In that post, I went full optimist on the future of the Carolina Hurricanes defensemen. Sure it was shorthanders and hat tricks, but I also think the optimism is completely justified. In a quick Twitter exchange with Corey Pronman who covers and rates NHL prospects for ESPN, I asked if the Canes had the best blue line prospects in the entire league. He responded by grouping the Hurricanes and Flyers without declaring a winner. But at least in one expert’s opinion, the Canes rate #1 or #2. Nothing wrong with that.
With the volume and different stages of the defense prospect pool, it is quite a math and scheduling exercise to figure out who goes where and how on the path to building potential into a real solid NHL blue line in 2-3 years.
The list of things that play into it is:
–NHL rules for player movement (juniors, AHL, NHL) and contract terms.
–The actual contracts that the players are already signed to.
–Slots and ice time available at the NHL and AHL level.
–What is best for the development of each individual player.
When you try to group all of the prospect defensemen, I think it is like this.
–NHL roster players (5). The Canes have 5 players signed to 1-way deals and expected to play at the NHL level in 2015-16 – Justin Faulk, Ron Hainsey, John-Michael Liles, James Wisniewski and Michal Jordan. That group is likely to fill 5 of the up to 7 slots at the NHL level.
–The older prospects (5). The players most boosting the Canes prospect ratings are recent draftees who might still take some time to mature. In front of them is a group of experienced AHL prospects who need to move quickly on claiming a roster spot in the NHL before the pack of wolves hunts them down. I count 5 players in this group – Ryan Murphy (22), Danny Biega (24 when season starts), Keegan Lowe (22), Rasmus Rissanen (24) and Dennis Robertson (24). The entire group will become restricted free agents next summer. The time is growing short for them to rise up and stake a claim to an NHL roster spot before the younger players below them rise up to the NHL level.
–The next-generation prospects (7). There is admittedly a bit of a gray area here with some of these players being close in age to the ‘older prospects’ above, but except for Trevor Carrick, the group is characterized by showing significant promise at lower levels but just stepping up to the next test at the AHL level in 2015-16. This diverse group of 7 very promising players that includes Noah Hanifin (18), Haydn Fleury (19), Trevor Carrick (21), Jaccob Slavin (21), Roland McKeown (19), Brett Pesce (20) and Tyler Ganly (20). For this group it is a matter of figuring out how best to continue their development. Because they are Canadian junior players, Fleury and McKeown must either play at the NHL level or otherwise return to juniors. The other 5 players can shuttle back and forth between the NHL and AHL as desired making it possible to swap players in and out of the NHL if it makes sense. Trevor Carrick is under contract for 2 more years. All of the other players still have all 3 years remaining on their entry level deals. The goal here is to help these players progress as rapidly as possible, but there is also need for a bit of patience while they try to jump a full 2 levels to the NHL.
–Players who will not be in the AHL/NHL mix this season (3). Josh Wesley (19), Kyle Jenkins (19) and Jack Massie are all destined to play at lower levels this season.
When you sort through the volume of players and their situations, a couple of things jump out:
1) There is not really enough room for everyone. Even if you assume that Haydn Fleury and Roland McKeown return to juniors (Fleury could challenge for NHL slot), the Canes still have too many. My count is 12 players for only about 9 spots (2 at NHL level and 7 at AHL level). An injury or 2 could make the math work, but it still seems like it is going to be tight either all season or at least until a trade or 2 lessens the head count. It only becomes more crowded if Fleury seizes an NHL roster slot.
2) There are decisions to be made on the older group of prospects. With the quality and the quantity of players in the 2nd prospect group, I think Ron Francis will need to/want to make some assessments and decisions on the players in that 1st group. If he can do it without hindering the development of the higher-end prospects, I think Francis will want to get a look ideally with some NHL (preseason mostly) ice time and make a call on players like Lowe, Rissanen, Robertson, Biega and maybe even Murphy to determine if he thinks they have a role at the NHL level. If not, I think we could see a couple of them moved via trade, maybe for a comparable forward, to help reduce the logjam.
Within the next few days, I hope to write a part 3 that takes an early shot at how all of this sorts out in training camp and beyond. It is subject to change significantly and frequently once we start to get some pseudo-NHL ice time in scrimmages and preseason games to get a more ‘based on play’ assessment of many of these players. But that is the fun of it this time of year.