Yesterday, the Chicago Wolves won the Calder Cup making it consecutive AHL championships for the Canes’ AHL affiliate.
With the continued success at the AHL level, one would logically ask which Wolves players would be likely candidates for the 2022-23 Carolina Hurricanes roster. That is the subject of today’s Daily Cup of Joe.
(Note that I am skipping any commentary on the latest Hockey Hall of Fame balloting that again excluded Rod Brind’Amour because I am mostly just done with it.)
As the highest level of North American hockey below the NHL, AHL teams are a weird mix of young players in their early 20s who have yet to make the NHL but figure to be headed in that direction and players 5-10 years older who can loosely be categorized as veteran AHLers who are hoping to claw their way up into the NHL a bit later in their career. Not all players sort cleanly into one category or the other, but I will address the players in those two general categories and add a third for ‘tweeners’ who are maybe right in the middle.
Up and comers
Top of the list is Jack Drury who impressed with a strong NHL preseason, had a solid AHL regular season and then did even better notching 24 points in 18 games in the AHL playoffs. As a player with strong two-way chops, he slots into an NHL lineup with less downside risk than a boom or bust skilled scorer who is less-developed defensively. As such, I would expect Drury to enter the fall training camp penciled into an NHL roster spot that is his to lose. If the team shifts him to wing, he could slot on Staal’s line. If he slots at center, he is more likely to start on the fourth line. Either way, he is likely to start the 2022-23 season at the NHL level.
Kochetkov impressed with a 13-1-1 record in the regular season in the AHL after parachuting into past the midway point after starting the season playing in Russia. In short stints during both the regular season and playoffs with the Hurricanes at the NHL level, he looked unfazed by the bright lights of the NHL. Despite his strong first year in North America, Kochetkov figures to start the 2022-23 season at the AHL level where he can log a bunch of starts, continue his development and prepare to be a regular at the NHL level in the 2023-24 season. Both Frederik Andersen and Antti Raanta are signed through the 2022-23 season and figure to start the season in the NHL. But if/when an injury arises, I would expect Kochetkov to not just be called up but also be given regular NHL starts. Ideal for Kochetkov would be for him to get 40-50 starts with a nice chunk of 10-20 of those of that NHL level.
The rest of the young guns
Of he Wolves’ blueliners, I would really only put Joey Keane at 22 years old in the up and comers category. Keane reminds me a bit of Roland McKeown as a player who generally avoids big ‘oopses’, but I question whether his ceiling is more than that of a third pairing NHL defenseman. At forward, Ryan Suzuki had a disjointed rookie AHL season because of injury and figures to try to grow in the AHL again in 2022-23. Jamieson Rees had a strong NHL preseason and training camp and a decent if maybe unspectacular AHL campaign. I view him a bit like Brock McGinn who can be a bit of a gritty player but is maybe a bit undersized for that game at the NHL level at 5 foot 11 inches and 172 pounds. I would view all three of these players as dark horses to make the 2022-23 opening day roster and more likely to continue their development at the AHL level. Dominic Bokk has higher-end skill, but it is not clear that it projects to the NHL level. He reminds me a bit of Aleksi Saarela who similarly had decent skill but was was a bit one-dimensional. The biggest wild card of the forward group is Noel Gunler. He is only 20 years old and played only 11 regular season games (to go with 10 in the playoffs) in the AHL after coming over from Sweden. So in terms of experience and logical development, he would figure to be at least a year away from the NHL. That said, his skill set as a finisher who plays well without the puck and pots goals when given the opportunity is exactly what the Canes need at wing. So if he looks comfortable, up to speed and capable of scoring at the NHL level, he would get a long look in preseason. Eetu Makiniemi and Jack LaFontaine are both young by goalie standards and early in their North American professional careers. But with Kochetkov in the mix, they could have to battle for time in the AHL crease and either could become a trade chip if another organization likes them.
Jesper Sellgren and Maxime Lajoie both fit roughly in the tweener category at 24 years old. Sellgren seems earlier in his development because of being drafted at older than 18 and also starting his development overseas, but at 24 years old, he will soon be an older prospect. I would view each of these players as fringe AHL/NHL depth with the potential to be bottom pairing depth for the NHL level. Lajoie looked competent in short NHL auditions and is exactly the type of experienced depth a team likes to have, but I do not project him as slotting significantly higher than that. Sellgren reminds me a bit of Jake Bean in that he has shifts offensively that make one say ‘wow’, but I question whether he can be steady enough defensively to stick at the NHL level. Admittedly, my view of him is based to a large degree on my first impression on him a couple years back in rookie camp and tourney, so I am open to be pleasantly surprised at training camp in the fall.
At forward, David Cotton is another odd tweener in that he was an AHL rookie in 2021-22. But after a full college career, he is already 24 years old and needs to proceed quickly if he is going to be an NHL regular. Stelio Mattheos is similarly a player whose development clock is ticking.
Chatfield is a bit of a tweener at 26 years old and with a decent amount of NHL experience. He was competent defensively, played with a physical edge and was able to match NHL pace and pressure in his stint at the NHL level with the Canes in 2021-22. The Canes rewarded Chatfield with a two-year contract that is one-way in the second year. As the Hurricanes try to upgrade and still squeeze under the salary cap, Chatfield figures to move into the third pairing at the NHL level to possibly replace Ian Cole whose 2021-22 salary of $2.9 million likely does not fit for 2022-23.
The veteran forwards
The Wolves’ veteran forward group was phenomenal in the playoffs and the primary reason the Canes won the Calder Cup. Andrew Poturalski (28) is a familiar face who left but returned to captain the team. He had a huge regular season with 101 points in 71 game and also had a strong playoff campaign. Stefan Noesen (29), Josh Leivo (29), C.J. Smith (27) and Spencer Smallman (25) also had strong regular seasons and playoffs. But at this stage of their careers, the group would more so be labeled as great AHL players rather than NHL prospects. But with strong 2021-22 seasons and free agent status, they get the opportunity to see if an NHL team will commit to a one-way contract. (I always root for these guys to get rewarded with a one-way contract even if it is with another organization.) The Hurricanes would be happy to have these players back on premium two-way contracts to again lead the Wolves and provide #14+ NHL roster depth, but coming off strong seasons, these players might find a faster path to the NHL with teams that have less forward depth.
Finally, Alex Lyon had a strong AHL season and looked capable in his short NHL stint but will likely be a victim of the Canes having too many goalies who need AHL ice time to develop. As such, Lyon figures to find an opportunity with another team.
When I net it out, Jack Drury will be given every chance to win an NHL roster spot in training camp and should stick. Jalen Chatfield should be in the mix at the NHL level at least as a #7 defenseman if not slotted into the third pairing. Pyotr Kochetkov figures to see some NHL starts when an injury creates an opening, but I expect he will start the season and play much of it in the AHL.
Past that, I think any of the other 2021-22 Chicago Wolves would be dark horses to make the NHL roster. Noel Gunler is maybe the most intriguing up-and-comer simply because his skill set is exactly what the team needs at wing. Whichever of the veteran forwards re-sign with the Canes could have a chance to slide into a fourth line slot if one or two opens up from injuries in the preseason.
What say you Canes fans?
1) Which Chicago Wolves players do you see competing for NHL roster spots to start the 2022-23 season?
2) Which of these players has/have the greatest potential to be a difference-maker at the NHL level either during the 2022-23 season or a couple years down the road?