Early on Monday morning, I started on a tour of the Hurricanes prospect pool and even talked myself into forging down the road of doing rankings at least at a positional level. The first article in the series which you can find here addressed the goalies.
Part two will look at the prospect pool for the blue line. Because the Hurricanes have spent so many recent high draft picks on defensemen and also benefited from Jaccob Slavin and Brett Pesce rising up ahead of schedule, the general perception in our Hurricanes hockey community seems to be that the team is deep in terms of youth on the blue line. That is very clearly true at the NHL level where the team boasts a top with an average age under 23, but the rapid rise of the young NHL group has actually left a bit of a gap behind them in terms of the prospect pool. Francis restocked a bit in the 2017 NHL draft selecting three defensemen and there are still a couple higher-end players who are near NHL-ready but the volume of depth is actually still a little bit light right now.
Without further ado, here is my ranking for the Hurricanes defense prospect pool…
Established prospects with top half of the roster potential
#1 – Haydn Fleury (Charlotte Checkers-AHL)
Fleury (Article log HERE) tops my list of prospect defensemen based on both reasonably high upside and a high probability of at least some leve of success. I have had him penciled in as a #5/#6 defenseman at the NHL level for some time now. With the Hurricanes minus three defensemen from last winter (Ron Hainsey, Ryan Murphy, Matt Tennyson) and plus only one (Trevor van Riemsdyk), it is reasonable to believe that the Hurricanes management has exactly the same for their plan A.
Fleury is an interesting contrast to Noah Hanifin in terms of development paths. When people talk about the team’s young defensemen, the two are put in completely different categories. Hanifin will be entering his third year in the NHL while Fleury is still looking to make his debut. And right or wrong, conversation about Hanifin often quickly moves to his #1 defenseman potential whereas conversation about Fleury often stops with whether he is NHL-ready for the 2017-18 season.
But are the two really that different? Fleury is only one year older. Both were high first-round draft picks – Hanifin at #5 and Fleury at #7. And both possess great NHL size and the mobility needed to succeed in today’s NHL. Even if Hanifin rates higher in the skating department, Fleury also scores well. And if you put potential and hope aside for a minute, I think it is fair to say that both players are still looking to carve out a role in the NHL. Hanifin does have a short stint in the top 4 to his credit in 2016-17, but if you look at his body of work in total, he is a third pairing defenseman with the potential to be much more. That is about where Fleury will start the 2017-18 season if he makes his NHL debut as expected.
Whereas Hanifin has been learning on the job at the NHL level, Fleury has taken more of a step-wise path to arrive where he is today. He built his game with two post-draft years in juniors and international play and followed that up with a 2016-17 AHL season that saw growth from beginning to end just as one would hope. The jump to the NHL level is a big one and one that often comes with some growing pains, but Fleury has completed the preparatory checklist and projects to be as ready as can be for his age and stage of development.
As a prospect, Fleury grades out well across the board. He has the physical tool set to be a good NHL defenseman in terms of size and skating ability. He brings enough of a mix of solid defensive play but also some offensive ability to be an all-around top 4 defenseman if he transitions successfully. And he has had an appropriate level of success at the lower levels, most significantly the AHL, such that he fits more into the category of a player who is ready than a player who has high-end potential but probably is not.
Shorter version: Fleury’s step-wise progression has him ready to take the next step into the NHL lineup. He has the skill set and physical tools to be at least a #5 defenseman if not better, so it is just a matter of how quickly he adapts to the NHL level.
Potential upside (Ceiling): 8.5 – Fleury does not ooze pure offense like Jake Bean, but his physical skill set and all-around game easily project as top 4-capable.
Probability of success (Floor): 7 – Based on his physical skill set and level of play at the AHL level, Fleury has a high probability of at least becoming a serviceable depth defenseman.
#2 – Jake Bean (Calgary-WHL)
After a ‘meh’ first impression at his first prospect camp in 2016, Bean (Article log HERE) really impressed me at the 2017 prospect camp. He stood out as best in class among the defensemen and was consistently assertive, crisp and creative with the puck on his stick. Important to note is that the conditions were favorable playing against an 18-20-year old group and also with the key evaluation points being 3-on-3 and 4-on-4 scrimmages that offer an open ice style of play that fits Bean well. He is a player that I will be watching closely in game-like drills and scrimmages at training camp to see if he can transition his puck handling to a more crowded 5-on-5 game against a higher level of competition and at the same time hold his own defensively.
