Hurricanes Future in Net Solidified With Mäkiniemi & Kochetkov Signings

Though we’re just weeks away from Carolina Hurricanes playoff hockey, looking towards the future can never be overlooked. The organization did exactly that on Friday night — they signed top goaltending prospects Eetu Mäkiniemi and Pyotr Kochetkov to entry-level contracts (ELC).

With their other heralded prospect at the position, Jack LaFontaine, returning to college and facing an uncertain future in the organization, these two signings are pivotal for the long-term outlook. Both are super young kids with untapped upside, and should they be able to reach their potential, the Hurricanes’ future in the crease looks as bright as it ever has. So, who exactly are they?

Eetu Mäkineimi

We’ll start with 22-year-old Finnish-born Eetu Mäkiniemi, who was selected by the Ron Francis regime in the fourth round of the 2017 Draft. The signing of Mäkiniemi is particularly notable and exciting because he was set to be an unrestricted free agent on June 1, as his draft rights were set to expire. Because of his advanced age, his ELC is for two years (as opposed to three), and the signing makes him eligible to come over to North America immediately.

If you’ve been a constant reader of my work, you’d know that Mäkiniemi has been my personal favorite goaltending prospect in the organization for quite a while now. He possesses a lot of the raw intangibles that you look for in a goalie. He’s super quick laterally, he’s aggressive, he’s composed. His reflexes are incredible, he makes desperation saves look routine and he’s a goalie that elevates in big moments.

His ability to elevate himself was shown in the Liiga playoffs over the past month. Despite playing for a extremely mediocre (honestly, a quite bad) team, Mäkiniemi gave his squad a chance in games they were severely overmatched in. In their initial two-game play-in series, he stopped 74 of 78 shots and was the lone reason his team upset KooKoo Kouvola and advanced into the playoff rounds. Although they went on to lose in the first round to first-place Lukko Rauma, Mäkiniemi showed his quality in the series, and finished with a .915 save percentage (SV%) despite allowing over three goals per game.

I’m extremely intrigued by his upside because this is a kid that I think has yet to even scratch the surface as a player. After being drafted, inconsistency and injury held him back to the point that, two years after being drafted, we almost knew less about him than when he was selected, which was already very little. Although he progressed through the junior system, the last two seasons he was stuck behind Lukas Dostal (who’s one of the top goalie prospects in hockey) at Ilves, so while starts were hard to come by for “Big Mac,” it was evident in his limited ice time that he had legitimate talent.

So, excitement was high when he was primed to be Ilves’ starting goalie for the entire season this past year, but with COVID-19 delaying the start to the NHL season, Dostal returned to the crease at Ilves and by default Mäkinemi was relegated to the backup spot. When Dostal returned to the Anaheim Ducks organization upon the opening of NHL camps, Mäkinemi re-took control of the crease and put together a super inspiring season.

While some initial struggles and inconsistencies plagued him, he was a 21-year-old goaltender with a starting role in a men’s league for the first time in his career. His team in front of him was doing him little favour, with a leaky defense group and inconsistent goal support. However, when the calendar struck March, Mäkiniemi caught fire and posted a 5-3-2 record with a .931 SV% in his final 10 starts, single-handedly leading his team into a play-in spot. On the season, he went 13-14-7 with a 2.59 goals-against average (GAA), and a .907 SV%.

He’s proven to be a goaltender capable of winning any game for his team despite how good or bad they may perform in front of him, which really bodes well for his future. Everything about him — including his 6-foot-3, 180-pound frame — is NHL calibre, and considering goalies don’t usually blossom until their mid-to-late 20s, were talking about a kid who’s far from a finished product. There’s still a ton of room for potential growth here.

The biggest question is, what’s next for him? And that question has seemingly been answered already, as Ilves put out a tweet wishing him luck and implying that Mäkiniemi’s career will continue in North America next season. He’ll enter a situation in Chicago where only Beck Warm is under contract for next season and, if his success translates seamlessly, I’m assuming he’ll emerge as an AHL starter next year.

As far as his upside goes, the sky is the limit for this kid; it’s all about putting the tools together to reach his potential. His playing style has been compared to Tuukka Rask since he was drafted, so I’ll set that as the benchmark for his ceiling. And while it’s a possibility that he doesn’t get to that level, I definitely think he’s got enough raw talent that’ll he start NHL games someday — as long as his development stays on the right track.

Pyotr Kochetkov

Next up, we have Russian goaltender Pyotr Kochetkov, selected two years ago in the second round of the 2019 Draft. I think it’s fair to say that most scouts and outside observers have him as the top goaltender in the Hurricanes’ system. Interestingly enough, Kochetkov went undrafted in 2017 when the ‘Canes took Mäkiniemi, and went undrafted again in 2018, before arising as the second goaltender selected in the 2019 Draft as a 20-year-old.

A stellar season in 2018-19 forced scouts to take notice of him. He spent that season as a 19-year-old in the Russian VHL league, which is their equivalent to the AHL. He posted a 2.13 GAA as well as a .930 SV% in 18 starts, and then starred for the Russian junior team and the U20 World Championships where he dazzled and won the Best Goaltender of the Tournament Award with a .953 SV%.

