The Carolina Hurricanes are closing in on a Stanley Cup contention window. Led by young, rising stars such as Sebastian Aho, Andrei Svechnikov, Jaccob Slavin, and Alex Nedeljkovic, at all three levels of the roster the future is bright. However, the series against the Tampa Bay Lightning displayed that the team certainly has areas for improvement before it truly enters the fray of the elite.
The Hurricanes have been “Corsi Darlings” for years; consistently out-possessing and out-shooting their opponents, but at times that suggested advantage didn’t yield tangible results. Even now, with the team taking a large step forward the last couple years and truly becoming a threat to even the top teams in the NHL, there were times when the results didn’t match the box score (or, the shot count in particular). Part of that is attributable to the inherent unpredictability of hockey, of course; another part can be attributed to, well, goalies like Andrei Vasilevskiy.
Nonetheless, there are three key areas the Hurricanes can stand to improve upon; and it just so happens there are three somewhat under-the-radar prospects in the system that can make a significant difference in these exact areas. So let’s take a look at three areas of need, and three in-house options that will fill them over the next couple years.
Area of Need #1: Being Tougher to Play Against
Prospect: Jamieson Rees
I recently did a roster projection piece where I discussed that the Hurricanes need to be tougher to play against, especially in the postseason. Because of that need, I suggested the organization go all-in on trying to pry Matthew Tkachuk out of Calgary. I also went on to say that the likelihood that he is available (despite reports that he wanted out of Calgary), and that the Hurricanes would be the highest bidder for the young star’s services, were extremely slim. Even if he isn’t a legitimate option specifically, a physical, in-your-face style player that gets under the opponent’s skin, but also has the skill to be a legitimate threat at the same time, is exactly what this team could use in it’s forward ranks.
Luckily, Carolina has a prospect who acclimated himself well in Chicago last season that could provide many of these same qualities. Rees, another teenager who was able to play in the AHL thanks to the temporary transfer rules for the COVID-19-altered season, certainly had bouts of inconsistency, which were unsurprising for a teenager adjusting to professional hockey. However, he had flashes where he looked like the best player on the ice, including two separate two-goal games against the Rockford IceHogs, which showed why he was a second-round pick in 2019. He finished with eight goals and six assists in 29 games, even out-producing the Canes’ first-round pick from his draft class, highly-touted forward Ryan Suzuki.
Rees has a bit of a checkered history, with both injuries and suspensions due to over-the-line hits marring his junior career. However, when on the ice, he has displayed the quickness, hands, and offensive instincts to play in a top-nine, if not top-six. His vision and ability to dangle through traffic are particularly impressive. Back in 2019-20 he was one of the top players in the Ontario Hockey League (OHL). Serving as alternate captain of the Sarnia Sting, Rees scored 18 goals along with 43 assists in just 39 games. His spectacular 1.56 points per game (PPG) mark was the 11th-best in the league.
To the point of this “need” from the Hurricanes perspective, perhaps the most enticing part of Rees’ game is his compete level. Despite checking in at just 5-foot-10 and around 175 pounds, he hits everything in sight, never backing down from anyone, regardless of their size. He is absolutely fearless on the ice, with a motor that never stops, hounding the opponent and wearing them down for what seems like all 60 minutes of every game. He’s a ball of energy that teammates and fans will absolutely love, and opponents will despise playing against. He’s cut from the same cloth as Tkachuk, or even a Brad Marchand type. I do not expect quite that much scoring in the NHL, but I believe he can be a 45-50 point player once he’s established himself in the league.
The Hurricanes need more of this type of physicality in their lineup. Svechnikov brings it pretty regularly, and the Russian phenom seems to be at his best when engaged physically. However, if your rising superstar is your only consistently physical presence, it presents a lot of concerns as well. For one, it makes him a target for the opposition, which opens him up to injury. On top of that, we have seen Svechnikov’s discipline has been a major problem for the team. When he’s in the box, he’s obviously not helping on the ice. I’m not suggesting he needs to back off this style of play — it’s part of what makes him such a unique power forward — but he needs to learn. He needs someone to take some of that pressure off, another physical tone-setter the team can rely upon. Rees will help a lot in this regard.
Rees is the closest of the three players we’re talking about here to the NHL, but he still has some developing to do as well. At times he can try to do too much, leading to turnovers and odd-man rushes the other way. His discipline took a big step forward last year, but in a small sample, it is fair to question how significant the step was. However, if he continues to progress at the rate he has so far in the two years since being drafted, a cup of coffee during the 2021-22 season isn’t out of the question.
