Prospect camp is primarily a roster of 18-20-year olds, the vast majority of whom will not make it to the NHL. For the ones that do, many are still 2-4 years away from making the climb up to the big league. But hockey is a young man’s game, and it is not uncommon for elite player to play in the NHL and do very well at age 18, 19 or 20.
And closer to home, the Carolina Hurricanes have an interesting history of players impressing at this camp, extending their run in the Traverse City tournament, entering training camp with momentum and vaulting up the depth chart and onto the NHL roster ahead of schedule. For whatever reason, the center position in particular has a history of surprises that started in prospect camp. Josef Vasicek played well in the summer and then used an opening and a strong NHL preseason to jump over 2-3 players and win an NHL roster spot 2-3 years before anyone expected it. Eric Staal came to Raleigh as a tall, skinny 18-year old who many expected to return to juniors for at least 1 more season. When he led the NHL in preseason scoring, he earned a 9-game tryout and ultimately spent the entire season in Raleigh. More recently, Victor Rask leveraged a strong summer to build momentum heading into fall. In a story very similar to Vasicek’s from years earlier, he proved to be sound defensively in the preseason which was the foundation of him winning an NHL roster slot at least 1 year before most expected it.
Especially for Gauthier, CBA contract rules could play a huge role in determining whether he makes and stays past 9 games with the Hurricanes this season. For Gauthier and others player development priorities will also play a significant role. There are separate explanations for CBA contract rules and player development considerations at the bottom below the player list.
Without further ado, here is my list in ranked order (important criteria) that players will both start the season on the NHL roster and play at least 20 games at the NHL level followed by players who are reasonably likely to play 20+ games in the NHL but not necessarily start the season in Raleigh:
1) Haydn Fleury
He will enter training camp loosely in a multiple-way battle for the #8 slot on defense. Assuming no addition or subtraction to the current roster, my math has Justin Faulk, Ron Hainsey, Jaccob Slavin, Brett Pesce, Noah Hanifin and Ryan Murphy as the top 6 on day 1 of training camp with Matt Tennyson as the front runner to be the depth/#7 defenseman.
For Fleury to stick around at the start of the season, he will need to play his way into the top 6. It would not make sense to keep him at the NHL level as the #7 (see more detailed description below). As a player moving up from juniors, his development is better served playing 20+ minutes per night instead of sitting in the press box as a #7 in Raleigh. That is why I have Tennyson penciled into a slot in Raleigh. And if an injury opens up a #7 slot, Trevor Carrick who already has multiple years of AHL experience is more likely to be called up to be depth unlikely to actually play.
How does he win a spot? To be on the opening day roster, Fleury must play his way into the top 6 in training camp either because he is better than enough players or because of injuries. If that happens, there will still be some consideration on what is best for his development. The team could decide to go with a more experienced defenseman like Carrick and get Fleury started in the AHL. Fleury will be able to go back and forth freely between the AHL and NHL, so whether or not he starts the season in the NHL is not a final decision. If he looks ready, there is a good chance he sees the NHL at some point.
Odds: Probability of starting the season in Raleigh: 20% (probably requires injuries); Probability of getting a significant trial at the NHL level at some point during the season=60%.
2) Julien Gauthier
As a first year player on an entry-level contract, Gauthier comes with the maximum number of NHL legalese complications. The Hurricanes get a significant benefit if he spends another year in juniors because 1 of the 3 inexpensive years on his entry-level contract (ELC) would roll forward a year. Because of these complexities, it is not as simple as Gauthier showing up in September and being 1 of the best 12 or 13 forwards in a try out. If he is for example the tenth best forward but only marginally better than veteran options, it will make much more sense not to burn a year on his ELC.
How does he win a spot? To win a spot, Gauthier will probably need to play his way into the top 9 and do so in a way where he is significantly better than the other options. But I actually think that is fairly possible. His power forward skill set with finishing ability is 1 that could fit very well on a roster that is a little light on size, scoring and scoring from the crease area. The path goes like this.: If he plays well and looks NHL-ready in preseason, it is a fairly easy decision for the Hurricanes to keep him at the NHL level for 9 games. The tenth game is the one that burns a year on his ELC, so the first 10 games are free in that regard. To stay past the 9 games, he would need to earn it.
