The “Unsung Heroes” region has some fun wild card matchups — John Forslund vs. Chuck Kaiton, Peter Laviolette vs. Paul Maurice and an enforcer free for all that includes Jesse Boulerice, Kevin Westgarth, Stu Grimson and Darren Langdon.
Most years teams draft and add seven or more new prospects to their pool of players that they think could one day help them at the NHL level. There are many 1st-rounders who never see NHL ice and most of those that do are not ready at age 18. Instead, they need to continue to improve where there are on draft day to get there. And though they are not as common, every year there are a couple great stories of real late draft picks or even undrafted players who ultimately do well. Tyler Johnson from Tampa is the poster child for this for 2014-15. So while potential as an 18-year old plays a role, making the NHL is very much about consistently taking steps to reach another level without ever stagnating.
In this blog, I will put forward my quick two cents on what the next step is for some of the Canes prospects and young players.
Chris Terry. He did take a significant step in 2014-15 improving his reliability defensively and all-around game at the NHL level. The next step for him is to keep these gains but also tap into his offensive potential and boost his scoring. Chris Terry was a high-end scorer at the AHL level (60ish points per 80-game season). Instead of clawing his way a notch higher to be maybe just a little bit above average defensively, he improves more if he can just hold even defensively but bring more offense.
Victor Rask. His story for 2014-15 was one of the best for a team with a shortage of good stories. He climbed up the depth chart and did not look out of place at all at the NHL level as a 22-year old. At one point I compared his rise to Josef Vasicek’s. Vasicek similarly came from off the depth chart to win a spot at a young age because at a minimum he could be trusted defensively and the Canes really did not have better options for the C3 slot. Similarly, there seems to be offensive upside to the level Rask reached in 2014-15. It is not that his 33 points are horrible, but with 16 minutes of ice time, a reasonable mix of line mates (spent decent amount of time with Skinner and Lindholm) and a reasonable helping of power play time, it is modest. Per my introduction, the key is to take the modest scoring production of 33 points which is 3rd-linish at best and build on it in 2015-16. Rask has skill and has scored at a decent clip at lower levels, so it seems reasonable to expect that that area of his game can grow.
Haydn Fleury. As the #7 pick in the 2014 draft, he received a decent amount of attention coming into training camp last fall. It was fairly clear, fairly early that he was not NHL ready. This is not a knock or a negative. Rather, it was his starting point. When you fast forward to this summer, I thought he looked noticeably better at prospect camp this summer. The thing that stood out was his confidence and improved ability to carry the puck and see the ice while doing so such that he could find lanes for skating and passing. So year over year as far as prospect camp goes, he seems to have taken a sizable step forward. But the next step up for him is to look more comfortable at NHL speed and pace in scrimmages and preseason games this September. Specifically, I will be looking for more crispness and decisiveness making decisions both with and without the puck.
Sergey Tolchinsky. He could enter training camp with as much buzz as any forward. The kid is just fun to watch and a highlight reel waiting to happen each and every shift. But there is a big difference between dazzling in fairly loose non-checking hockey against 18-20 year olds and similar at the NHL level. People are going to talk about how Sergey Tolchinsky needs to be sound defensively, backcheck well and other things without the puck. That is true. But I also think he will need to adjust a bit offensively. He likes to play with the puck on his stick and has no problem carrying just a bit longer waiting for a better option and then doing it again…and again. In the NHL that can be unproductive and even at times dangerous. The game is much more about making one good move to create an opening for a pass or shot and then taking the best you have available at that point before it closes up. The transition for Tolchinsky will be using his hands and creativity to some degree but also knowing when he needs to be quick, crisp and done.
Brendan Woods. He is the only prospect listed at right wing for the Canes who is anywhere close to NHL ready. (Spencer Smallman who was a late round pick in June is the only other right wing.) He is also a big body (6-3 201 pounds) that matches management’s desire to get bigger. The question for him is whether he is mobile enough to play at an NHL pace for regular shifts or if he is more destined to be a limited minute, 4th-liner. If the latter is the case, his value decreases because the Canes already have that in Brad Malone. Last fall, he could not match the NHL pace, but he was also coming off knee surgery that had him out most of the summer and ready not too much before camp started. With a regular summer for conditioning and training, the next step for him would be to show mobility that makes him look more like Erik Cole (big AND mobile) and less like an old school 4th-liner (big and…that’s about it).
With a bunch of quiet mostly in August, my hope is to do a part two for this blog that details what the next step is for a few more the Canes youth.