It’s been a weird year. The World Juniors started with great promise only to be abruptly canceled amid a coronavirus outbreak – just one of many examples of players’ seasons being put on hold due to the pandemic. We’ve also seen multiple injuries pop up for some of the top prospects in the Carolina Hurricanes organization. On the bright side, a 19-year-old has announced NHL arrival with a bang in the form of a stellar rookie season, beginning to earn a touch of attention in the Calder Trophy race (spoiler alert: you won’t see his name here anymore… he’s just a plain ol’ NHLer now).
So, that means we have a new #1 atop the list of top prospects in the impressive Carolina pipeline. The future remains very bright, just like the present for the team with the NHL’s best points percentage. Despite the lack of a truly elite prospect, especially now that the aforementioned Seth Jarvis has (almost) graduated, there are few, if any, teams that can match the incredible depth throughout the ‘Canes organization of highly skilled youngsters with great odds to play NHL games.
If you go back to the preseason ranking my colleague and prospect ranking partner Alex Ohari and I did, you’ll see quite a bit of movement – especially from the 2021 draftees. Now that some of those players have had a chance to play more significant roles or at higher levels, we’ll talk about some stocks that have really exploded.
Furthermore, one of the first posts I did here at The Hockey Writers last summer was about the Hurricanes’ need to shore up their organizational defensive depth after their offensive focus for a few years. This midseason update will reflect that they have definitely succeeded in doing so.
So let’s get to it and break down the top 10 prospects in the Hurricanes organization.
Cutting this down to 20 last time was a chore itself, so going even further, naturally, means some extremely intriguing players with real NHL potential are going to be left out. I do want to at least give a mention to two forwards and a defenseman who, despite not making the actual top 10, are especially notable and should be on your radar.
Anttoni Honka, who Alex lobbied hard to keep on the actual list, by the way, continues to produce big offensive numbers for a 20-year-old defenseman in one of the best men’s leagues in the world. He leads JYP (the worst team in the Finnish Liiga, to be fair) in scoring with 22 points in 36 games. That number has him tied for fifth amongst defensemen in scoring, and, incidentally, he came in fifth in the league’s defensive scoring last year, as well. He’s quick and a stellar playmaker that would make for a great power-play quarterback, but his defensive game and how he’ll hold up physically as a light, 5-foot-10 blueliner is still a huge question mark.
Next, if you simply look at 2020 second-rounder Noel Gunler‘s stat line, you’ll probably think his development has effectively stalled. Playing for Brynäs of the Swedish Hockey League (SHL), he has six goals and 12 points in 31 games, but the team as a whole has had struggles putting the puck in the net. I’ve seen many highlights where he made fantastic plays, only for a teammate to miss the opportunity created – or be unable to find Gunler when he got open in a dangerous position. The biggest concern is still his one-way/off-the-puck game; he’ll have to improve in that area once he comes stateside. He was always a high-risk, high-reward player, and that massive upside still very much exists. An elite shot, underrated passing ability, and hands that can make any defender look foolish will always give me belief.
Lastly, Tuukka Tieksola has always been a personal favorite of mine. He seemed to be putting things together in Liiga in 2020-21, coming on particularly strong in the second half of the year to post nine goals and 18 points over 37 games – a majority of that production coming in the last couple of months of the season. However, he needs to have a similar outburst this year, as he doesn’t seem to be getting much ice time, and his production has greatly suffered (apparently, he’s been hurt, as well). Like Gunler, consistency has been an issue, and the 2019 fourth rounder’s size (5-foot-10, 156 pounds) means he has a lot of physical maturing to do. However, also like Gunler, his offensive toolkit gives him legitimate top-six upside.
10: G Pyotr Kochetkov (Previous Ranking: 13)
Season Stats: 10-10-2, 2.23 goals-against average (GAA), .923 save percentage (SV%) in 23 Kontinental Hockey League (KHL) games.