Odds: Probability of starting the season in Raleigh=60% (this is probably a little high, but I just think he is ready or very close based on what I saw this week); Probability of staying after 9 games: 30% (again it becomes more complex and weighing a set of contract pros and cons after 9 games).
3) Roland McKeown
My estimation is that Fleury is closer to ready. The interesting advantage that McKeown has that could come into play is that he is a right shot. With Wisniewski’s buy out, I think the slot most open for preseason competition is the third pairing slot on the right side. Ryan Murphy should enter camp as the front runner to win that slot, but he is still relatively unproven at the NHL level. Recent signee Matt Tennyson is also a right shot who could play there. And it is also possible to either put a left shot in that position and juggle things around a bit by playing Jaccob Slavin on the right side. He did that some last season and actually entered the professional ranks more comfortable playing on the right which is his off side. All of that said, if the Canes want 3 pairs of right/left on the blue line, McKeown is a dark horse to win the most available slot.
How does he win a spot? To make the opening day roster, McKeown probably needs some combination of injuries and weak preseasons from players currently above him on the depth chart. On top of that, he needs to play well enough that Coach Bill Peters decides to fill the opening with McKeown instead of playing a lefty on the right side.
Odds: Probability of starting the season in Raleigh=10%; Probability of seeing some time in Raleigh=35%. Some combination of McKeown playing well and injuries give him a decent chance to see some time in Raleigh. Another March with playoff hopes already gone would also make it easier to do auditions at the NHL level this season. (Let’s hope that does not happen.)
4) Nicolas Roy
Roy is a bit like Gauthier in that he needs to either stick at the NHL level or be returned to juniors for the entirety of the season. He also has the 9-game trial option and the ability for the Canes to roll his entry-level contract forward 1 more year. All of these things suggest that Roy will most likely play another year in juniors before entering the mix at the professional level for 2017-18. But along with Gauthier’s claim to adding a power forward, Roy is a center which is a position where there is potentially an opening. The Canes have 3 centers locked in in Jordan Staal, Victor Rask and Jay McClement. The team also has 3 players in Sebastian Aho, Elias Lindholm and Teuvo Teravainen who are natural centers and could play there in 2016-17. But all are still trying to find a higher gear at the NHL level (Aho just entering as a rookie) and none have much experience playing center (Teravainen and Lindholm have seen more time at wing). The situation is interesting in that Roy could seize a center slot in training camp and also because we have witnessed a very similar story 3 times with Josef Vasicek, Eric Staal and Victor Rask as noted above. Roy participated only on Wednesday and Saturday this week. He was out ill on the middle 2 days.
How does he win a spot? I think it takes 3 things for Nicolas Roy to play his way into the mix first and then onto the roster. First and foremost, he needs to prove he can handle the NHL pace. He is not a fleet footed speedster by any means. Against NHL level competition in preseason, Roy will need to demonstrate that he can keep up and/or play the almost flawless positional game that Victor Rask uses to be a very good 2-way center despite having average speed at best. Second, Roy’s chances would benefit if none of Lindholm, Teravainen or Aho look good at center in preseason. Finally, Roy obviously needs to have a great training camp. The easiest and default choice is to push his ELC out another year and give him another year to develop in juniors, so his preseason needs to scream ‘keep me’ for him to stay.
Odds: Probability of starting the season in Raleigh: 15%. Like Gauthier he can do a 9-game trial, so especially if the Canes have injuries at forward, he could get that. Probability of staying past 9 games=5%. You can bump both percentages up if he looks fast enough early in training camp and then again if he looks to be the best young center in the group.
5) Alex Nedeljkovic
With Nedeljkovic, like with the other young players except even more so, is to do what is right for his development. The AHL is a step up in competition and a great opportunity for him to log a bunch of games against better competition as he continues to grow as a player. The difference between goalie and other positions is that the #2 goalie does not play whereas a #12 forward or #6 defenseman would at least get ice time. Because of that, it makes almost zero sense to put Nedeljkovic in a #2 role at the NHL level at the beginning of the season regardless of injuries or how well he plays in the preseason. If the Canes hit an injury at goalie, best guess is that the team would promote Altshuller and leave Nedeljkovic to play a heavy load in Charlotte.
