Now that the Carolina Hurricanes’ 2020-21 season is in the rearview mirror, it’s time to turn the page and look to the future. The organization has done a fabulous job of adding assets and resources to their amateur scouting department, which has amassed 20 draft picks in the last two drafts and allowed them to build one of the strongest prospect systems in the NHL.
But drafting is only the first piece in a large puzzle, which also includes management and – more importantly – development. The Hurricanes have done very well in that regard over the past few years, and their patient approach with players like Jake Bean, Alex Nedeljkovic, and Steven Lorentz has seen them become NHL regulars. I’m hopeful this trend continues with three ‘Canes prospects that I’m excited to track next season, and there’s reason to believe that they are all primed to take a big step forward in their development.
Since I wrote an article back in March about his progression and that he looked to be an emerging stud, I am now even more in awe of Anttoni Honka’s game. Though he’s undersized for a defenseman at just 5-foot-10, 175 pounds, his hockey sense and overall smarts lead me to believe that he can break the barrier that holds smaller players back.
Luckily for Honka, undersized defenders are more and more common in the NHL, and with talents like Quinn Hughes (Vancouver Canucks) and Cale Makar (Colorado Avalanche) leading the way in a new era of skilled, puck-moving defenseman, Honka has a chance to join them. Although he may not be as dynamic as those two, my comparable for him is Avalanche defenseman Sam Girard, who is an eerily similar player.
What makes Honka so exciting is his ever-evolving offensive talents. He’s naturally gifted and has many ways to impact a game offensively. While he’s not necessarily an “explosive” skater, his edgework is very good, and that allows him to fend off oncoming forecheckers with a variety of moves from the defensive zone. As the puck carrier, he’s shifty and cuts on a dime, which makes him tough for opposing defenders to predict.
He’s a brilliant puck-mover. His vision from the defensive zone is fantastic, and he has no trouble making consistently accurate stretch passes. If he makes the NHL, he’ll help the Hurricanes become a more fluid team in transition, which they have struggled with recently. His vision to make seam passes is superb, which makes him very potent running the power play. From the blue line, he’s deceptive with his eyes and manages quick shimmy moves that fake out defenders and create lanes for his shot. While he may not have a cannon, he has a very quick release and can pick corners with his wrist shot.
Honka’s biggest limitation will be on the defensive side of the puck, given his size. But he’s been the top defender on JYP in the Finnish Liiga in puck possession the last couple of seasons, and he’s maturing. He’s relatively sturdy for his size and uses his low center to his advantage. His positioning leaves a lot to be desired, but he’s starting to make better (safer) decisions with the puck, and he’s only 20. He has a ton of time to develop and has shown steady growth in his areas of weakness.
I’m expecting a big season of development for Honka in 2021-22. Even at his young age, he’s one of the top defensive talents in the Finnish league and is easily the most intriguing blueliner in the Hurricanes’ system. Expect him to be among the top point-producing d-men as long as he’s there and improve on his defensive game. He’s slowly rounding out his frame, and he’s starting to read and anticipate offensive attacks.
If Honka can work out the kinks in his defensive game – mainly closing out gaps, using his leverage to take away angles and learning where he needs to be at all times defensively – he’ll accelerate his progression to near NHL-ready. His offensive game is already there, and I’m banking on him improving his flaws enough to earn the trust of an NHL coach. If and when he does that, he’s sure to be an impactful NHL defenseman and one worth being very excited about.
I’ve been on record arguing that, despite Pyotr Kochetkov, Eetu Mäkiniemi is the most talented goaltending prospect in the Hurricanes’ system. It’s a bit of a hot take, but I’m a fan of his upside and raw skill set. His unfortunate injury history and lack of reps have held him back from a breakout season, but he’s now on the brink of one.
Heading 2020-21, Mäkiniemi was primed to be the starter for HC Ilves in Liiga but the delay of the NHL season meant that Ilves’ holdover starter, Lukas Dostal, returned to his role. Dostal is one of the top goaltending prospects in the NHL, so his return meant Mäkinemi was relegated to backup duty, and he was unable to find his rhythm for most of the season, even after Dostal departed.
But, towards the end of the season, things changed, and we finally got a glimpse of Mäkiniemi’s elite talent. He caught fire in his final ten starts, with a 5-3-2 record and a dazzling .931 save percentage. His performance down the stretch secured his team a spot in the postseason play-in round, where he stopped 75 of 79 shots (.949 save%) across two games and willed his team into the playoffs. It was a heroic showing, and he earned a lot of support from the Finnish media in the process.
He wasn’t as successful in the playoffs, mostly because of how outmatched his team was against the top-seeded Lukko Rauma. He had good numbers throughout the series, despite that his team was swept in the best-of-5 series. He became the star and the driving force of his team, which is quite an accomplishment for a 21-year-old goaltender playing in one of the best leagues in the world.
