Thursday marks the unofficial opening of the 2021-22 NHL season, as the opening of the prospects tournaments means real, live NHL action is here. Starting with the Detroit Red Wings’ creation and hosting of the Traverse City tournament in the late 1990s, these fun matches give coaches and management a chance to get their eyes on their youngsters in a controlled environment; one that perhaps provides a little better of a gauge than say, for example, a young Edmonton defenseman trying to stop Connor McDavid 1-on-1.
There are many interesting angles for observers to take on these camps. No, not every high goal-scoring total or impressive play serves as a prelude to NHL superstardom or even NHL readiness. But it does provide a glimpse into what kind of skillsets these players have when matched up against their peers or what they could bring to the table down the road in a more visible spotlight than most junior, European, or college leagues.
For the Hurricanes, this year marks a fascinating tournament to follow. The team has frequented the Traverse City tournament in past years, but will be heading down to Tampa Bay this year in order to play in the four-team showcase down in the Sunshine State. Joining them will be the host Lightning, Florida Panthers, and Nashville Predators. Carolina’s prospect roster is predictably stacked, with the five prospects (Seth Jarvis, Ryan Suzuki, Jamieson Rees, Dominik Bokk, and Jack Drury) that I’d probably consider the top five in the system all on the team.
The talent expands well beyond that quintet, though, with a handful of 2021 draft picks trying to make their mark, a few newly-stateside players from Europe trying to prove they’re ready for the jump, and, of course, a number of camp invites with as much on the line as anyone. Nothing is guaranteed for these players, and they’re effectively playing just to get a chance with either the Hurricanes or some other team that is scouting the games. Here are the biggest players and storylines to watch for at the tournament as things ramp up in Carolina for the 2021-22 season.
Is There a 2021 Version of Victor Rask (Circa 2014?)
Entering the 2014-15 season, Victor Rask was a solid prospect coming off a fine rookie AHL season in Charlotte, and the Hurricanes hoped he’d soon become a solid NHL contributor. Rask would head to the Traverse City tournament that year, where he would light up the scoresheet, scoring a goal and an assist in each of the first two games before scoring twice, including the game-winner, in the third. He was clearly head and shoulders above the rest of the competition, and this tournament, in retrospect, feels like a launching point for his career. Rask would make the team a few weeks later and score 33 points in 80 games as a 21-year-old rookie.
Now, Rask’s Carolina career obviously fizzled out after his four-year contract extension in the summer of 2016, but his story is still one that every young player on this roster should be looking to recreate.
The most obvious candidates to take this kind of step are Drury and Jarvis. In the former’s case, coming off a big season in which he was a finalist for the Swedish Hockey League’s (SHL) rookie of the year award, a roster spot could and should be within his reach. We’ve talked about Drury a good bit here as a candidate to fill some holes left behind on the roster right out of the gate. He’s a mature, capable two-way forward whose offensive game has grown by leaps and bounds since being drafted in 2019.
As for Jarvis, the top prospect in the system was hurt by the pandemic and league shutdown of 2020-21. Had he been able to play a full slate of games, it feels much more realistic that he’d be a candidate to push for the team right now, but like so many other young players and prospects around the league, that loss of time and reps definitely put a brief pause on their developments.
Does this mean he doesn’t have a chance to impress and force the Hurricanes’ hands anyway? Absolutely not. As of now we have very little idea where these players are at. Maybe Jarvis hit the weights extremely hard this summer, put forth a ton of effort and growth onto the ice, and simply made “the leap.” You never truly know when that is going to come for any prospect. It’s entirely within the realm of possibility that Jarvis comes into Tampa Bay, absolutely dominates, and heads back to Raleigh for camp energized, invigorated, and ready to prove he’s an NHL player right now.