Eetu Makiniemi was gotten plenty of well-deserved attention for his fantastic North American debut playing with the Chicago Wolves of the American Hockey League. Jack LaFontaine is in the headlines, too. Desperate for goaltender depth with a laundry list of injuries at the position, the Hurricanes signed the 2021 Mike Richter Award winner as the NCAA’s top goalie to his entry-level contract seemingly out of nowhere on Sunday. However, the top goalie prospect in the Hurricanes organization, and the one most likely to be the team’s #1, goalie-of-the-future, remains Kochetkov.
Playing for Torpedo Nizhny Novgorod of the KHL, widely considered the second-best league in the world, you can tell a lot about Kochetkov’s season just from his stat line. His GAA and SV% are very good, but his record is pretty rough. If you watch some of his team’s games, you can see exactly why. They can’t score, with 2-1 losses a common occurrence, and their defenders don’t really live up to their positional names. If not for the 22-year-old goalie, things would look a lot worse for Torpedo.
Already signed to his entry-level contract, Kochetkov is eligible to come stateside on May 1. Expect him to quickly work his way up the ladder, perhaps pressing for NHL starts within the next two years. His 6-foot-2 size, athleticism and reflexes, poise in his crease, and sound positional technique give him the upside to be a legitimate number one goaltender in the NHL in the not-too-distant future.
9: C Vasili Ponomaryov (Previously: 9)
Season Stats: one goal, one assist in 14 KHL games; seven goals, five assists, in 17 Supreme Hockey League games (VHL, equivalent of Russia’s AHL); one goal, two assists in two Russian Junior Hockey League (MHL) games; scoreless in two World Junior Championships (WJC) games.
After spending the last two seasons playing some impressive hockey for the Shawinigan Cataractes of the Quebec Major Junior League (QMJHL), Ponomaryov headed back to Russia on loan for the 2021-22 season. Another player already signed to his entry-level deal (nice to know that KHL coaches and management can’t do to him what we just saw with Minnesota prospect Marat Khustnutdinov), the 5-foot-11 center plays a mature, two-way game that’s going to fit nicely into an NHL middle-six down the line.
A dogged forechecker with a motor that seemingly never stops, the centerman’s puck skill and shot often seems overlooked. I’ve heard concerns about him as a skater, and while his straight-line speed may be mediocre, he does have excellent balance and well-above-average stop-and-start quickness that help him create separation. This latter attribute is especially noticeable in the corners when evading defenders. He’s mostly been asked to play a checking role – especially in the QMJHL, as Shawinigan seemed to deploy him almost exclusively in critical defensive situations. This makes it all the more impressive he scored a near point-per-game pace in his two seasons there. I think his offense can, and likely will, take off as he continues to develop and gets more opportunities to contribute in that end.
8: LHD Ronan Seeley (Previously: Not Ranked)
Season Stats: six goals, 16 assists in 25 Western Hockey League (WHL) games, two assists in two WJC games.
Easily the biggest mover on this list and probably one of the bigger risers amongst defense prospects around the league, 2020 seventh-round pick Seeley has put his name on the map as a real threat to eat big minutes on an NHL blue line. This culminated in an impressive honor in December, as even while being one of the least recognizable names on their loaded roster, it was Seeley who was given a chance to pair up alongside last year’s number one overall pick, Owen Power, on Team Canada’s defense during the truncated WJC.
An elite skater that fits perfectly in the modern NHL, the biggest development in Seeley’s game since his draft day has been the offensive side of things. He was always a capable defender with good hockey sense and the ability to get from point A to point B in the blink of an eye, but he’s added a real skill element that has lifted his ceiling considerably. I’ve also loved the battle level I’ve seen from him this season. He’s got enough size at 6-foot-1 and over 190 pounds to throw around in the corners and in front of the net and has shown a willingness to do it with regularity this year. The nasty streak, defensive acumen, and ability to both be a one-man breakout and beat opposing defenders one-on-one once he gets in the offensive zone have made him an extremely intriguing option for the Carolina blue line in the coming years.
