After some time to digest the latest chance to evaluate the younger part of the Carolina Hurricanes’ prospect pool at prospect camp in late June, today’s Daily Cup of Joe attempts to make sense of the blue line portion of the group.
With Jaccob Slavin, Brett Pesce and Haydn Fleury already up at the NHL level and Noah Hanifin already departed from the group, I like to think of the prospect pool across two categories — nearness to being ready and potential ceiling. The first aims to measure ability to help soon, and the second measures the potential to find an impact player or two.
I have started to group the Hurricanes’ blue line prospects into three fairly broad categories:
Near-term NHL depth (2)
Roland McKeown and Trevor Carrick
For players who have proven themselves at the AHL level and seem ready or near-ready to step into the NHL at least in a depth role and be serviceable or better, I count two players – Roland McKeown and Trevor Carrick. McKeown always seems to find a higher gear in NHL action be in preseason to prove a point or in the regular season when given a chance. He burst onto the professional scene by more or less winning the last defenseman roster spot at the NHL level before the 2016-17 season. Ron Francis thought better of it and added depth defensemen off the waiver wire, so McKeown could log a ton of ice time in Charlotte and continue his development. I do not see his ceiling as being as high as some of the other players, but I think at a minimum he is capable of filling in at the NHL level. At 24 years old, Trevor Carrick is a bit more controversial in this category, as he clearly straddles the fence between being NHL-capable versus just a good AHL player. From what I have seen of Carrick, I view him as a fringe AHL/NHL player who leans AHL and is best slotted as deep NHL depth in the event of an injury. But I am also on record as hoping that he gets his chance to prove he can make it in the NHL.
High upside prospects (3)
Luke Martin, Adam Fox and Jake Bean
As a first-round draft pick, Jake Bean has always lived near the top of the Hurricanes prospect rankings. I am on record as being lower on Bean’s potential than most simply because my opinion is that the defensive part of his game is still lagging by too much. I think Bean could be serviceable quarterbacking the second unit of an NHL power play today, and in his comfort zone with the puck on his stick and a bit of time/space to assess things, I think he could also thrive. The issue is that even for an offensive-minded defenseman in today’s NHL that favors such players a minimum level of defensive competency is still required. I am not sure Bean is there or even close to there yet, and I think he needs time in the AHL to work on that part of his game. But the NHL is unmistakably moving in the direction of skating and creating defensemen. That is exactly what Bean is and exactly why he could prove me wrong and become a difference-maker as an NHLer. Luke Martin is almost an exact opposite of Bean. He really impressed me at prospect camp in June. With his size, reach and equally importantly courage to step up and use it make attacking forwards move laterally to beat him, Martin projects to be the rare breed of stay-home defensemen who is miserable to play against. Finally, the newest entry into the prospect pool is Adam Fox who was obtained from Calgary in the draft weekend trade. Fox is a bit like Bean in that he is an undersized, skating defenseman who leans offense. I tagged him as the best offensive player in the prospect camp scrimmage finale and based on that am high on his upside and potential to become an offensive difference-maker. Also like Bean, the keys for a player like Fox are twofold. First, he must be able to translate his offensive ability to the NHL level. Some defenseman with vision and skating ability can feast on lesser prospects at lower levels but cannot do the same at the NHL level (reference Ryan Murphy) at which point they are suddenly relegated to being an undersized, good skating defenseman who sub-par defensively. Second, even offensive defensemen must play at some ‘serviceable’ level defensively to avoid being too much of a liability in that regard. All three players have work to do, but I think all three players at least possess the potential to not just play at the NHL level but even be difference-makers.
Wild cards drafted below the level where NHL success is likely (5)
Michael Fora, Brendan De Jong, Jesper Sellgren, Josh Wesley, Ville Rasanen
In recent years, the Hurricanes have regularly spent late-round draft picks to add wild card type defensemen to the prospect pool. In fact, the Hurricanes have used their sixth round pick to add a defenseman in three consecutive drafts. The uncertainty with players drafted this late is illustrated by the fact that the Hurricanes chose not to sign 2016 sixth-rounder Noah Carroll to an NHL contract. Players drafted this late are low probabilities to ever make the NHL, and most that do are depth players. Perhaps the most interesting player in this group is Michael Fora. Fora took a different route as an undrafted European player who has worked his way up gradually. He played well enough in the international tourney in May that the Hurricanes signed him as a free agent. He looked decent at prospect camp, but important to note is his age. Fora will turn 23 in October. As such, he was an odd gray beard in a group full of 18-20 year olds. As such, he needs to adapt to the North American game quickly. Because of what he did against a decent helping of NHL talent in the world tourney, Fora rates highest of this group right now, but to a man these players need to find a higher gear to become a going concern at the NHL level.