What does it take to win a spot? To start the season, I think it is almost impossible. It would probably require both Ward and Lack getting injured. That said, there is a somewhat greater chance that he could get a short look during the season if he first shows he can master the AHL level. That probability increases even more if the Hurricanes find themselves out of the playoff hunt in March and Nedeljkovic has played well at the AHL level up until that point.
Odds: Probability of starting the season in Raleigh=1%; Probability of seeing a limited number of games at the NHL level in the second half of the season either because an injury makes an opening or because the team is doing auditions again in March=25%.
A couple other notables
Jake Bean: Lack of mention of Jake Bean maybe deserves some explanation since he is a first round draft pick and actually selected ahead of Julien Gauthier who is given a reasonable chance to play at the NHL level this season. First, it is important to note that the fact that Bean is not on this list is not a negative comment on where he ultimately ends up. The goal in the first round is to draft players who have a high potential to one day be great. But each is different and comes with a different time line based on skill set and physical maturity as an 18-year old. Bean faces 2 challenges. First, the Hurricanes are deep on defense with 6 young up and comers at the NHL level, Carrick in waiting in the AHL and McKeown and Fleury who are 2 years older than Bean on the way. Second, as a smaller player, he will likely need a bit more time to mature physically in terms of strength and speed. So the shorter version is that saying that Bean has little chance to make the 2016-17 roster is in no way reflective of his chances of being a great player in a couple years.
Janne Kuokkanen: He is a bit similar to Bean in that despite being a good young player, he will probably benefit from another year developing physically. In addition, his development path might be slightly influenced by Sebastian Aho’s path. Aho is also Finnish, has a somewhat similar skill set and made tremendous strides in 2015-16 by returning home for 1 more season in Finland.
Valentin Zykov: If I had to pick 1 wild card at forward based on prospect camp, I think it would be Zykov. He plays the heavy and rugged game physically but with some skill to boot. Especially if injuries open up an extra spot or 2 at forward, I think Zykov could play his way into the mix for a fourth line slot competing against the other Charlotte forwards.
What I will be watching most closely at the start of training camp
I think Nedeljkovic and McKeown’s extremely slim chances to start in the NHL would more than anything require a strange series of events mostly of the injury variety. The players and situations that I will be watching most closely are Fleury, Roy and Gauthier. For Fleury, he needs to stand out as just being flat out better than the other options on defense. For Roy, my first read is all about his ability to play at NHL pace in scrimmages and preseason games. For Gauthier, is it possible that he is ready to be a dominant NHL power forward despite his young age of 18? I am not sure that scenario is too far-fetched and will be sitting on the edge of my seat watching him in September.
Below the line is a fairly long and detailed read on the NHL legalese and other considerations that come into play for young players for those who dare. 🙂
The NHL Collective Bargaining Agreement legalese and player development priorities
The try outs that happen in NHL training camps are not nearly as simple as the top 12-13 forwards make it, the top 6-7 defensemen make it and the top 2 goalies make it. There are a number of other factors that come into play both in terms of player development.
Player development: It is very important to have a proper balance that has some bias toward doing what is best for players’ long-term development over the current season. There are a couple no-brainers. It makes very little sense to put a really young defenseman in a #7 slot or a forward in a #13 slot whose job is to sit in the press box in Raleigh and be ready in case someone is injured in warm ups. Same is true for the backup goalie. So this applies especially to Fleury, McKeown and Nedeljkovic who are just moving up from juniors and will benefit from a heavy dose of their first AHL experience. Better to put an NHL veteran (think Tennyson on defense or maybe someone like Patrick Brown or Brody Sutter at forward) in those slots and let the kids play a ton of minutes in the AHL. The holds true to a slightly lesser degree for even playing roster slots. A player like Fleury might be better served playing 20+ minutes per night in all situations in the AHL instead of limited ice time in a sheltered role in the NHL. More briefly, there is a significant bias toward not putting young players in non-playing NHL spots especially but also to some degree limited role slots.