7: RHD Aleksi Heimosalmi (Previously: 8)
Season Stats: one assist in 24 Liiga games; two assists in two WJC games
Ignore the stat line – 18-year-old defenseman Heimosalmi is looking like another excellent second-round selection that, like Seeley, uses his skating ability and hockey sense to fit nicely in the modern game. Despite below-average size for a blueliner (5-foot-11, 170 pounds), his agility, hockey sense, and poise in the face of pressure help him control the game’s flow when he’s on the ice. This was especially noticeable at the WJC, where he looked like one of the most polished defenders on the team. He fit right in alongside players like Toronto Maple Leafs’ draft pick Topi Niemela, one of the top defensive prospects in all of hockey, despite Heimosalmi being the youngest player on that unit.
Heimosalmi is always very active, looking to get shots through, and has proven to be a solid defender willing to consistently battle in the dirty areas against bigger forwards. As one of the youngest players in his draft class, he still has quite a bit of maturing to do before he’s ready to help the Hurricanes. Expect him to spend at least one more year with Assat before heading stateside and bringing his impressive two-way game to the Carolina organization.
6: LHD Alexander Nikishin (Previously: 14)
Season Stats: eight goals, four assists in 46 KHL games
Another big-time riser, being a full-timer KHLer for three seasons by the age of 20, is usually a pretty good sign. Especially when you’re known as a hard-hitting, defensively sound defenseman… but you have also put up the most points of any defenseman aged 20 or younger in the second-best league in the world. In fact, other than Nikishin, only one defenseman, New Jersey Devils 2020 first-rounder Shakir Mukhamadullin, has more than four points in the KHL this season. Point totals are generally meaningless in the KHL for young players. Still, his production and consistent top-four ice time go to further show the trust Nikishin has already gained in a highly-difficult men’s league.
At 6-foot-3 and 216 pounds already, Nikishin’s highlight-reel is filled with heavy, open ice hits and what looks like a lot of back pain for his opponents. However, the development of his all-around game, which is highly notable in his growth as a play-driver and his comfort level carrying the puck in all three zones, has made him seem like a smart bet not just to crack an NHL blue line someday but play top-four minutes as well. I’ve been confident in his ability to eat minutes at 5-on-5 and on the penalty kill. Still, his offensive development and comfort as a puck mover have me considering that he could legitimately contribute in all three phases in the NHL.
I mean, the guy is nicknamed “Boom,” but watching him this season, I’m starting to get curious if that was borne out of his checks or his absolute cannon of a shot. Nikishin has shown the ability to blast one-timers through a crowd, or walk-in, dangle through a defender or two and rip a wrister that a goalie can track all the way and still not be able to save. His production (his eight goals are tied for sixth in the KHL amongst all defensemen), alongside his excellent defensive positioning, consistent record of hitting opponents pretty much through the wall, and incredible vision and escapability (especially for someone his size) on the breakout has Nikishin looking like one of the most underrated defense prospects in hockey.
5: C/W Jamieson Rees (Previously: 5)
Season Stats: two goals, six assists in 18 AHL games
After an impressive AHL debut in the COVID-shortened 2020-21 season, Rees has been banged up and in and out of the Chicago lineup this year. His largest concerns have always been discipline and a lengthy injury history, so this year has been frustrating for him in the latter regard. However, he still maintains a versatile, perfectly matched-for-Carolina style of play that will make him an absolute pest to play against, with his forechecking and skill projecting to align very nicely with what we see in the Hurricanes’ middle-six today.
The 2019 second rounder’s game revolves around his speed and relentless energy. He’s small but extremely physical and never backs down from any opponent. It’s far from useless grit, though – he’s also highly skilled, with excellent hands in tight areas and some of the best vision in the entire system. He could easily rack up 35 or more assists in a season once he enters his prime. I would still like to see him shoot more, as most of his goals come from dangling around multiple defenders and deking around the goalie. Still, Rees remains one of the most intriguing prospects in the entire system with his blend of physicality, finesse, and speed.
