After a delay while covering the news of Brett Pesce’s contract extension (‘Initial thoughts’ are HERE, and ‘A second level of detail is HERE.), today’s Daily Cup of Joe is part 3A of a series assessing and ranking the Hurricanes prospects. Part 1 featured the five goalie prospects, and part 2 assessed the 15 defensemen in the Hurricanes organization.
Part 3A today starts into the sizable group of prospect and AHL veteran forwards. So I can discuss at least the top half of the group in some detail without writing a novel, the forwards will be split into a couple parts.
Whereas the Hurricanes blue line prospect pool has a couple good high-end prospects but is actually a bit thin simply because so many young players have already jumped to the NHL level (which is obviously the goal, so that is a good thing), I would say that Francis’ restocking of the prospect pool is complete at the forward position. My rough count is 9 forwards who are capable of playing in the top half of an NHL roster and a good mix of centers and wings, size and speed, and skill and size. At the NHL level, I think the Hurricanes current strength is its young defense, but one level lower in the prospect pool I think the greatest strength is at the forward position.
Without further ado, here are the top 5 forward prospect rankings…
Prospects with top half of the roster potential and scoring upside
#1 – Julien Gauthier (Charlotte Checkers-AHL)
Gauthier (Article log HERE) is nearly in a class by himself in terms of raw upside. By my book, only Martin Necas is in Gauthier’s neighborhood is Martin Necas. Gauthier brings an unmatched physical skill set as a hulking power forward frame complemented by a surprising combination of speed, agility, skating and finishing ability. He has every bit the potential of a Rick Nash in terms of goal scoring ability. But just like with almost every young prospect, Gauthier has limitations. In preseason NHL action and also from reports from juniors, he still has stretches where he is too quiet and his game without the puck on his stick both offensively and defensively is not as advanced as his play with the puck. Gauthier has work to do to round out his game and could likely spend chunk of time at the AHL level, but if he can fill a few gaps, his upside is tremendous.
Shorter version: Gauthier’s raw skill is immense, but he still has work to do both in terms of consistency and his play without the puck so that he is an even player at the NHL level on the shifts where he is not making big plays.
Potential upside (Ceiling): 10 – He has the potential to become an elite scorer and the type of power forward who creates match up problems and coaching adjustments.
Probability of success (Floor): 6 – Gauthier does not score nearly as high in terms of probability for success simply because he has significant work to do to round out his game without the puck and also because he is still a work in progress in terms of being a difference-maker every shift instead of just intermittently when the switch flips on.
#2 – Martin Necas (Most likely to play either Canadian juniors or possibly back in the Czech Republic)
Necas (Profile and post-draft reading list) is cut from a different mold than power forward Gauthier, but his upside is nearly as high. What stood out to watching Necas for the first time at prospect camp in June was his ability to handle the puck and make offensive plays at top speed. Raw skating speed is a positive obviously, but what separates the elite scorers in the NHL from the second tier is the ability to attack and play offense at 100 percent of top speed, not 80 percent like others. My first impression of Necas is that he might possess that ability. With his skill and raw speed, he could project to be a speedy finisher at wing or a center capable of pushing pace through the middle of the rink and generating offense off the rush. Regardless of where he lands positionally, he has high upside nearly equal to Gauthier with simply adding a bit more strength and weight as part of his work list on the way to the NHL.
Shorter version: He has work to do, but Necas’ skill set easily projects to be a top 6 forward and an above average scorer. With a combination of speed, skill and hockey sense, he just needs to progress over the next couple years.
Potential upside (Ceiling): 9 – Necas’ ceiling is just a notch below Gauthier’s but not by much. He projects to be in the top 6 and among the team’s leading scorers a couple years down the road.
Probability of success (Floor): 7 – As a European player yet to face NHL-like competition, the risk with Necas is noral development risk for any other highly-drafted 18-year old. He is good for his age group but will need to make significant strides from there to work up two more levels to the NHL.