Working in his favor is his versatility, as he can slot just about anywhere in the lineup; Rees can absolutely help a team in the bottom six with his energy and 200-foot ability, or he can slot alongside more offensively gifted linemates and create offense just as effectively. He seems to be just as effective on the wing as he is at his natural center position, as well. Rees is one of my favorite prospects in hockey to watch when he’s going, and I think it’s a fair assumption that Hurricanes fans will share in that affection once they get familiar with the Hamilton, Ontario-native.
Area of Need #2: Pure Sniping
Prospect: Dominik Bokk
The centerpiece of the trade that sent Justin Faulk to St. Louis, Bokk is a prospect that has had his share of ups and downs over the last couple years. After leaving his native Germany for Sweden, Bokk was a first-round pick back in 2018, largely thanks to his phenomenal hands, ability to beat defenders one-on-one, underrated passing ability, and lethal shot. For a team full of skilled playmakers, but whose lack of secondary scoring was a large part of their recent postseason demise, these attributes are more than welcome.
The Hurricanes have players who can put the puck in the net, to be sure. Svechnikov has a wicked release, Aho was all but a lock to score 40 goals if COVID-19 hadn’t shortened the 2019-20 season, and Vincent Trocheck and Nino Niederreiter are both pretty good bets to score between 20 and 30 goals in any given season. On top of that, top prospect Seth Jarvis looks like a real find at No. 13 in the 2020 Entry Draft, with his impressive seven-goals-in-nine-games stint in the AHL, two years before he would have normally been eligible to play in the league.
However, the Hurricanes also have quite a few players who probably lean more towards playmaking than scoring, arguably to a fault. Teuvo Teravainen and Martin Necas come to mind immediately, with the former, in particular, frustratingly shot-averse at times. Even for some of the “goal scorers” I mentioned above, they’re debatably better at passing than they are finishing; even Svechnikov had nearly twice as many assists as goals last season, after all. Carolina could really use another sniper to play off those scorers, hopefully taking some of the attention off of Svechnikov, Trocheck, Aho, and so on, in turn allowing their goal totals to creep back up.
Bokk’s inclusion goes back to what we said about the shot chart not matching the results; you can never have enough skill, enough finishing, in the NHL. Outside of Svechnikov, nobody on the team has the type of shot that threatens goalies from anywhere, a lightning quick release that can surprise even the best goalies in the game. Bokk has that, and can be the pure sniper to help finish some of the chances created by the multitude of playmakers throughout the roster.
In Bokk’s last couple years in the Swedish Hockey League (SHL), he was used on the left side of the umbrella as a right-shot forward (think where Svechnikov plays for the Hurricanes now) on Vaxjo’s power play. Even as a teenager, you could see the team made a concerted effort to feed him, as his ability to both rip accurate wrist shots through traffic and bomb one-timers alike made him a serious threat every possession. The Hurricanes could definitely use this, as while the Hurricanes man advantage was quite good, teams too often were able to key on Svechnikov and Dougie Hamilton. Once those two were erased, they frequently had trouble generating consistent, meaningful offense, especially in the postseason.
Bokk has solid size at 6-foot-2, and though he likely needs to bulk up some from his currently listed weight of about 180 pounds, he has shown the willingness and ability to use his puck handling, frame, and edgework to carry into the interior of the ice. Obviously, this makes an already good shot that much more dangerous. He doesn’t simply float around the outside of the zone looking for a seam — he cuts right through the teeth of the defense and creates the daylight himself.
After a tough 20-game SHL stint to begin 2020-21, Bokk and Djurgårdens agreed to end the 21-year-old’s loan, thus allowing him to head stateside and make his AHL debut. There were struggles initially in his first taste of hockey on North American ice, but by the end of the AHL season he had become one of the most important players in Chicago’s deep lineup. He finished his 29-game stint with nine goals and 18 points, while tying for the team lead with five power play goals.
Bokk is still a little rough around the edges, mostly needing to shore up his defensive acumen and consistency in his motor — basically the normal obstacles that many talented offensive prospects face. In this organization, though, these improvements are “musts” in order to ever earn any trust and ice time under head coach Rod Brind’Amour. However, he was able to win over Ryan Warsofsky, one of the best coaches in the AHL who very much mirrors his NHL counterpart, so the early returns there are promising. Bokk still likely needs another full year of development in the minors before he truly threatens the Carolina roster, but he has big-time upside to become another 25-30 goal, top-six scorer the Hurricanes could really use.