It hasn’t been the smoothest road for Mäkiniemi. After he was drafted by the Hurricanes in the fourth round of the 2017 Draft, he faced a tough injury situation that derailed most of the 2018-19 season, just as he was ready to make a permanent jump to the pros. But he persevered and bounced back to win the Goaltender of the Year Award in the Mestis League (Finland’s equivalent to the AHL) last season before he earned his full-time promotion to Ilves in 2020-21. His development also earned him an entry-level contract from the Hurricanes, which he signed on May 1, 2021.
It looks like Mäkiniemi will make the trip overseas to North America to play for the Canes’ AHL affiliate, Chicago Wolves, next season. Until now, he’s played his entire career in his native Finland, so there will be a learning curve and adjustment period as he gets acclimated to his new life. However, in the crease, he should have a major role in Chicago. Beck Warm will be back in the mix next season, but both Antoine Bibeau and Jeremy Helvig are set to be free agents, which gives Mäkiniemi a clear route to compete for the starting job.
Looking ahead, I love Mäkiniemi’s upside. He just turned 22 and has already proven that he can steal games at the pro level. He’s got prototypical NHL size at 6-foot-3, 180 pounds, and his reflexes and lateral movement are very strong. He has a quiet confidence in his game and a Petr Mrazek-like trait that makes him virtually unbeatable when he’s dialed in. He has a bright future, and I’m confident that his talent will be on full display in Chicago next fall.
I debated between a few players for this final slot and settled on Noel Gunler because of his sky-high ceiling. I might be a year premature on his breakout campaign – especially after his struggles in Sweden last season – but he has so much raw talent and just needs an opportunity to put it all together.
Gunler is coming off of a weird season. He was selected by the Hurricanes 41st overall in the 2020 Draft but then fell out of favor with his hometown team, Lulea of the Swedish Hockey League, and was loaned out to Brynas. Though things went better for him with Brynas, they were a significantly worse team than Lulea and could afford to give Gunler a bigger role. He finished the season with a combined 9 goals and 15 points in 39 games, which isn’t bad for a 19-year-old but was disappointing relative to expectations.
Most important for Gunler is that he rounds out his overall game, and scouts have questioned his effort level in the past. I’ve watched a lot of his tape, and the recurring theme is that he tries to leave the defensive zone too early because he’s always trying to create offense. But that kind of cheating will never fly on a Rod Brind’Amour-coached team, especially when the puck ends up in your own net because of it.
Offensively, Gunler has the perfect recipe. He’s a fluid skater with deceptive hands, but his shot is absolutely lethal. His release is quick as lightning and as accurate as a bullet. He can pick a corner from nearly anywhere in the offensive zone. But, beyond that, he is a natural at knowing where he needs to be to finish chances; he drives the middle of the ice and parks himself in front of the net. He scores in a variety of ways, and that makes him a very intriguing player.
His offensive IQ is off the charts, he’s a lethal threat whenever he has the puck on his stick. He also has good size at 6-foot-2,177 pounds, and few players of his size possess the raw offensive skill and smarts that he has and will make him even more intriguing as he fills out his frame. He has all the tools but needs the proper development and coaching staff to help become a finished product.
The first step for Gunler will be to earn his coach’s trust overseas. He’s set to play for Brynas again in the fall, and the hope is that he’ll progress into a larger role than the 11 minutes he was averaging on Brynas’ fourth line last season. He was a staple on their power play, but he will need to improve his game at 5-on-5 and learn the ins and outs of being a pro player. Gunler has shown he can take over a game at his own age level and did so in remarkable fashion against Austria at the 2020 World Junior Championships. He scored twice in a 4-0 win and showed off his wicked release.
With a little patience and trust, I believe in Gunler’s upside. He has unteachable natural talent and unlimited potential as an offensive threat. Going into his second season with Brynas, he should be more settled, and he’ll know what’s expected of him to elevate his position. He seems like a boom-or-bust player, but I think his raw ability is more than good enough to get him to the NHL, and then it’ll be up to him to carve out his role.
The Hurricanes’ prospect group is as deep as it has ever been, and there is reason for excitement moving forward. Not only are these three players set to breakout, but I didn’t include players like Seth Jarvis, Ryan Suzuki, and Jamieson Rees because I wanted to shine a light on a few players who don’t get the same attention as the “top” prospects. Luckily, the ‘Canes’ roster is so deep that they have the luxury of allowing their prospects to develop slowly, and the days of rushing players (like Elias Lindholm, Noah Hanifin) into the NHL are long gone. The whole group is unquestionably worth getting excited about, and the franchise looks to be set up for sustained long-term success.
Carolina Hurricanes writer. 23 years old. Ottawa, Canada. Prospect geek, hockey nerd.