Number 4: RHD Scott Morrow (Previously: 17)
Season Stats: eight goals, 10 assists in 18 NCAA games
When we last ranked Morrow, an actual quote from the last edition was, “this ranking could change drastically in either direction as he moves from prep to the NCAA” (that’s slightly paraphrased). It is safe to say that statement was correct, and we feel a bit silly for ranking him so low the first time around, so this is our attempt to make up for it. Morrow has been making waves all season long at UMass, scoring at a point-per-game clip and showing off his immense offensive upside regularly.
His strengths come with the puck on his blade, as he combines excellent skating ability with silky-smooth hands that allow him to be a one-man breakout, zone entry, and scoring-chance-creator, often all within about a 10-second span. He’s electric in transition, and given time and space, he constantly puts the stress on NCAA defenses that rarely have an answer. His one-timer is absolutely lethal, as well, and is a big reason why he leads all freshmen defensemen in goals this season.
He’s likely to stay in college a few more years, mainly because his defensive game remains very much a work in progress, which is fine for a blueliner at his age, with his offensive upside, by the way. He’s got to get a bit tougher to play against, as although his one-on-one defending and gap control has looked better at times this year, he still has a long way to go with consistently engaging in that end if he ever wants to get consistent run under head coach Rod Brind’Amour. He can also get brazen with the puck at times, which leads to turnovers and puts his team in a rough spot coming back the other way. However, his diverse and dangerous offensive toolkit presents an enticing prospect as an offensive defenseman and power-play quarterback.
3: W Ville Koivunen (Previously: 11)
Season Stats: 10 goals, 12 assists in 32 Liiga games; two goals, two assists in two WJC games
I’m not going to lie, since this is my own personal list and all, I had a really hard time not putting this kid even higher. I love, love, love his game. And please, don’t take this the wrong way and blow me up on Twitter when he doesn’t become an elite, first-line player, but in more ways than one, Koivunen reminds me of another second-round pick the Hurricanes made from Finland about a half-decade ago. Back then, Sebastian Aho wasn’t the explosive skater he is now, and he didn’t have a rocket of a shot or any other defining quality that screamed “Elite NHLer.” He just had immense hockey sense, an incredible brain that knew where everyone was, where they were going, and how to exploit it, and he’s turned it into big, big things for this franchise.
That very well could be Koivunen down the line. He reads the play exceptionally well and is equally dangerous as both a passer and a shooter. The way he’s produced as a teenager in one of the toughest men’s leagues in the world suggests he could be a legitimate contributor in the near future. One of the bigger concerns around him was his skating ability, but his first step and quickness look to be improved this year, too. If he can become just an average NHL skater, expect to see him in the Hurricanes’ top six within the next few years.
2: C/W Ryan Suzuki (Previously: 2)
Season Stats: one goal, two assists in five AHL games
As is often the case with AHL injuries, I’ve poked around and been unable to find any details whatsoever. I don’t know if it’s lower-body, upper-body, or a broken pinky toe, but there doesn’t seem to be any available information regarding the ailment that has kept Suzuki out of all but five games during the 2021-22 season. It’s a real shame, as he’s in the same boat as Rees, Jack Drury, or even (to a lesser degree) Jarvis, in that he’s got AHL experience at this point, remains a high-upside player with the potential to help the big club in the near future, and this year could have been the one where he started to bust down the door and make his case for NHL time. Alas, we’re still waiting on any update we can get on his status.