Because of how it ended, Canes fans groan whenever I mention Ryan Murphy and Jake Bean in the same sentence, but as a starting point (and I am NOT saying as an ending point), the two are similar. Both were drafted in the middle of the first round because of an incredibly high ceiling in terms of offensive potential. When drafted, both were known to be less-developed on the defensive side of the puck with need to grow and improve there. In my opinion, Murphy was ultimately lost when he actually made modest improvement defensively (his weakness) but in the process seemed to completely give up the offensive part of his game (his strength) settling too much for staying out of trouble and making safer plays. The challenge for Bean will be similar. Bean needs to keep and adapt his offensive ability to an NHL game with the goal of being an elite player in terms of generating offense. He does need to improve defensively but not by virtue of abandoning his puck-carrying style and attacking game.
Training camp and preseason will offer a good viewing point on his ability to use his offensive ability effectively against a higher level of players and will also show where he is defensively.
Shorter version: Jake Bean has an immense upside as a defenseman who generates scoring on the power play but equally importantly in transition 5-on-5. But that word ‘defense’ in defenseman should not be overlooked. The challenge for Bean is to keep his offensive upside and make strides to be at least adequate defensively.
Potential upside (Ceiling): 9.5 – Bean’s skating and creating ability is from the category of offensive catalysts like Erik Karlsson (NOT saying he will be that good) and capable of boosting scoring across an entire roster.
Probability of success (Floor): 5.5 – Murphy’s failure to stick at the NHL level with the Hurricanes is case and point for the need to become at least adequate defensively. The risk with Bean is that he does not make enough progress defensively.
#3 – Roland McKeown (Charlotte Checkers-AHL)
McKeown (Article log HERE) wowed in the NHL training camp before the 2016-17 season and actually won the last blue line slot in the tryout before Francis decided to go a different direction and added a couple veterans instead. Jordan Futrell who covers the Charlotte Checkers for Canes and Coffee has McKeown below Fleury when considers the bigger body of work over the course of the 2016-17 season.
Also to note is that the two are somewhat different players. McKeown is not in the same category as Hanifin, Slavin, and Fleury in terms of raw skating ability, but he has shown a good level of defensive acumen for his current stage of development and an incredibly good stick defending one-on-one and interrupting passing lanes.
Based on my limited viewing of him in game/scrimmage action thus far, McKeown projects to be a capable stay-home half on the right side of a third pairing who could fit well with more of a puck-carrying left side defenseman. That actually lines up well with the team’s future that likely sees Fleury on the left side of the third pairing in 2017-18 and could also see Bean there in the future.
Unless he rises up again in training camp, most likely for McKeown is another year in Charlotte and competition to be the first injury call up. For McKeown, his development is mostly about making gradual improvement across the board and increasing his every-shift reliability.
Shorter version: My estimation of McKeown based on what I have seen so far is that his ceiling is not as high as some of the team’s other young defensemen, but McKeown has made steady progress toward one-day becoming an NHL regular and has the potential to be a perfect complement to a few of the more offensive-leaning left shot defensemen.
Potential upside (Ceiling): 6 – Projecting anything for 20-year old players is imperfect, but based on what I have seen thus far, I do not see McKeown as having quite the upside offensively or in general as say Fleury, Bean and the other young players already at the NHL level. But I do see him as NHL-capable and potentially a great complement for the other players rising up.
Probability of success (Floor): 6.5 – McKeown is far enough along in his development that he has a fairly high probability of reaching the NHL in some capacity. His strong play in preseason last fall also supports this assessment. The next step for him is to at least push up near the top of the AHL depth chart such that he receives an opportunity when injuries create an opening.
The next wave of prospects
Past the top-tier, there is a bit of a gap in terms of prospects with so many young players already at the NHL level. As noted above, Francis restocked a bit during the 2017 NHL draft, and Noah Carroll is the one remaining defenseman from the 2015 or 2016 NHL draft who is not already accounted for.
My visibility to 2017 draftees Luke Martin, Brendan De Jong and Ville Rasanen is limited to a week at prospect camp, so I do not have much of a read on them yet. Until I see more of them, I will rank them based on where they were drafted.