#3 – Janne Kuokkanen (Unclear if he will jump to the AHL, stay in juniors or return to Finland)
Kuokkanen’s (Article log HERE) stock rose more than any other for me based on prospect camp. Though I would give Gauthier the prospect camp award for highest volume and level of ‘wow’ plays, I would be inclined to still rate Kuokkanen as the most outstanding player for the full week. He was assertive, crisp, decisive and consistent throughout the week and stood out as a player clearly ready to compete at the next level. Kuokkanen is a bit like Rask in that he does not possess raw speed, but his skating has improved and he seems to have Rask’s decision-making ability but possibly with a bit more playmaking upside.
Based on his prospect camp, I have him pegged as a dark horse to crack the NHL roster. If that does not happen, his 2017-18 destination is unclear. He could return to juniors, though that seems unlikely. As a European draftee, the AHL is an option as is a return to Finland. Regardless, I have him pegged as a rising prospect right now and one to watch closely.
Shorter version: Kuokkanen made good step-wise progress hopping the pond to play Canadian juniors in 2016-17, but his season was nothing spectacular. But he really stood out as top of the class at the prospect camp, which has me boosting him up above other promising centers like Roy and Wallmark.
Potential upside (Ceiling): 8 – I think Kuokkanen has the potential to follow Victor Rask’s path but with more upside offensively especially in terms of playmaking ability.
Probability of success (Floor): 7 – I would rate his probability of success about as high as possible for a player who has yet to play a professional game, but there are obviously risks with an AHL and an NHL jump still remaining.
#4 – Lucas Wallmark (Charlotte Checkers-AHL)
Wallmark (Article log HERE) had a strong 2016-17 season. He seemed to take about half of a season to settle in and really get comfortable in his first season at the AHL level, but once he did, he excelled. Wallmark’s goal scoring surged, and he was regularly one of the best players on the ice in the second half of the AHL season with the Checkers. He also looked steady and not in over his head in a short stint with the Hurricanes which is another sign that he could be ready to make the jump to the AHL soon.
Shorter version: Wallmark did everything one could ask in his first season in the AHL in 2016-17 and prior to Francis adding a couple more depth forwards in Marcus Kruger and Josh Jooris, Wallmark figured to be in the mix for an NHL slot. The time frame may be delayed but Wallmark still looks capable.
Potential upside (Ceiling): 6.5 – His goal scoring outburst definitely opens the possibility that I am wrong, but I still see Wallmark as a sound depth forward with more offensive ability than a run of the mill fourth-liner. That is valuable but a notch below the players above him.
Probability of success (Floor): 7.5 – With a successful year of AHL hockey under his belt, a successful cup of tea at the NHL level and good two-way acumen, Wallmark has a pretty high probability of at least becoming a serviceable depth NHLer.
#5 – Nicolas Roy (Charlotte Checkers-AHL)
Roy (Article log HERE) deserves a ton of credit for doing everything that he could possibly do in the two years since being a bit of a draft year disappointment dropping from a potential first round selection all the way to the fourth round. Since then, he has climbed steadily upward with two solid junior seasons that included across the board improvement. His scoring totals rose. In addition, he made strides in terms of skating, face-offs, leadership and just about everything else. Skating aside, Roy’s game is pretty complete for his age. At 6 feet 5 inches tall, Roy easily has NHL size but is borderline NHL-wise in terms of agility, skating ability and straight line speed. How well he can skate the middle of the rink and keep up in transition will be critical to how high he rises.
Worth noting is that most everything I read is higher on Roy than I am. I see him as a player who will need a couple years at the AHL level and even still is more of a third line type forward.
Shorter version: For many, he is a wild card for training camp. Like everyone else, I like his size and development thus far, but I just see him as being a couple years away from NHL-ready as he continues to make gains in terms of mobility.
Potential upside (Ceiling): 7 – The ceiling for Roy is Jordan Staal light though I think even the high end is limited by skating ability. But he could be a very good third line forward with size.
Probability of success (Floor): 6.5 – In Roy’s favor is the development of his all-around game, though the ‘skating above all else’ version of the NHL today sees Roy as below average in a critical skill.
What say you Canes fans?
With my top 5 forwards posted, who are you surprised to see ranked #6 or lower?
Based on what you have read and seen, where do you come down in terms of ranking a trio of centers with different skill sets in Kuokkanen, Wallmark and Roy?