Keep them or lose them for the entire year rule for Canadian juniors players: To protect that Canadian junior hockey leagues and give them some of their best players back, the NHL has an agreement with those leagues that says that drafted 18-year olds in their first 2 years after being drafted must either stay at the NHL level or be returned to their junior teams. This means that Canadian junior players cannot be sent to the AHL to be on ready call in the event of injuries. In addition, once a Canadian junior player is cut from the NHL team and returned to Canadian juniors, he cannot be recalled to the NHL (except in the event of emergency) until his junior season is over. The most notable impacts are Jake Bean, Julien Gauthier and Nicolas Roy. For these players, if the Hurricanes cut them from the NHL roster, the only option is to return them to their junior team. If the team does that, they are essentially gone until next season save possibly for a very short call up for players whose teams do not make the playoffs.
Entry-level contracts and the slide: Another thing from the NHL legalese that comes into play is the rules for entry-level contracts. At a basic level, all entry-level contracts are formula driven for the most part. Newly-drafted players or players who are drafted but not signed until later sign a 3-year entry-level contract (ELC) that is pretty much formula driven based on what round/slot they were selected in. There are some bonuses that are negotiable, but at a basic level the NHL salary is fixed at something less than $1 million per season for those 3 years and there are some performance bonuses that can be earned. The result is that these players are generally a bargain for these 3 years earning barely over the NHL minimum. In addition, the 3 years do not start until the player plays at the professional level for at least 10 games in a season.
So for example, Jake Bean and Julien Gauthier both just signed 3-year contracts. If they play 10 or more games at the NHL level this season, it will count as the first year of that contract. If instead, they play 9 games or fewer at the NHL level and are then returned to their Canadian junior team, the first year of the ELC will not be until the 2017-18 season. There are some random complexities, but at a basic level Canadian junior players can have their ELCs slide for 2 years before they move up in the third season after their draft year. United States NCAA players cannot actually be signed at all because they would then be ineligible to play college hockey which is only for amateurs. But the result is similar whereby the NHL team retains the player’s rights through his college career and then signs him to an ELC 2-4 years after drafting them when they transition from college to professional hockey.
There is significant benefit in the ‘slide’ especially for teams like the Carolina Hurricanes whose internal budget is less than the salary cap. The best way to build a $60 million team that can compete with $74 million teams is to avoid bad contracts that have players paid too much for their role and then also to have a few good players who are paid inexpensively relative to their roles. The easiest way to do the latter is to have good players playing on ELCs. Connor McDavid’s NHL salary for his first 3 years will be a bargain basement $932,000. Bonuses increase this, but he is still a bargain relative to fair market value for a similar player. So in effect the slide makes it possible for Julien Gauthier’s 3 bargain seasons to be when he is 18-21 years old or as old as when he is 21-24 years old. Odds are that Gauthier will continue to improve and be an even better player in a couple years. Because of this, the amount of bargain that a team gets in its entry-level contracts generally increases if they wait to push players to the NHL level until they are “over ripe” to use a term that Canes GM Ron Francis used recently.
The 9-game rule: A year of the entry-level contract is deemed spent when a player plays his tenth game at the NHL level (or in some cases the AHL level but usually not for Canadian junior players). So with top draft picks who are Canadian junior players it is very common to see these players exit training camp and kept at the NHL level for 9 games. The first 9 games are essentially free (player still gets paid) in the sense that they do not burn the first year of the ELC. When the player plays his tenth game, it officially uses the first year of the ELC. And remember from above, that once a player is returned to his Canadian junior team, he generally cannot be recalled until that season is over. So the 9-game window is often the only chance for an NHL team to do a quick audition at the NHL level. This rule also applies to Jake Bean, Julien Gauthier and Nicolas Roy. Per my notes above, this rule actually increases the odds that a Canadian junior player will stay at the NHL level for 9 games and decreases the probability that a competing AHL player would win the same slot. Remember that the AHL player can be recalled later whereas the Canadian junior player cannot. So because of this Gauthier, Roy and to some degree Bean have a greater chance of making the opening day roster but also a reasonably high probability that if they do, they will still be sent back to juniors after 9 games in the NHL.
The volume of young players who look like they might be NHL-ready should make for an interesting training camp and preseason.