The book remains the same on Suzuki: swift skater, excellent playmaker, and a real heaviness element have been added to his game over the past couple of years, combining to make up a pretty versatile and unique prospect. He could fill any number of roles within the Hurricanes lineup once he’s healthy and ready to contribute and still has legitimate top-six upside down the road. Unfortunately, this year has been a wash so far and a mystery into what exactly the issue is, other than the fact that it’s been a somewhat severe problem for it to keep him out this long. Hopefully, Suzuki can get back into the lineup soon and salvage the back half of the year at least.
1: C Jack Drury (Previously: 3)
Season Stats: eight goals, 10 assists in 26 AHL games; two goals in two NHL games
Prospect rankings usually come down to a projected ceiling against the likelihood of achieving it. If it was simply “what he could be,” then Tieksola, Gunler, and even Dominik Bokk might be atop this list. So, perhaps Jack Drury ends up playing lower down the lineup from Suzuki or Koivunen – both of those guys project to be top-six players, after all, and Drury could very well max out as a third liner. However, I’m 99.99% sure he could step in and fill that role successfully today, while those other guys still have developing to do and, therefore, lots of places things could go wrong, this actually makes for an easy call.
Despite the relatively modest ceiling, the growth we’ve seen in his offensive game ever since he went to the SHL in 2019-20 makes me think Drury can be a very good, two-way matchup center on a contending team’s second line. Obviously, his eye-opening NHL debut back in December put him on the map, scoring a goal in each of his first two games (both ‘Canes wins) while COVID ravaged the team. However, perhaps just as impressive was his acumen in the faceoff dot, winning 80% (12 of 15) in those first two NHL games, and responsible defensive play – he blocked a few shots quite impressively and was quickly trusted by Brind’Amour to kill penalties and play in all situations. That certainly speaks volumes.
With a motor that never stops running, a style centered around taking care of his own end before letting the offense come, but an improving offensive game with exceptional hands around the net and a quality shot along with it, Drury has risen from second-round pick and projected bottom-six player to the top prospect in the Hurricanes organization. He’s proven he is NHL-ready, and, before long, odds are he forces his way onto the big club’s roster for good.
Waves of Players Still to Come
The Hurricanes have often ranked within the top five, or at least top 10 of most prospect pool rankings for a while now, and despite the graduation of top prospect after top prospect, new players continue to rise up and fill in. That’s the mark of an excellent drafting team, and the current pool looks like it’s going to continue supplementing this exciting roster for years to come. Drury may be next, but youngsters like Rees, Nikishin, Koivunen, and more won’t be far behind.
And, again, these are just the top 10, or I suppose 13; there are plenty of others that have a real chance to be contributors to the NHL roster down the line. The Hurricanes have nailed the draft for years now, and in the later rounds they identify talent as well as any team in the league. 2021 selection Joel Nystrom is a great example, as a top four defender who has looked very impressive in the SHL, as well as at the WJC on a loaded Sweden defense. Or Alexander Pashin, whose 5-foot-7 size is the only reason no team took a chance on his electric offensive game a whole lot earlier. They don’t give in and start drafting players who, at best, turn into fourth liners in the later rounds. They take flawed prospects other teams maybe were scared of for one or two shortcomings, but who, if they hit, could legitimately play in the top half of a roster.
With the Hurricanes looking like a top Stanley Cup contender today, much of the roster under the age of 25 and locked up long-term, and a still-loaded pipeline that will continue to grow with players like Andrei Svechnikov, Martin Necas, and Sebastian Aho, the team is in an enviable position. The next half-decade, and probably longer considering the way this team will surely continue to draft, looks like it’s going to be a lot of fun in Raleigh.
Brandon Stanley covers the Carolina Hurricanes and Los Angeles Kings here at THW. Born and raised in Raleigh, NC, in addition to writing about the Hurricanes for about five years now, he played in the Carolina Junior Canes program for another 15; hockey has always been his biggest passion. A graduate of North Carolina State University, Brandon also co-hosts and edits 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. Always available to chat anything hockey related, don’t hesitate to shoot him a tweet or DM anytime on Twitter @bwstanley26!