The second practice group on Sunday featured primarily the AHL and lower-level prospects except for a handful who were lucky enough to practice with the NHL squad in the morning.
I was initially disappointed when I learned that they would not be having the usual Red/White Game at the Caniac Carnival. That game which features the prospect groups always represented a good opportunity to evaluate the prospects in game action. But Sunday’s second practice session was reasonably good for the same purpose. Whereas the NHL practice was tactically focused on special teams which was 75 percent of the practice, the afternoon practice was heavier on training camp type drills and a variety of game-ish situation drills.
Below is a set of somewhat random player notes and observations most in stream of consciousness format since I am worn out after a long day.
He had his best day in what has been a somewhat ‘meh’ September for him. Important to note is that Sunday’s drills which were heavy on a bunch of open ice and playing offense with a numbers advantage is in his wheelhouse, so more impressive will be if he can have an ‘every shift’ put on a similar power forward display in a preseason game with more crowded ice on an every shift basis. But giving credit where it is due, Gauthier was dynamic on Sunday. He had a number of good plays, but I think his best sequence was in a drill that went 2-on-2 one way and then back 2-on-1 the other way. First, he skated literally right through a defenseman on the way to the net for a “Oh my goodness, there’s going to be a train wreck!” goal at the one end and then prettily sniped a goal bar in at the other end. Then to finish off the day, he kept creating a 20-foot gap between him and the next skater in his group in the hard skating finish to the practice. STRONG would be the word that comes to mind for him on Sunday. Every time he sort of fades into the background with a quiet stretch that leaves me wanting a bunch more in terms of being an every shift difference-maker, he puts on a mini-display that shows just how high his ceiling is, and part of me says, “Paaattiiennncceee.”
Like most 18-year olds, he has a way to go to round out his game and has work to do to improve in terms of skating and mobility to reach the NHL in the future. But he impresses for having a fairly full tool bag in terms of offensive ability. He has a good release, good ability to pick and hit corners for his age and a shot and/or release combination that seems to fool goalies on occasion. He also has great hands, vision and ability to distribute the puck such that he is not one trick pony as a shoot only player. The work list for him is mobility-centric – speed, acceleration and skating technique.
He is a completely different player with the puck on his stick and without. Based largely on what he did in Traverse City, I think Bean could be a serviceable second power play unit point man today with upside that could come quickly once he adjusts to NHL speed. He also looks comfortable and capable with the puck on his stick in his own end looking to advance. He has a combination of vision, smarts and skating ability that project to be NHL-capable.
But Bean’s play without the puck is a different story. I think the biggest thing is that he still looks incredibly uncomfortable and uncertain defending a forward coming at him with a head of steam. His natural tendency is to back up and/or leave a big gap such that he does not get beaten. But by leaving so much space, he gives the opposing player an easy path to go inside or outside. At that point having taken nothing away from the opposing player and also having allowed him to build up speed, he is in a really bad place to do much of anything. Some combination of strength, learning where, when and how he can shrink gaps and just simply having the guts to do it and living with some mistakes are necessary for him to take the next step defensively. With preseason action yet to come, things can change by a wide margin with a strong game against NHL-ish competition, but my assessment as of right now is that he will not be a surprise dark horse and challenge for a roster spot in 2017-18.
I have talked about Lorentz intermittently of late. He is not in the category of players who could surprise and seize an NHL spot now, but he is a great story and a player who continues to make step-wise progress toward beating long odds as a seventh-round draft pick and one day playing in the NHL. I would still not label skating as a strength relative to higher draft pedigree prospects, but Lorentz has improved significantly in the two years since being drafted. On Sunday and in general, he showed a decent knack for finishing and making plays in addition to consistently going to the front of the net without the puck. He will be interesting to watch as he takes the next step in Charlotte.
Wesley is a bit different from Lorentz in that he is already on year deep at the professional level, but if I had to pick both a defenseman and forward who were toward the bottom of the organizational depth chart but have impressed me recently, Lorentz and Wesley would be front runners. He is still odd to watch for me because he is nothing like his father. The younger Wesley is a right shot and also much more offensive-minded. As a player who could not crack the AHL lineup on a regular basis in 2016-17, I really like a couple things about his long-term potential. First is that he has good NHL size at 6 feet 3 inches tall and 200 pounds. He can likely add a few more pounds without trading mobility at which point he would probably rate as slightly above average size-wise for the NHL. Second is that he plays with an ‘attack the puck mindset.’ He makes some judgement errors in the process, but he reminds me of Slavin and Pesce in the sense the he has a natural tendency to want to step up at the blue line and to make plays to separate opponents from pucks. He needs to improve at decisions related to this, but I think in today’s NHL where being a defenseman is all about attacking and taking away time and space Wesley’s starting point doing that naturally is a good one. I think it will be easier for a player like him to improve on judgement versus a player who sits back too much trying to completely change how he defends style-wise.
So the Hurricanes entered the 2016-17 NHL training camp with Hanifin, Murphy and Tennyson penciled in the 5-7 defense slots. When Tennyson struggled and was surprisingly sent to Charlotte in an early round of cuts and Murphy was injured, there was suddenly an open try out for an NHL roster spot on the blue line. McKeown won that try out even over Haydn Fleury, but Francis decided it was best to let McKeown develop in Charlotte, and he went to the waiver wire to add help in the form of Klas Dahlbeck and Jakub Nakladal.
Fast forward to the 2017-18 training camp, Fleury passed McKeown on the depth chart during the 2016-17 AHL season. But if you are McKeown, you have to believe you can win another open try out. So on Sunday with an NHL group and about six extras including Carrick and Fleury practicing in the morning, I do not think McKeown was happy about being in the afternoon group, and it showed. He played with a physical edge through the entirety of practice. His physical play was not dirty or dangerous, but it was noticeable as he dumped a couple of the big forwards to the ice in one-on-one battles.
I like his intensity, and I am sure that the coaches and staff also noticed the fire in his belly.
Maybe a little bit like McKeown, as a medium-pedigree draftee Zykov seems like another who is a bit lost in the shuffle with the newest prospects moving up. He looks a step quicker to me this fall which is significant for a player who brings a decent amount of skill and a propensity to create havoc in and around the crease. He was still wearing a yellow no-contact jersey today, but I would love to see him in game action to see my initial impression of him being a step quicker checks out.
Saving the best for last, the more I see Necas play, the more I think Francis and his scouting staff might have found a steal at #12. His skating is phenomenal. In two-man rush drills, he seemed to fly ahead of his partner every single time and then need to adjust to either stay onside or make it a 2-on-1 by waiting for help. What impresses me most is that he is so effortless and smooth. In addition to flat out speed, he also reminds of Jeff Skinner a bit in that he has that ability to go any direction somewhat unpredictably at any time. He also has the ability to begin accelerating before he even comes out of a turn such that he turns the corner in small spaces in a hurry. This kind of quick, shifty skating ability is a key ingredient for being able to create one’s own shot.
Necas is near the top of my dark horse watch list entering this week’s preseason action. He can and will add a bit more strength in the next few years, but for a team that needs offensive ability and goal scoring, it will be interesting to see if he can show the potential to help with that now instead of later.
I have a smaller amount of notes and thoughts on a few other players and will pull them in at some point.
What say you Caniacs?
Who else has comments from the second practice group?