Hurricanes Prospects: Guslistov, Koivunen, Rizzo & More

Welcome back to the fourth installment of the weekly “Future Canes” prospect series! In this column, we take a look at Carolina Hurricanes prospects that are standing out and enjoying success, whether they’re playing in Canadian juniors, the American Hockey League (AHL), Europe, or anywhere around the world.

Today we’ll take a look at three forward prospects, all who’ve been having impressive seasons in their domestic leagues — including two players who were selected in the seventh round. Without further ado, let’s get into it!

Pro Success Continues For Nikita Guslistov

After being passed over in the 2020 NHL Draft, the Hurricanes used a 2021 seventh-round pick on forward Nikita Guslistov, who possesses many of the tools that teams covet to develop. While he’s undoubtedly an undersized player at 5-foot-10 and 170 pounds, he has a very high compete level and some impressive raw skill. His vision is good, and he’s become an all-situations player for Severstal in the Kontinental Hockey League – which is remarkable for a 19-year old kid in that league.

Related: Hurricanes Prospects: Kochetkov, Nystrom, Seeley & Others

After splitting the 2020-21 season between the KHL and Russian minor league (VHL), Guslistov has now graduated into a full-time player in what’s considered the second-best league in the world. Through 30 games, he’s scored three goals and five assists. He earned a place in Russia’s World Junior team for the 2021 tournament and has been skating alongside fellow Canes prospect Alexander Pashin on the third line. He’s one to watch as he continues his development overseas.

Ville Koivunen On A Tear

The Hurricanes have made drafting Finns in the second round a bit of a habit over the past several years — with selections being used on Ville Koivunen, Aleksi Heimosalmi, Eetu Luostarinen, Janne Kuokkanen, and some guy named Sebastian Aho. Their recent success scouting in Finland led them to select Koivunen 51st overall in the 2021 NHL Draft, and the early returns have been phenomenal.

Through 30 games for Oulun Karpat — which happens to be the same program that developed Aho — Koivunen has posted nine goals and 19 points and has emerged as a focal player for the team. When you consider that he won’t turn 19 until after the season, it’s an extremely impressive feat and a testament to his overall level of skill that he’s having such a successful rookie season at his young age. What truly speaks volumes is the maturity of his game as a whole. He’s defensively responsible and has a fiery work ethic, which has earned him trust from his coaching staff in a league that has historically been reluctant to give prospects large roles.

His offensive game is very refined. He’s got exceptional vision and can make cross-ice, tape-to-tape passes out of nowhere that stun the defense. His hands are also phenomenal, and he takes on defenders with quick cuts and isn’t afraid to pound the middle of the ice. His release is quick and deceptive, and he can pick corners relatively easily. Safe to say, he’s just a really good hockey player. He has two goals and two assists for Finland across two games at the 2021 World Juniors as of this writing and was named Player Of The Game for them in their second game – a 7-1 win against Austria.

Massimo Rizzo Showing Growth

In his first year of NCAA hockey at the University of Denver, Massimo Rizzo is off to a torrid start to his rookie season at his new level. Since being drafted in the seventh round by the Hurricanes back in 2019, he’d been playing in the BCHL — which is, at best, fourth-tier Canadian junior hockey behind the Western Hockey League, Ontario Hockey League, and Quebec Major Junior Hockey League. He captained his Penticton Vees team in the 2019-20 season, but after a trade to the Coquitlam Express for the 2020-21 season, he never took the next step that was expected of him.

However, just 16 games into his NCAA career, the tables have turned for him. He’s amassed 21 points — nine goals and 12 assists — in a secondary scoring role and is deployed in key situations for the team. I haven’t had the chance to watch Rizzo in action yet this season, but scouting reports have praised his gritty, smart two-way play and the maturity of his game as a whole. He’s not the best skater, but he has hockey sense and an excellent work ethic. He remains a long-term project, but he seems to be on the right path and has time on his side.

Others: From Russia, With Love?

Yegor Naumov: I included Naumov in this series a few weeks back, noting that he’d yet to make his season debut for Lokomotiv Yaroslavl in the Russian junior league. Well, fast forward to now …. and he’s still yet to make his debut across 37 games. I’m not sure what the deal is. He could be hurt, or he could just be buried on the depth chart. Neither option is a good sign, and as far as I can tell, he’s appeared in just 18 games over the past 26 months. The Canes’ scouts must have seen *something* that all other observers haven’t — and thankfully, we’re only talking about a seventh-round pick here — but the Naumov experiment continues to be a total mystery.

Kirill Slepets: The demise of the once-promising Slepets has continued this season, but at least he’s worked his way back into KHL action after being completely relegated to the Russian minors during the 2020-21 season. Unfortunately, he’s been held pointless through 14 KHL appearances, and from what I can tell (information on him is sparse), he’s recently been sent to Sokol Krasnoyarsk of the VHL. His combination of hands, speed, and desire will always make him intriguing, but things haven’t come together for him. Now age 22, he needs to show some evolution in his game and earn trust at the KHL level. He has potential, but considering the entirety of his current situation, I don’t love his odds to emerge as a future NHLer.

The always important thing to remember with prospects is that development is non-linear. Some guys take longer to figure it out than others, and for some guys, it just never happens. Wisely, the Hurricanes’ philosophy over the past few drafts has been to trade back and add more picks, which in turn has added more players into their system, and that’s seen their prospect group grow into one of the deepest league-wide in the NHL.

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