The Carolina Hurricanes are halfway through their preseason action, with their two-game series with the Tampa Bay Lightning now in the rearview mirror. With a roster that’s nearly set, there are clearly not many spots available for their young, aspiring prospects, but the preseason remains a chance for roster hopefuls to shine and make their claim for a spot at some point throughout the regular season.
With a forward group that’s nearly set up to perfection and a deep group on defense, the competition for spots is very tight. It would take a Herculean performance for any prospect to earn a spot – especially with the number of veterans in the mix – but surprises aren’t always much of a surprise in the NHL, and impressive showings can make it difficult on the coaching staff. Through the series with the Lightning, multiple players – both cemented, and hopefuls – have made a strong impression and find themselves firmly in the mix of the Hurricanes’ squad moving forward. Let’s take a look at five players that stood out in the team’s first preseason series.
If I had dedicated this entire article to Jesperi Kotkaniemi, I don’t think anyone would have complained. Talk about making a first impression in style – which, of course, was always in the plans for him. It’s only the preseason, but a goal and assist in his debut was a great way to endear himself to the fanbase. His goal came midway through the first period of the first game on the power play, as he found open space in the slot and made no mistake with the finish — no pun intended.
Beyond his offensive upside, I was impressed with Kotkaniemi’s overall game. He used every bit of his 6-foot-2, 200-pound frame and is quite mobile for his size. He had instant chemistry with Vincent Trocheck and Martin Necas, and that trio has the skill to become one of the most dangerous second lines in the league as they continue to get comfortable with each other. Considering that was his first match as a 21-year-old, the upside to his game is massive, and he will only get better as he adapts and continues to grow in the ‘Canes’ system. It’s hard to imagine a better debut.
On Tuesday night, Rees made his presence felt in every facet of the game. He only played 12 minutes, which is notable considering his impact. He had three shots on goal, one hit, and strong possession stats, all while showing off the skill that makes him a very exciting prospect. His line with Jack Drury and Stefan Noesen was a bright spot for the group, and that trio could be a big factor in the Chicago Wolves’ hopes of success in the American Hockey League (AHL) this season.
On Friday in Tampa, he did much of the same. This was a great way for Rees to grab the attention of the coaching staff. His solo effort to set up Drury’s goal on Tuesday was sensational. After picking up the puck through the neutral zone, a quick burst of speed and a little “chip” deke effectively morphed the Lightning defender into a turnstile. He then slowed with an Elias Lindholm-esque change of direction and waited for Drury and Noesen to drive into the crease and then laid such a perfect pass through the seam that I’m convinced anybody would have converted on the chance. Just watch for yourself:
“It was a near-perfect representation of why I’ve loved the kid since I started watching him back in 2019,” Brandon said. “He’s aggressive, won’t be out-competed by anyone, and has legitimate skill to back it up. It seemed like he made a positive impact every time he was on the ice. He worked in all three zones, he was constantly harassing Lightning players and causing turnovers, and I mean, he just seemed like a guy that’s knocking on the door of a top-nine role.”
Brandon went on to say (in jest) that “it was the single greatest hockey performance of our generation.” I’m not sure I’d go that far — I mean, Haydn Fleury’s performance in the 2020 Playoff bubble in Toronto was masterful — but I agree with him. Rees looks like he’s on the verge of taking the next step.
After the Hurricanes completely re-vamped their goaltending duo over the offseason, I’ve been backing Antti Raanta as the break-out candidate in the team’s new tandem. Obviously, one preseason game isn’t the be-all-end-all of the story, but Frederik Andersen put together a fabulous performance on Tuesday night, while Raanta had a game to forget on Friday.
My biggest concern when the ‘Canes signed Andersen to a two-year, $9 million contract in July was that the Toronto Maple Leafs had leaned on him heavily when he was with the organization, which raised questions about both his durability and his effectiveness at age 32. Statistically, he has been in decline over the past two seasons, and while you can attribute some of that to the lackluster defense that was in front of him, there is reason to believe that maybe his best days are behind him.
