is telling. He well knows the upside of the prospects but also the inconsistency that is common for first-year players and he decided to add not one but two veteran defensive forwards in Marcus Kruger and Josh Jooris. The excitement of training camp will feature players with higher scoring potential trying to make a case for a roster spot, but it is clear that some combination of Peters and Francis see value in ‘safe and sound’ at the bottom of the forward group which drives the default slots at least heading into training camp.
Some of the debate on Kruger is whether he is the third or fourth line center if Derek Ryan also slots in a bottom half of the roster forward slot. My bet is it will be more situational than set in terms of which center plays more shifts. But regardless of line numbering, Kruger’s strength is his ability to hold his own defensively against good scoring lines, and he is destined to see a bunch of ice time doing exactly that, especially on the road where opposing coaches steer around Jordan Staal.
He is one of two wings who could be vulnerable to higher-end scoring punch, but based on the ‘safe and sound’ priority, I think he enters training camp penciled in on a fourth line that leans defense. He also adds a right shot for face-offs and is penalty kill-capable as well. Jooris might not be the type of dynamic player who will win a bunch of hockey games for his team, but he also is not the type to make egregious mistakes that lose games.
As the team gets deeper at forward, the question is if Nordstrom’s slot could be better used seeking more goal scoring. But until that goal scoring emerges and cannot be denied, Nordstrom, like Jooris, is the default choice for the other wing slot from the ‘safe and sound’ category.
Time to climb the next mountain
First-round draft picks almost assuredly at least get a chance at the AHL level simply because of the significance of their draft pedigree. Second, third and to some degree fourth-round draft picks also have a fairly good chance of at least receiving a chance to develop further at the AHL level. But the last few rounds of the draft are often filled with players for whom the scouting staff saw long-term potential and/or high upside. Many of these players do not progress as hoped and therefore do not ever receive a professional contract. The Hurricanes past few drafts have been pretty successful in terms of uncovering players who have earned a professional contract and three more years to continue working toward becoming an NHL player. These players are not so much in the category of players who could surprise in 2017-18 but rather need to briefly celebrate their jump to the AHL and then get right back to work trying to take the next steps.
Spencer Smallman was a fifth-round pick in 2015. After a couple strong years in juniors, he finds himself bumping up to the AHL. Smallman’s skill set works for becoming a depth forward if he can round out his game. He has the makings of an aggressive forechecker and tenacious depth forward with decent size. The near-term task for him is to win ice time in Charlotte if possible or otherwise use his time in ECHL wisely to add to his game.
Steven Lorentz rose up from either farther down the list as a seventh-round pick in the 2015 NHL draft. Lorentz has the size and style of play to be a new-NHL rugged depth forward with a little bit of offensive ability to boot. He earned his professional contract via four years of step-wise improvement in the OHL and also making strides (pun intended) in terms of skating/mobility. He will need to continue with his upward trajectory skating-wise to eventually match NHL pace and rise to the next level.
And finally, coming from completely off the charts as an undrafted free agent is Andrew Poturalski. As an older player whose entry-level contract was only two years, Poturalski could also be grouped with the players trying to earn their next contracts. But because he established himself at the AHL level and produced offensively in 2016-17, I think his runway is longer which makes him better grouped with players who beat the odds at the lower level and now need to do the same to make the jump from the AHL to the NHL.
Head to head in net
After a couple years of adding new netminders to the prospect pool and doing apples to oranges rankings for players at different ages and playing in different leagues, the 2017-18 season will offer a side by side comparison and battle if you will for the title of top goalie prospect for the Hurricanes.
Alex Nedeljkovic has been tagged as the Hurricanes’ top goalie prospect for a few years now by virtue of his second round draft pedigree and also his strong play in juniors and also under the bright lights of the international tourneys. But he had a bumpy ride taking the step up and adjusting to the higher caliber of play in the AHL in 2016-17. The question for 2017-18 is whether he will take a sizable step up with a year of professional experience under his belt and an offseason to digest it. He enters the 2017-18 still as the #1 goalie prospect but also with side-by-side competition for that claim.
After a strong 2016-17 that saw him close out his OHL career with a solid campaign, Booth faces the challenge that Nedeljkovic did last season. He will try to make the significant jump from the OHL to the NHL without taking a step backward in the process. If Booth can make the transition smoothly and more quickly, he has a chance to vault over Nedeljkovic and put himself in the top slot for the team’s goalie prospect depth chart.
The cornerstones of the blue line
With an average age only a fraction north of 23, the trio of Jaccob Slavin, Brett Pesce and Justin Faulk are poised to be critical parts of the team’s defense. There are young players below who could step up if challenged, but I still think it is critical for these three players to be solid for the Hurricanes to push for a playoff spot in 2017-18.
He is the very definition of a rapid riser with room still yet to grow. If he does exactly what he did in 2016-17 which is be solid defensively against the other teams’ best in a first pairing role and contribute moderately offensively, it will be a fine 2017-18. Based on what he did at the tail end of the 2016-17 season, the possibility of a higher level in terms of offensive productive could be icing on the cake.
Of the various young Hurricanes defensemen at different stages of development and with different skill sets, Brett Pesce might be the least exciting. He is not quite the skater that Hanifin or Slavin is. He maybe does not have the offensive ceiling of Faulk or Bean. And among a group that includes three first-round draft picks, only partner Jaccob Slavin was drafted lower. But what Brett Pesce is is a solid hockey player. He was every bit of 50 percent of the stalwart Slavin/Pesce pairing and is therefore a critical component of the defense going forward.
Pegged as the top defender on a young team entering the 2016-17, I called Faulk’s season one of both ends of the spectrum. He had another incredible year providing rare offense from the back end with a huge 17 goals. But at the same time, he struggled at times defensively in a second pairing role mostly with Ron Hainsey. For the Hurricanes to take the next step up in the standings, the team will need to be at least two pairings deep defensively which puts Justin Faulk in the spotlight for 2017-18 especially if he plays with Noah Hanifin.
Feel free to comment here too, but the Thursday Coffee Shop will take on a similar theme putting players into different kinds of groups and free form, late August discussion about them.