The Carolina Hurricanes‘ prospect system has seen a ton of growth as a whole so far this season, and their group ranks near the top of the NHL in that regard. Loaded with high-end talent and skill, the future looks bright – led by top prospects Seth Jarvis and Ryan Suzuki – along with the recently graduated Jake Bean.
Though is the case in any system, a few ‘Canes prospects have had tough seasons playing in their respective leagues. Understandably, the youngsters that are excelling are always the ones being talked about, but there are a few guys in particular that have fallen short of the reasonably high expectations I had for them this season. While it’s way too early to panic, I thought it was necessary to take a look at three prospects that have struggled this season, and what it means for their development and long-term future.
Kirill Slepets is an interesting case, considering that he was a relatively highly-touted prospect who was passed over in consecutive drafts before the Hurricanes snagged him in the fifth round back in 2019. Drafted as a 20-year-old, he was two years ahead of his peers in his development, which, in theory, would’ve provided more clarity into his ceiling as a player and likely a little closer than the others to turning pro.
In actuality, that hasn’t been the case for Slepets. Another two years have passed since he was drafted and, now 22, personally I still have no idea what Slepets is as a prospect. After seemingly turning the corner and emerging as a KHL regular last season for Latvian club Dinamo Riga, Slepets has been relegated back to the Russian minor-league this season, and has struggled to produce.
He’s always been considered a skilled player, with his speed, hands and quick release making up for his lack of size at 5-foot-10 and just 154 pounds. He was super productive in the Russian junior system, and was ranked as a top-100 prospect (as high as the second round) in his initial 2017 draft year. He was likely overlooked and passed over due to how small he is and the fact that he was a relative unknown playing in Russia, which obviously made viewings of him difficult. But his skill was later on full display at the 2019 World Juniors, where he scored five goals in seven games for the Russian junior team – a lot of which were highlight-reel material:
I was thrilled when the ‘Canes took a flier on him. A kid with serious untapped upside and raw intangibles (blazing speed and fantastic stickhandling ability) really intrigued me. But his transition into pro hockey in Russia has gone less than smoothly, likely because what worked so well for him against teenagers hasn’t been able to work against grown men.
After dominating at the VHL level last season (which is the Russian minor league), he got a promotion to the KHL, albeit with last-place Riga in Latvia. He got off to a decent start there, but had just one point in their final 17 games of the season (and had just 7 points in 33 games total) which led to his departure from the team following the season. So unfortunately he’s found himself back in the VHL this season, and his production has dropped dramatically – with just 5 goals and 12 points in 34 games, and currently dealing with injury problems.
It’s not the end of the world when fifth-round picks don’t pan out, but it’s disappointing to see how Slepets’ progression has gone off the rails. I think he lacks a true identity as a player. He has skill, but I’m not sure he has enough skill and smarts to create offense for himself at the pro level. On the flip side of that, he’s very undersized, so despite him being a hard worker, it’s hard to see him fitting into an NHL bottom-six role without seriously changing his style of play.
So, he’s kind of stuck in no man’s land right now. It’s impossible to try to project him into the NHL based on the sample we’ve seen, and, considering he hasn’t even broken into the KHL as a regular yet, he’s a long way away from competing for an NHL spot. The good news is the ‘Canes own his rights indefinitely, so if he’s a guy that magically puts it together somewhere down the road, he’ll still be in the Hurricanes’ system. But this seems like a player who very well may never play professionally in North America.
I always forget that Lenni Killinen was drafted by the Don Waddell regime, because as a player, he just feels like such a Ron Francis type pick. When the ‘Canes selected him back in 2018, there were already questions about how much upside he had and, in turn, if that lack of upside would hold him back from reaching the NHL at some point. Three years later, those questions still remain.
It’s almost unfair to really say that Killinen has had a disappointing year in Finland, because he’s been fine. He plays a role for his Assat team, but that’s about all he’s doing right now. He’s a role player and a depth option for a team that really isn’t very good, and despite some promising traits, his offensive game, in particular, hasn’t progressed much at all over the past three seasons. His production has actually regressed this season, with just nine points in 33 games.