Area of Need #3: Puck-Moving From the Blue Line
Prospect: Anttoni Honka
With so much uncertainty on the current Carolina blue line, it is entirely feasible that next year’s defense has some struggles to create offensively. Hamilton is an unrestricted free agent, and Jake Bean looks like a logical option for the Seattle Kraken expansion draft for Ron Francis, the general manager that drafted him. Furthermore, Jake Gardiner’s injury woes continued, then, even when healthy, he couldn’t displace a mightily struggling Bean when the Hurricanes really needed stability on their blue line. Those are three defenseman that have taken up an overwhelming majority of the Hurricanes defensive minutes on the power play, and generally provided a lot of their offensive creation, while Jaccob Slavin, Brett Pesce, and Jani Hakanpää mostly focused on shutting down opposing forwards.
The Hurricanes are going to need more production from their defense no matter how this offseason shakes out. Bean showcased legitimate offensive upside, but his defensive shortcomings were glaring and created more questions than answers as the reason rolled along. His defensive ineptitude clearly affected his offensive confidence, and by the postseason he was barely getting ice time because of his struggles. The Hurricanes need someone whose confidence doesn’t waver, and who possesses a dynamic quality running their second power-play unit, which is where Honka comes in. His agility, willingness to join the rush and dance through defenders, and fantastic passing ability make him a threat to go coast to coast and create offense in a heartbeat.
Honka has always been an extremely polarizing prospect. His shortcomings are tough to overlook — 5-foot-10, 180-pound defensemen will always have an uphill battle, especially in their own end against bigger forwards — but his talent is undeniable. The Hurricanes took a shot on him in the third round of the 2019 Entry Draft, and since then his numbers in Finland have been eye-opening.
Despite playing for one of the worst teams in the Liiga, Honka was one of the league’s most dangerous offensive defensemen at just 20 years of age. JYP won just 13 of its 59 games on the season, and scored the fourth-fewest goals in the league. However, Honka was still a fantastic producer, ranking fifth amongst league defensemen in scoring with 31 points (four goals, 27 assists), which also was the best mark amongst U20 defenders. All four players that out-produced Honka were three or more years his senior.
Now, Honka is by far the most unsure thing of the three players profiled here. I’ve mentioned his size, but he has more questions to answer with his defensive awareness, inconsistency, ability to create at the same rate on the smaller North American rinks, and there have been rumblings about attitude issues on top of it all. These concerns, especially in concert with one another, could very easily be damning for a potential NHL career. Even as one of the more bullish Honka evaluators, I probably only put his NHL odds at about 50/50. But, with his high-end skating ability, quick hands, stellar vision, and ability to smoothly quarterback a power play, he has sky-high upside as a dynamic offensive presence from the back end.
Slavin and Pesce are extremely talented and could certainly take on more of an offensive role for the team, but with Hamilton’s return far from a sure bet, the Hurricanes are in good shape having this type of game breaker working his way up in the pipeline.
The Hurricanes prospect pipeline remains one of the strongest in the league, with the team’s strategy of betting on high-ceiling players in the draft really looking like it could pay off over the next few years. The Hurricanes’ likely two best prospects, Suzuki and Jarvis, weren’t even profiled here. Yet, we talked about three players with significant upside that could shore up an already talented roster, filling holes and rounding out a potential Stanley Cup champion down the road.
The superstars are in place with the Aho’s, Slavin’s, and Svechnikov’s, now it’s just time to add on with the type of skilled depth that helps teams win championships. Just look at the Tampa Bay Lightning — how many teams would Tyler Johnson be a top-line player on? What about Blake Coleman? Johnson has been moved up since, but was on the Lightning’s fourth line in the Carolina series, and Coleman is a top-six player on at least half the teams in the league.
The Hurricanes have some similarities in their roster to Tampa’s early years, with the deep blue lines, exciting young talent supplemented by top picks, and an elite young goalie now, too. In tandem with the team’s drafting strategy in recent years, I expect the arrow next to this team to continue pointing up. Prospects like Rees, Honka, and Bokk are in great situations that match up with their skillsets and the team’s needs, and they ought to be able to carve out roles over the next couple years. And as a whole, Carolina’s core and pipeline suggest big things are ahead for the organization. Despite mentioning some similarities in the roster construction, the Lightning are a lofty endgame to aim for, but looking at the Cup Final… isn’t that what everyone should be shooting for right now?
What’s goin’ on folks, my name is Brandon Stanley. I cover the Carolina Hurricanes here at THW. I was born and raised here in Raleigh, NC and have played hockey since about the time I could stand up. I traveled all over North America with the Carolina Jr. Hurricanes organization in my youth days, and the game has simply always been my biggest passion. I also have a podcast with two other writers (one of which, Alex Ohari, is also a writer here at THW) called Tracking the Storm. The pod covers everything Carolina Hurricanes, from prospects to game recaps and everything in between. I’m always available to chat anything hockey related, so don’t hesitate to shoot me a tweet or DM anytime on Twitter @bwstanley26!