Netting it out
Though there could theoretically be issues with signing him, Adam Fox was a nice addition. He brings another player with a high ceiling to a group that is a bit light right now. I also like McKeown as a capable NHL call up possibly still with upside as he grows. Martin and Bean round out a small group of players with higher-end potential. As of right now, the rest of the players in this group are still lottery tickets who need to find a higher trajectory.
Taking a shot at ranking the Carolina Hurricanes defenseman prospect pool
Ranking prospects is a very imperfect process and subject to change by wide amounts in just a couple months when preseason action arrives. But for the sake of July hockey debate, here is my ranking of the Hurricanes prospect defensemen.
Important to note is that my rankings are done with a bias toward potential difference-makers with high ceilings, and I do also value NHL-readiness even if it is in the form of a player with a depth defenseman ceiling. In addition, I place higher emphasis on my visual scouting of the players. That is admittedly limited with mostly prospect camp, the Traverse City Tourney and preseason NHL action.
Without further ado, here are my rankings:
1) Adam Fox
He was just so incredibly good in the prospect scrimmage. I recognize that my viewing of him is an incredibly tiny sample size, but I have to go off something, and I thought he was better offensively than Bean in the prospect camp. So I give the nod to Fox over Martin because of a bias for offense in today’s NHL and a not over Bean because I thought Fox was better in game/game-like action at prospect camp.
2) Luke Martin
Like Fox, I really liked his game at prospect camp. In an era where big, stay-home defensemen are growing out of favor, I still think Martin has the potential to become a disruptive difference-maker on the defensive side of the puck.
3) Jake Bean
Someone in the comments will say that Bean should be #1. And I think there are valid cases to be made for exactly that. Bean’s smarts and offensive ability keep his high ceiling intact.
4) Roland McKeown
If I had to plug one of these prospect defensemen into an NHL game that mattered tomorrow, McKeown would be my choice. He rates fourth on this list simply because I do not see him as having the upside of the some of the others. But thus far, McKeown has always risen to the challenge of what’s next, so it is not out of the question that his next leap is bigger than I anticipate and they he has a higher ceiling than I project so far.
5) Michael Fora
He looked a bit like Luke Martin-lite in prospect camp as a big defenseman with good gap control that made him hard to beat. The real read on him will be preseason and/or the AHL season.Within 4-5 months, we should have a better idea for if the Hurricanes found a diamond in the rough or if instead, Fora was bypassed draft-wise a few years back for good reason.
6) Brendan De Jong
Like Fora and Martin, De Jong has great size and reach. His game has always been a mixed bag for me. He has size in abundance and skates okay forward, but I question the mobility/agility aspect of his skating for today’s NHL game.
7) Jesper Sellgren
Sellgren fits the bill as a late-round draft pick who projects to at least be skating-capable. That is an important screen for later round draft picks, as players who are sub-par in terms of skating just start from such a big disadvantage.
8) Trevor Carrick
With my bias for upside/ceiling, Carrick drops all the way to eighth despite being arguably the second most NHL-ready prospect in the group. Again, based primarily on watching him play in limited action, I see Carrick as possibly a capable depth defenseman but not really higher.
9) Josh Wesley
After spending the first two years of his entry-level deal playing mostly at the ECHL level, the 2018-19 season could be make or break for Wesley’s NHL hopes. The Hurricanes lost a few veteran defensemen to free agency which creates an opening for Wesley to seize a regular role at the AHL level. If he does that, he will have the chance to make a case for his next contract.
10) Ville Rasanen
He did not look great a prospect camp in my opinion. He just looked to be a step slow on everything. But as a 19-year old who is so early in his development and whose rights can be maintained for awhile, it is not impossible that he eventually finds a higher gear and bumps up the depth chart.
What say you Canes fans?
1) Who wants to make Jake Bean’s case for being #1 on this list? (I think there is a legitimate case.)
2) Which of the wild cards, if any, do you like?
3) How do you prioritize readiness and AHL performance (McKeown, Carrick) over upside (Fox, Bean, Martin)?