This blog is sort of part 3 of a series on the Canes blue line prospects.
So this part 3 is the fun one where I try to guess how it all sorts out for 2015-16. It is important to note that this pencil work and subject to change drastically as soon as I get a real (and first for some of these players) look at them against NHL competition in scrimmages and preseason games.
But it’s early September. And we need hockey stuff to talk about. So here goes…
The starting point for the NHL roster is the 5 players who are signed to 1-way contracts (Faulk, Hainsey, Liles, Wisniewski, Jordan). That group, if healthy, should make up 5 of the 7 defenseman at the NHL level to start the season. I view Jordan as a flex option. He could play in the bottom pair or if kids beat him out, he is fine as a #7/healthy scratch. At 25 years old and with 4+ years of AHL experience under his belt he does not really gain much development-wise by going back to Charlotte, and his 1-way contract eliminates any cost savings.
That leaves 2 NHL spots to be won in open tryout.
The small group of players with only Canadian juniors/NHL options (Haydn Fleury and Roland McKeown) get 1st priority. I did a detailed write up on the rules for who can go where that you can find here. Short version is that McKeown and Fleury cannot go to the AHL. It is either NHL or back to juniors for them. And once they go back to juniors, they cannot be recalled except under extremely limited emergency situations or after their junior season is over.
So I think it is like this:
–Haydn Fleury. I think he is a frontrunner to start the season at the NHL level and play 9 games with the Canes. Why and why 9 games? Unlike most of the players who can go back and forth from Charlotte, the only time Fleury can play in the NHL is at the beginning of the season. So if he looks reasonably ready and/or would benefit from at least a short stint in the NHL, it must happen out of the gate. Why 9 games? Because he can play up to 9 games at the NHL level and then be returned to his juniors team without burning a year of his entry level contract which makes 9 games the decision point for keeping him for the full year contract-wise or getting him back to juniors without burning a year on his entry-level contract.
It does require that he prove ready to give the NHL a go in training camp, but I give him a 60% chance to start the year in the NHL, not necessarily because he will stay but because it is the only way to get him a trial run. Ironically, I actually think the chances of him staying in the NHL past the 9-game mark could be less than the other players. With a boat load of these prospects up for contract renewal in 3 years, it would be nice to push Fleury back a year unless he just flat out forces the team to keep him in Raleigh.
–Roland McKeown. His situation is the same as Fleury’s except that I do not see him with nearly the potential to prove NHL ready in training camp, so I think he very likely heads back to juniors for the season.
So that leaves either 1 or 2 spots left depending on if Fleury takes a spot. I think for the most part the last spot or 2 will be decided by a true tryout in training camp. That lives up to Peters’ and Francis’ mantra of earning ice time and gives the team the best chance possible to start faster and climb into a playoff hunt.
But over the course of the season, I think some other factors will play into ice time at the NHL level in both preseason games and also the regular season, especially if the Canes fall out of playoff contention and start to use ice time more for future development than winning today.
The older prospects. The list includes Robertson, Rissanen, Biega, Lowe and to some degree Murphy. Ron Francis needs to fairly quickly make a decision on if/where these players fit in the Canes long-term plans. Despite his 1-way contract, I put Jordan in the same category. Any of these players who do not project as at least depth defensemen with the Canes soon, could be traded. The Canes do not have room for all of the defensemen they have right now, and the younger players with promise will surpass the laggards of this group. I would expect 2-3 of these players to not be with the Canes by next summer. In trying to figure this out, I think this group will be watched closely in training camp, preseason games and early in the AHL season. You could even see a situation where 1-2 of these players are showcased a bit in Charlotte to try to increase their value to be traded for a similar quality forward prospect.
If any of these players look NHL-ready in preseason, I think Francis is likely to give them a shot. If nothing else, it provides a go/no-go sign for sorting it out. So I think this group is scratching and clawing for a bit of NHL ice time to prove they are capable before the kids surpass them.
The young prospects. Next is the list of young prospects who are mostly minus not just NHL but also AHL experience. (Trevor Carrick is the exception having played a full season in the AHL in 2014-15.) For this group, I think (and really hope) the Canes stay focused on doing the best thing for these players development to become a good NHL defensemen in 2-3 years. With the ability to go back and forth from Charlotte, I do not think it is as big of a deal who starts at the NHL level. Players from this group who play well will get their chance sooner or later as injuries open up some ice time here and there.
–Noah Hanifin. I think he has the highest probability of starting the season at the NHL level, but I think there is also a good chance that he sees Charlotte to this season. The team gets a revenue boost with jersey sales if he starts in Raleigh, and a quick checkpoint against NHL competition will help him and the coaching staff understand where he is and what he needs to work on. I put his chances of starting in the NHL at 60% but still expect he will eventually end up in Charlotte for part of the season to log a ton of minutes and work on things identified in his NHL stint.
–Trevor Carrick. With a full AHL season under his belt, he would seem to be a frontrunner from the young prospects group. I give him the 2nd greatest chance of making the NHL short-term (not necessarily a rank of long-term upside).
–Brett Pesce. Not sure why, but experts seem to put him as closer to NHL ready than most jumping straight from juniors. I guess that makes him someone to watch in training camp.
–Jaccob Slavin. It is a big jump from college to NHL, so I expect he does Charlotte 1st.
–Tyler Ganly. He did well going from late-round draft pick to winning a contract but likely has work to do at the AHL level before seeing NHL ice.
My wild guess to start the season?
Fleury/Jordan/Murphy or Hanifin
If Hanifin looks more like Ekblad and less like a typical 18-year old trying to figure out the NHL, maybe he slots up with Wisniewksi and Liles slots down with Murphy, Fleury or Hanifin offering a rookie/veteran mix for both of the bottom 2 pairs.
But I think Fleury ultimately returns to juniors which makes room for Hanifin or Murphy to return to the NHL level. More than any other player, I think it is make or break time for Ryan Murphy. I think Peters/Francis will get him a good helping of NHL ice time with the thought that it will either solidify his role going forward or showcase him a bit to be traded.
As I said at the outset, this is subject to be completely reworked once seeing these players on the ice. I will enter training camp watching for:
1) Whether Fleury looks ready for at least the 9-game trial or whether he just seems destined to finish out juniors this year.
2) If any of the older prospects stand out in training camp. If they do not, they could be relegated to Charlotte for 2015-16 and never heard from again when either traded or not re-signed next summer.
3) The readiness of Noah Hanifin. The possibilities range from Ekblad-like to ‘will need couple years before he is ready.’ That is a big range.
4) What coaches do with Ryan Murphy and how he looks. He should be the comfortable veteran of this large group of promising but mostly inexperienced prospects.
I cannot wait until training camp!