Those last few sentences really go for any player, not just exclusively for the two players that seem the best candidates. Rees is going to provide an energetic, physical presence (with legitimate skill, too) very soon, and with Warren Foegele and Brock McGinn leaving over the summer, that kind of player could definitely be of use to the Hurricanes lineup. Perhaps Bokk is ready to build off an extremely strong finish in Chicago last season to bring his wicked shot and all-around offensive toolkit to the big club. Suzuki is in a similar boat, having gotten valuable experience a year early in the AHL last season and showing a versatility to his game that will serve him well once it’s time to break into the league. Or maybe an older prospect like David Cotton is going to show up and take off — who knows!
That’s one of the bigger allures to this event — there are so many possibilities, and it’s all about who is ready to step up and take the reins. The Hurricanes are going to be a very fun team to watch, and it’s going to bring a lot of excitement and intrigue as to which of these young guns are closing in on their NHL debuts.
What Will We See From the Goalies?
The goaltending position has been under the microscope for the Hurricanes this offseason. Between the trade of Alex Nedeljkovic, the decision not to re-sign Petr Mrazek, and free-agent acquisitions of two short-term answers in Antti Raanta and Frederik Andersen, there has been a lot of debate and curiosity about what the Hurricanes plan between the pipes is for the future. Three Hurricanes goalies will look to make their mark and begin their ascent through the Prospects Showcase.
The Hurricanes have three scheduled games for this event and brought three separate goalies. Considering this is a somewhat condensed schedule, it’s pretty easy to assume no team will want to push a young goalie and throw him in for all three games. The obvious answer is, “well, one start for each goalie,” but I expect the games to get split into halves — one goalie plays til midway through the second period or so, and another one finishes the games out. It’s a good way to ramp back up after the offseason, anyway. So, quickly, let’s take a look at the three goaltenders, what their season outlook appears to be, and what the future projects for each.
First off, we have Beck Warm, who is already a fascinating story. Undrafted out of the Western Hockey League’s (WHL) Tri-City Americans, Warm signed a one-year AHL deal with Chicago last season. However, after just four games in which he went 4-0-0 with a .940 save percentage (SV%), the Hurricanes inked him to a two-year, entry-level contract, and he earned the starter’s crease for the Wolves the rest of the season. He did not finish the season quite as strong as those initial games but still posted a solid .914 SV% and 2.74 goals against average (GAA) in 14 games. It is obviously a small sample size, so Warm has a lot to prove this season — and even just to earn Chicago’s starting job, as the team signed AHL-veteran Alex Lyon this offseason.
Next is Finnish netminder Eetu Makiniemi, who, fresh off signing his entry-level deal, will head to Tampa for our first look at him on North American ice. A 2017 fourth-round pick, Makiniemi is a prototypical size-athleticism prospect with legitimate starter’s upside. Playing for a middle-of-the-road Ilves team in the Liiga (Finland’s top league), the 22-year-old’s numbers don’t jump off the page, but he was very impressive down the stretch as the team made a playoff push. Makiniemi is probably ticketed for the ECHL as he gets acclimated, as the Chicago crease, as mentioned above, is quite crowded. But with his talent, professional experience, and potential, it wouldn’t be super surprising to see him beat out one of the other guys, either.
And, finally, we have 2021-draftee Patrik Hamrla. The Czech-born goaltender is heading to North America this season to play for Rimouski of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League (QMJHL). Hamrla is extremely young (he doesn’t turn 19 until next May), but he already spent time in the top Czech league this past season. Listed at 6-foot-3 and 194 pounds, he is another great athlete who is capable of making superb recovery saves when seemingly beaten or out of the play. He can tend to put himself in those situations a touch too often, though, with his over-aggressiveness. This makes him pretty similar to some recent goalies the Hurricanes have worked with. The tournament is a great chance for Hamrla purely because the Hurricanes are getting to watch and work with him very early in his development.
Are the No. 8 and No. 9 Defensemen Here?