He’s alleviated a lot of those doubts after his stellar outing on Tuesday. Even though the Lightning had basically iced their B-team, Andersen allowed just one goal on 37 shots and looked fantastic throughout the game. He was moving well, showed his sharp reflexes in net, and has the coveted size (6-foot-4, 238 pounds) that Alex Nedeljkovic and Petr Mrazek didn’t. We’ll see if he can keep up that level of play, but he made an ideal first impression and looks like a player who will really benefit from the change of scenery and out of Toronto’s spotlight.
Although he was among the first round of roster cuts that were announced on Saturday morning, Jesper Sellgren showed a lot of the ability that raised him from a 2018 sixth-round pick to a legitimate pro-potential prospect in the first two preseason games. He was a standout, particularly in the first game in Raleigh, where he played just over 17 minutes and flashed his impressive defensive ability as an undersized, 5-foot-10 defenseman.
That strong performance earned him another look in Tampa Bay on Friday, where he also had some bright moments. I think he’s on the cusp of the NHL and could probably play third-pair minutes as early as tomorrow. He’s a very mobile skater, he moves the puck well and tends to make smart decisions. His gap control defensively is very impressive, and his high hockey sense helps his positioning in all three zones. I don’t see top-end upside here, but he’s been a coach’s favorite at every level he’s played at over his career. I think he could see some NHL games this season if the Hurricanes have to deal with injuries on their blue line.
I talked to Matt Somma (@CanesProspects), who’s tracked Sellgren’s development over the past three years. He was pleased with what he saw from him over the two games.
“Sellgren stood out as the better defenseman in his pairing with [Eric] Gelinas,” Matt said. “His speed, play in transition and steady defensive play bodes well for his transition back to North American ice. It’s [only] two preseason games, but Sellgren made a positive impact.”
There’s a lot of similarities between Sellgren and Joey Keane, who showed a lot of the same flashes that Sellgren did in these two games. Overall, Keane was very sharp and showed that his defensive IQ is almost NHL-ready while also evolving the other elements of his game. He has also emerged as a top prospect on the blue line; he’s a fantastic skater, and he moves well with the puck on his stick. It’s almost as if he’s floating when he’s carrying the puck and can transition the puck up ice quickly.
After making his NHL debut in April, Keane now looks ready to take the next step. He just turned 22 and has already accomplished about all you can ask for at the AHL level. His game has continuously developed to the point that he’s polished his two-way ability and is a fluid enough skater that he can be dynamic even without being a high-end creator. I think he’s in the same boat as Sellgren – both players are likely 4/5 D at their ceilings – but both have enough talent to stick in an NHL lineup. Keane will almost certainly start the season in the AHL, but the ‘Canes are giving him a ton of opportunities in training camp and are very high on him.
Hurricanes Added Depth Will Lead To Success
Beyond the above players profiled, there were many others who stood out in a positive way. Drury showed that his development took a major step forward in Sweden last year, and he plays a very pro-style game. Stefan Noesen – a 28-year-old veteran of 205 NHL games – has also been impressive, playing his heavy, honest brand of hockey that’s established him as a great depth option. Meanwhile, star prospect Ryan Suzuki has noticeably added a physical edge to his game, and offseason signee C.J. Smith had a two-goal game on Friday and threw his body around.
Overall, the Hurricanes’ organization has to be thrilled with their group. The depth on their roster and in their system is as deep as it’s ever been, and that should lead to success at every level for the team. Establishing a winning culture throughout the organization is key to sustaining long-term success, and the team is set up to do that. On top of their loaded NHL roster and top-ranked prospects, they’ve started to round out the necessary depth to win championships, and that bodes well for the 2021-22 season and beyond.
Carolina Hurricanes writer. 23 years old. Ottawa, Canada. Prospect geek, hockey nerd.