This blog is part 2 of a short series that identifies next development steps for some of the young players in the Canes system or new at the NHL level.
Zach Boychuk. Boychuk’s path is a bit like Chris Terry’s. Terry received more ice time when both were in Raleigh, and Terry stayed all season whereas Boychuk ultimately ended up in Charlotte. But both made progress playing a better two-way game and earned a longer look and more ice time because of it. But here’s the thing. As a player whose natural ability is offense and skill, trying to morph into an above average checking line forward is playing to weakness for Boychuk. He does need to be sound defensively, but his ticket to being a regular in the NHL happens with a combination of the improved defense thing, but also loading his AHL scoring skill set in the car for his next trip from Charlotte to Raleigh. He is nearly a point per game player at the AHL level. With fewer shifts, sometimes non-scoring line mates and minimal power play time, the objective is not to hit that same level in the NHL. But ideal for him is to string together runs where he has multiple shifts where he plays sound hockey and then opportunistically picks some spots to create or receive good scoring chances. His 3 goals and 3 assists in 2014-15 are more the numbers of a player trying real hard to make sure he does not mess up the defense thing and be sent immediately back to the AHL than a player who importantly gets the defense thing but is also using his natural skill set which is scoring.
Jaccob Slavin. As a smooth skating, puck-moving defenseman with good NHL size, Slavin is straight from the same mold that the Canes are using repeatedly these days. He has progressed well since being drafted in the 4th round only two years ago. But it will be a significant jump from college hockey to the AHL. The next step for him is to fairly quickly adapt and translate his game to the AHL level. If he can do that, he puts himself on track to be tutored by Mark Morris to refine the fine points of his for the NHL level.
Michal Jordan. Canes management liked his 2014-15 play enough to award him with a one-way contract for 2015-16 which obviously suggests that he is expected to spend the season at the NHL level. Jordan looked good at times during the 2014-15 season and his passing ability and shot have the potential to add a secondary option for the power play and a couple goals. But he also had times when he struggled a bit with the puck on his stick in his own end and under pressure. When NHL teams see that, they attack it. I think the next level for Jordan is to reach a higher level in terms of comfort and soundness. As a third pairing defenseman, the job is not so much to win games but rather not to lose them. The idea is to get on the ice, make simple and smart plays for 40 seconds and then get off the ice without any major events. I think that is the first step forward for him and that if he accomplishes that a bit of offense will also emerge naturally from his game. If by chance he gets paired with one of the kid up-and-comers (i.e. Hanifin, Fleury), it becomes even more important that he be sound and solid.
Elias Lindholm. I really think 2015-16 could be his time. His rookie season in 2013-14 was nothing special. He was banged up twice (once in prospect camp and once in preseason) before he even played an NHL game and then had an up and down season. Personally, I left that season thinking he might have been better playing one more year in Europe before jumping to the NHL or maybe taking the smaller step up to the AHL. But good seemed to come from it. He made significant strides in the 2014-15 season. His 17 goals and 39 points were not earth-shattering, but for me it was simply the fact that he looked comfortable and able to play his game. The next step up for him is game-to-game consistency and just playing with the expectation and confidence of a top player. Despite significant improvement in the 2014-15 season, he still had stretches where he was invisible and not just on the score sheet which is pretty normal for a 19-year old 2nd year player. The other thing is for him to add the assertiveness and swagger of a great player. It might be a year or two early, but I want to see him seize a lead role – i.e. not defer if he is on a line with the Staals, drive his line offensively even if it includes Jeff Skinner, play like he intends to be the best player on the ice even if the opponents are some of the NHL’s best.
If Lindholm improves a bit in terms of consistency and ups his offense to 50ish points, that would be additional progress, but I am cautiously hoping he assertively stakes a claim to being a great NHL player now, not a player who projects to that in a few more years.