Unfortunately for Killinen, some injuries situations have limited his development. After missing 45 out of 120 Liiga games over the past two seasons, he’s been held out of 21 of an additional 54 games this year, which has stunted his growth and raised concerns about his ability to stay healthy. When he’s on the ice, he’s proven that he skates pretty well for a guy who’s 6-foot-2, 180 pounds, and has shown a glimmer of offensive touch at times, but he ultimately lacks hockey smarts. He’s a reactor, and that leads to him being a minute late and a dollar short in all three zones at times.
His hockey sense has been called into question by scouts since his draft year, and it figures to really hold him back in terms of a pro future. As a player, he’s similar to a less-physical version of Warren Foegele or maybe a Phil di Giuseppe type. We’re talking a guy with not a ton of offensive upside, but a guy that could evolve into a serviceable fourth-liner sometime in the future. But that’s probably his ceiling. And whether that’ll ever happen is a mystery. He has to stay healthy in Liiga first and emerge as a key contributor over there before we’ll have any real clarity of him being a potential NHL talent, and he’s been unable to do that in any of the past three years.
And now the clock is really ticking here. The ‘Canes only own Killinen’s rights until June 1, 2022, and considering how deep their prospect group is with forwards, he’ll have to make a serious impression over the next year or so if he wants any chance of an entry-level deal. I feel like Killinen is probably the least talked-about ‘Canes prospect, and there’s good reason for it. The best thing about him is probably his name – who wouldn’t want a Killinen jersey?
The third and final player on the list is Patrik Puistola, who has probably been the most disappointing prospect in the organization for me this year. From start to finish, it just hasn’t been a good year for him, which we can only hope could aid his development in the long term. But what’s gone wrong for him?
He was a player that a lot of scouts mocked to the ‘Canes with their 28th overall pick in 2019, where they opted to instead select Ryan Suzuki. The fact that he slid down the draft board into the third round, where the ‘Canes pounced, was shocking, and the team was lauded for the pick. It looked like a potential steal, and while it still can be, the pick hasn’t necessarily aged that way.
Since being drafted, Puistola – considered to be a sniper – has graduated into a full-time player in Liiga – though opportunity (and productivity) have been hard to come by. He’s bounced around to four separate teams during the past 18 months, and has only scored 10 goals in 94 games during that timeframe, which isn’t promising considering that’s his specialty. He’s only 20 and has time to figure it out, but obviously, the early returns aren’t promising.
When Puistola made the move to JYP Jyvaskyla, where he plays alongside another ‘Canes prospect – Anttoni Honka – I was very optimistic. Overall they’re a pretty young group, so the hope was that Puistola could carve out a role as a key player in that team and drive offense. But it just hasn’t happened. He’s been given bottom-six minutes for a majority of the season, and while that lack of opportunity is unfortunate, he hasn’t really done much to earn more.
The problem for Puistola is that when he’s not scoring or generating offense, he’s not impacting a game very much. Shockingly, after leading the Finnish World Junior team with five goals as an 18-year old in 2019, he was cut from their squad this past winter, likely because of how out of form he was for JYP. And as mentioned, without his finishing ability the rest of his overall game is unremarkable, and it needs a lot of work if he wants to be relied on to play NHL minutes.
As it stands, I’m not worried about Puistola’s future yet. He’s only 20, and he’s playing in one of the best leagues outside of the NHL. Some guys just take longer to adjust than others, and quite honestly Puistola is still learning how to play. He does lack foot speed, and he’s still got a lot of growing to do without the puck on his stick, but the fact that he’s got such a nose for the net and a great release gives me faith. Guys who can consistently score are coveted, so Carolina will do everything they can to develop him.
At this stage, it feels like he’s much more of a project than ‘Canes fans had initially hoped or realized. But his style of play has been compared to Phil Kessel‘s, and while I don’t think he has quite the playmaking ability that Kessel does, it’s a testament to how talented this kid is. And while the holes in his game are large enough for me to believe that he’s still a few years away from impacting NHL games, the ‘Canes can afford to wait for him, and could reap the benefits of being patient with him sometime down the road.
The important thing to remember is that these three prospects are still just, well, prospects. Each of them are talented players, with skills that can be refined and developed into being legitimate NHL players in the future. Development is never linear, and the Hurricanes’ assembly of a deep and diverse prospect group gives these kids ample time to find their way. Regardless, these three are worth keeping a close eye on moving forward.
Carolina Hurricanes writer. 23 years old. Ottawa, Canada. Prospect geek, hockey nerd.