We’ve spoken many times about how deep the Hurricanes’ blue line is entering the 2021-22 season, but we also know how fickle the game of hockey is. Very easily can a team have depth until it suddenly doesn’t. Injuries, ineffectiveness, COVID (hopefully less of an issue this season, especially with the Hurricanes reportedly being 100% vaccinated), there are so many things that can go wrong at any given moment. The Hurricanes have a ton of depth on the blue line they acquired this offseason, with Brendan Smith assuming the no. 7 role and players like Eric Gelinas, Max Lajoie, Jalen Chatfield, and Josh Jacobs all capable of filling in in a pinch. Still, I think two players headed for Tampa Bay — Jesper Sellgren and Joey Keane — have the talent to beat those guys out and potentially serve as the first call-up options in 2021-22.
Despite the fact that Sellgren and Keane are effectively earmarked for Chicago of the AHL, a good run at the tournament where they outclass most of the prospects there could prove they are ready for NHL duty whenever a need strikes. That’s really what you want to see at a tournament such as this one from two “veteran” defensemen; Sellgren has been in the SHL playing top-four minutes for multiple years now, and Keane has been a top-four mainstay in Hartford, Charlotte, and Chicago of the AHL the last few years himself.
They sort of should be dominating this type of environment if they’re NHL-ready. I don’t expect either to necessarily do anything super flashy or post a ton of points, but both need to be comfortable, steady, and control the pace of the game when they’re on the ice. Both have the ability to do so when on their games and also to be two of the very best defensemen at the tournament.
Sellgren, especially, I find to be an interesting one to follow. I’ve always thought he plays the type of game that perfectly lends itself to a bottom-pairing role, as he’s quick, moves the puck well, and can defend despite his below-average size. That type of skillset suits the Hurricanes’ third pairing better than a higher-risk, higher-upside player like Jake Bean. Sellgren could probably be plugged in on the third pairing, eat 12-14 minutes (or even more, if needed), and be largely unnoticed — in a good way. Not a ton of big plays, but very few mistakes, either.
Keane had some struggles in Chicago last season, mainly with discipline and decision making, but he still contributed 13 points in 24 games as a 21-year-old. The swift-skating righty got a look late in 2021, making his NHL debut in the Hurricanes’ season finale, and playing 19:34 in the loss to Nashville. Despite it being a meaningless game, that sort of ice time clearly showed the Hurricanes’ desire to get a good, long look at him and gauge where his game is.
The only disclaimer for this section is that, again, these two guys have been around a while and really should show out as more seasoned prospects within the organization. Their bigger test will probably be in training camp and the preseason, but regardless, this tournament is important for them. Like with everyone else on the Prospect Showcase roster, a great start here is a good springboard to a good training camp. And if these young guys keep growing, progressing, learning, and checking off the different preseason boxes, they just may find themselves in an NHL role sooner than later.
Final Thoughts on Hurricanes at Prospects Showcase
It wasn’t by design that we basically outlined all three position levels; that’s just sort of how this worked out. There was plenty to discuss here; we didn’t even really dive into the 2021 draftees beyond Hamrla, although towering defender Bryce Montgomery, as well as slick, speedy forwards Justin Robidas and Bobby Orr, will absolutely be players to watch. Then you have the invites, some of which offer legitimate intrigue, like former Toronto Maple Leafs third-round pick Riley Stotts. So, again, plenty to talk about and plenty to watch for — it’s going to be an enjoyable event.
Action in Tampa Bay begins Saturday morning at 10:00 AM EST as the Hurricanes open things up by squaring off against the Panthers. They will then face the Bolts Sunday at 1:00 PM before closing things out with Nashville on Monday at 10:00 AM. All games will be streamed on the Lightning’s official website, and the full schedule can be found here.
Next week training camps will begin to be in full force, and we’ll get even better views of the current outlooks for all teams and prospects around the NHL. And less than three weeks from now, opening night will drop the puck on the 104th season in NHL history. Even if you don’t love following every move of every prospect (completely understandable considering the amount that actually pan out is maybe 15%, if that), at least we have real, legitimate games from players wearing real NHL sweaters beginning Thursday night. Hockey season has just about arrived, folks.
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!