#4 – Luke Martin (University of Michigan-NCAA)
Martin (Profile and post-draft reading list) stands out amid a group of defensemen that mostly leans mobile and fleet of foot as bringing a bit of a different element as a big, physical defensemen. His pedigree includes time in the US development program, some international play and now a slot at the University of Michigan.
Important to note is that Martin generally receives fairly high marks for his skating ability relative to his size which is significant. Skating for NHL players is partly about straight line speed but also very much about agility, skill and the ability to transition. That said, big defensemen who are somewhat limited in terms of raw speed generally take awhile to develop, and I would expect the same for Martin as he plays at least a few seasons in the NCAA.
Shorter version: Martin has the potential to add a different element as a big, physical defenseman. He is likely on a slightly longer path to the NHL that includes at least a couple seasons at the University of Michigan.
Potential upside (Ceiling): 5.5 – At least in terms of a limited first impression, I put Martin roughly in the same category as McKeown as more of a complementary, stay-home type who could pair well with a puck-moving partner down the road. He is likely set for at least two seasons at Michigan to hone his skill set.
Probability of success (Floor): 5 – As a second-round draft pick, the Hurricanes obviously see reasonably probable NHL potential in Martin. As of now, would rate him as I would most second-round draftees.
#5 – Noah Carroll – (Sault Ste. Marie-OHL)
Carroll (Article log HERE) is the first of three recent defensemen drafted in the late rounds of the past two drafts. I recently labeled him as puzzling. I thought he ranked only behind Bean among the defensemen at the 2017 prospect camp, and I think his mobility and comfort and ability to skate, handle the puck and move it were similarly just a notch below Bean. But a tough 2015-16 season made him available in the seventh-round of the 2016 NHL Draft, and reports on his 2016-17 season were only modestly better. But in a Hurricanes jersey (which is when I get to see him), he has impressed me. In addition to his play at the recent prospect camp, I also liked his skill set last summer that included jumping into a top 4 role at the Traverse City Tourney when Haydn Fleury was injured early in the tournament. Though at a lower skill level, his game is not unlike Bean’s as a skating puck carrier.
Short version: I like Carroll much more than check ins and reports would suggest. In his second year after being drafted, he will need to put together a strong 2017-18 season to win a contract before his rights expire and take the next step forward to the AHL for the 2018-19 season.
Potential upside (Ceiling): 7 – That is high relative to what anyone else would rate him, but the idea with this article is make my own assessments and assign my own ratings not just collect and summarize others’ opinions. I continue to like his skating, puck-carrying ability and vision which are critical elements for generating offense from the back end.
Probability success (Floor): 3 – He needs to put together an extended run of good hockey now as an older junior player in 2017-18 otherwise he might not even make it to the next step in the AHL.
(See below for #6)
#7 -Brendan De Jong (Portland-WHL)
De Jong (Profile and post-draft reading list) was a late-round attempt in the 2017 NHL draft to increase depth in the blue line prospect pool. de Jong’s calling card is his size. He stands 6 feet 5 inches tall. In prospect camp, my impression was that he skated fairly well for his size forward but as still a little rough around the edges defending skating backward and also in terms of transitions skating-wise and especially handling the puck.
De Jong is not at all the case of size without any ability, but he has a way to go rounding out his game and growing into his frame. He will very likely do that for at least the standard two years in the WHL with the Portland Winterhawks.
Short version: De Jong is a typical late-round high upside draft pick. He easily has NHL size and enough of a current skill set to suggest that with development time, he can round out his game. Typical of later-round picks, De Jong is a 3-5 year project with upside.
Potential upside (Ceiling): 5.5 The NHL size is there, and though there are gaps in his skating ability, De Jong is not a big lumbering type without any hope for mobility.
Probability of success (Floor): 2.5 – Rated solely for probability for a sixth-rounder at this point, the journey from that level to the NHL is a long one.
#8 – Ville Rasanen (Jukurit-Finland)
Rasanen (Profile and post-draft reading list is HERE), as a late-round draft pick, is similar to De Jong in terms of probability of success though the two are quite different in terms of skill set and style of play. Rasanen is similarly unpolished like De Jong, but whereas De Jong’s calling card is size, Rasanen’s is mobility. He has work to do to round out his game, but projects to be capable of skating at the NHL level. He did not stand out to me in prospect camp, so I rate him more based on draft pedigree at this early stage of his development.