Let’s rewind back to June 2019 when he was drafted. The Hurricanes had both Petr Mrazek and Curtis McElhinney one week away from free agency at that point, and James Reimer was a Florida Panther. Alex Nedeljkovic was a restricted free agent with one NHL start, and prospects like Mäkiniemi and Jack LaFontaine were unknown commodities. With the selection of Kochetkov, he was immediately anointed as the future of the position for the team. 

It’s possible he still can be. It just hasn’t been a smooth two years for him since his draft day. Over the past two seasons, he’s played for six different teams in Russia across three different leagues, and hasn’t played more than eight games in a season for any of those clubs. Trying to break into the KHL is difficult for a young goalie, because for whatever reason they just aren’t trusted, despite Kochetkov having inspiring results in his starts for each of those teams.

But the overall scope of his KHL work is promising. In 20 starts at the top level of Russian hockey, he has a record of 6-13-1 with a 2.75 GAA and a .914 SV%. He just hasn’t got much goal support in his games, despite keeping his team alive for long stretches.

He’s extremely agile in net and has great technique, remaining calm in threatening situations but quick enough to recover and make a desperation save when he needs to. It may be a cliché term, but for me this kid is a battler out there. He hangs in there tough, and fights through traffic and screens at ease. He has great vision from his crease, and he’s one of those guys who attacks the puck instead of just waiting for it to hit him. He plays a super aggressive style, and can be almost impossible to beat when he’s locked in. Although Switzerland ended up scoring, look at this incredible desperation lunge from Kochetkov to stop the initial chance, which has become routine for him.

I talked to the super knowledgeable Matt Somma (@CanesProspects) after the news of the signing. Matt has always been a big fan of Kochetkov, and recently had him ranked amongst his top 10 Hurricanes prospects. He gave me his thoughts on the signing:

The Hurricanes are smart to sign Kochetkov now even while he continues to develop in russia. This is a top goalie that could be your future starter, and he’ll get an opportunity to become a starting goalie with Torpedo next season. If all goes well next season, we could be talking about Kochetkov becoming an NHL starter at this time next year.

Matt Somma, @CanesProspects.

I thought that the signing would open the door for Kochetkov to come to North America to get more ice time, but Mäkiniemi’s presence had the potential to create a log-jam and therefore KHL club Nizhny Novgorod Torpedo announced a one-year extension for him on Saturday morning. As of this writing, he’s the only goaltender currently under contract for that team next season, and considering the promise he showed in his limited opportunities, I’m optimistic he’ll have a bigger role there.

Should his development take off and he gets the chance to fulfill his potential, we’re talking about a guy here with legitimate starting potential in the NHL and could be one of the best goaltenders in hockey. He has every trait you look for in a goaltender, and I truly believe he can become an elite netminder in due time.

Full System Update

To end things off, I think it’s necessary to recap the Hurricanes’ goaltending system as a whole, to outline where the entire situation stands. Nedeljkovic has obviously graduated from prospect status, and seems to be entrenched as a key cog in the future of this hockey team. For me right now, Kochetkov and Mäkiniemi are the two best hopes the team currently has, and as mentioned, they both have legitimate potential to be NHLers in the long run.

The wildcard here is LaFontaine, who was recently named the top goaltender in NCAA hockey. He’s only 23, and has dramatically turned his career around after looking like a bust just two years past his draft date. But his future is up in the air. He opted to return to Minnesota for another season instead of turning pro, and will be an unrestricted free agent in August 2022. The Hurricanes can’t sign him until Minnesota’s 2021-22 collegiate season is over, and it’s anyone’s guess if that’ll happen at this point. Regardless, his style is more of a James Reimer type. I think he’s a calm, steady backup type. I feel like his ceiling is lower than Makiniemi and Kochetkov’s, but in turn his floor may be higher.

Jack LaFontaine (Jim Rosvold-Minnesota Athletics)
Jack LaFontaine (Jim Rosvold-Minnesota Athletics)

Beyond him, Warm, who was signed to an ELC in March as an undrafted player who was on a try-out deal with Chicago, has posted a 5-2-1 record with a .922 SV% in the AHL thus far. He’s 22, undersized, and has a good (not great) track record. I’m intrigued, but I need to see way more before I can really make any assumptions on him. He’s a guy who’s probably years down the road — if he ever gets there.

Jeremy Helvig is also still around. Drafted back in 2016, he’s been unable to replicate the top form he showed for Kingston in the Ontario Hockey League. This is now his third season in the pro ranks and he’s started just five games at the AHL level. Similar to the Callum Booth situation last summer, Helvig will be 24 next month and, considering he’s shown zero sign of improvement over the course of his ELC, it’s likely that he’s sent on his way as a restricted free agent this summer.

Rounding off the group is Jake Kucharski, a 2018 seventh-round pick with good size. He transferred out from Providence University after not appearing in a single game for them during the 2019-20 season. Now, he’s at American International College, playing in the Atlantic Hockey Conference. Since being granted Division I status in 2003, that conference has produced 10 NHL players. Total. Kucharski has also started just 12 games in over 1,000 days since being drafted. This guy is the longest of longshots.

In summary, this is a strong group of prospects. There’s some real high upside here with a few of these guys, but goaltender development is always a total crapshoot, so realistically, anything can happen here. However, it’s really hard to look at this group as a collective and not be optimistic. They have some legitimate talent here.

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