Potential upside (Ceiling): 5 – For me, the NHL has become a ‘skating above all else’ league. As a player who has the mobility, Rasanen at least has a chance to defy the odds as a seventh-rounder and progress toward the NHL.
Probability of success (Floor): 2.5 – As a copy and paste from De Jong’s profile, Rasanen is similarly rated solely for probability for a seventh-rounder at this point. The journey from that level to the NHL is a long one.
#6 – Trevor Carrick (Charlotte Checkers-AHL)
In categorizing blue line prospects, I could see including Trevor Carrick (Article log HERE) at the bottom of the “Established prospects…” tier, as an overager for the “Next Wave” or in the “AHL veterans” category below. Instead, I gave him his own category. As such, I think Carrick probably more appropriately ranks right in the middle of the “Next Wave” group below Martin and Carroll but above De Jong and Rasanen.
At 23 years old, Carrick has not reached the age of the veteran AHLers usually 25+ who are good minor-league players but unlikely to be more than deep depth in case of injuries at the AHL level. But at the same time, he is past the 18-22-year old range of young prospects.
Carrick had a strong 2015-16 season at the AHL level, but has still found himself sliding down the NHL depth chart. High draft picks (Fleury, Hanifin, Bean) and rapid risers (Slavin, Pesce) have all passed Carrick which leaves him sitting firmly on the fence as being a young prospect who just needs a shot at NHL ice time or a veteran AHLer who does not project to be a regular at a higher level.
After a strong 2015-16, Carrick’s 2016-17 season was more disjointed and less productive with interruption due to injury. The key for Carrick is to reassert himself as a top player in Charlotte in 2017-18 and then be ready to capitalize if given an opportunity due to an injury at the NHL level.
Shorter version: As of right now, Carrick represents good AHL-level depth but in the form of a player still young enough to possibly have an AHL future. He might benefit from a trade to a team with less young blue line depth, but in the Hurricanes organization, he needs to hold his place in Charlotte and be ready to capitalize if he gets an NHL chance.
Potential upside (Ceiling): 5 – I do not see Carrick’s ceiling being above that of a third period defenseman, but he does bring a rough and tumble style that the Hurricanes generally lack.
Probability of success (Floor): 3.5 – He has established himself as a pretty good scoring-capable AHL defenseman, but is not certain to push through that ceiling. His chances probably increase if he finds his way to an organization with room to give him a try out at the NHL level.
Trying to play their way into the mix
I group all of Josh Wesley, Tyler Ganly and Keegan Kanzig together in a group of prospect age players who are in the final year of their contracts and need to impress to be assured of winning another contract. All three have been fringe AHL/AHL scratch/ECHL players. Right now, I think all three are in a treacherous position as being at the bottom of the young prospect pool and also at the bottom of the rankings of the top AHL-level defensemen (see below).
#9 – Josh Wesley has family ties and also a projectable NHL frame with improving skating ability.
#10 – Tyler Ganly similarly brings a physical element. He has his 2016-17 largely upended by a training camp shoulder injury and will need to rebound in 2017-18 to remain in the mix.
#11 -Keegan Kanzig has the potential to provide a physical element sometimes needed at the AHL level.
For all three players, the immediate task at hand development-wise is to seize an AHL roster slot and become at least serviceable as an every-game player at that level.
Solid veteran AHL defensemen
A key part of the Charlotte Checkers’ success and playoff berth in 2016-17 was the veteran presence on the blue line. Fleury and McKeown held their own, but the veterans in Charlotte also played a critical role.
Especially with two young prospect goalies in Alex Nedeljkovic and Callum Booth likely to see ice time in Charlotte, stability and sound play will continue to be important.
The Hurricanes return three veteran AHL defensemen from the 2016-17 season in Jake Chelios (26 years old), Dennis Robertson (26) and Philip Samuelsson (26) and also added a new one in Brenden Kichton (25).
None of these players are likely to see an extended run at the NHL level, but they are valuable players to add stability at the AHL level and also help the Checkers win.
What say you Canes fans?
Which players would you rank differently or rate differently for ‘ceiling’ or ‘floor’?
Is Haydn Fleury ready to be the next young defenseman to make the jump to the NHL level?
Or do you see a dark horse like Jake Bean or Roland McKeown rising up in training camp to leap frog Fleury?
Has anyone seen enough of the “Next Wave” yet to have a strong opinion on any of them?