Hurricanes’ Top 20 Prospects for 2021-22

The Carolina Hurricanes prospect pool has consistently rated as one of the highest in the National Hockey League for years now. Despite the team’s rise from afterthought to today’s near-contender status, the system has remained stacked with talent throughout. Shrewd drafting and a high priority placed on draft picks will do that. For a look into a prospect group that’s as loaded as it gets, myself and fellow THW contributor Brandon Stanley decided to compile a list of the top 20 prospects in the Hurricanes’ system.

Ahead of the 2021 NHL Entry Draft, it was evident that the Hurricanes’ defensive pipeline had begun to dry up a bit and that despite owner Tom Dundon’s insistence on drafting forwards, it may be time to focus on the position. The team obviously agreed as they selected defensemen with three of their first five picks and five overall amongst their NHL-record-tying 13 selections. That’s right – 13 players were added to what was already added to an already deep class (for full breakdowns on all of those picks, make sure to check out my piece on each of them). We started with a whopping 32 players that we thought deserved consideration, so simply narrowing this down to 20 was an exercise in itself.

Seth Jarvis Chicago Wolves
Seth Jarvis, Chicago Wolves (Todd Reicher/Rockford IceHogs)

With that incredibly deep prospect pool and so many talented players with legitimate NHL upside, wenaturally had our differences on what players should be in – especially with the newly drafted players. We disagreed on whether Aleksi Heimosalmi or Scott Morrow was the better prospect. For instance, Brandon didn’t have Aidan Hreschuk in his top 20, while I did. So, in a somewhat interesting way of going about this, we decided to effectively “draft” players. We alternated picks, saying “player X is my next best prospect” until we got to 20. Brandon had the first pick – and the odd numbers, and I had the evens.

So, where will the newbies crack the list? How many of them will at all? Here are our takes on the 20 best prospects in the Hurricanes system right now, along with a short breakdown and NHL ETAs for each.

20. Zion Nybeck (LW/RW)

It’s almost insulting to have Zion Nybeck on the fringe of the top-20 because this kid’s talent level is very high. He’s such a tough player to defend because he can beat you multiple ways. His short-burst speed and agility make him unpredictable, and while he’s primarily a pass-first player, he has a powerful wrist shot that he can get off quickly. The biggest downside to Nybeck is that he’s 5-foot-8, 175 pounds, so it’s really a “wait-and-see” with him.

He’s dynamic, but is he dynamic enough to succeed at the NHL level with virtually zero physical abilities and a currently lackluster defensive game? That remains to be seen, but this kid is the perfect long-term project that could really pay off for this team sometime down the road.

NHL ETA: Only God knows.

19. Alexander Pashin (RW/LW)

These last two players deserve to be substantially higher based on raw talent. In both cases, their size is a huge concern. And in Pashin’s case, the uncertainty of him ever leaving his home country further muddies his outlook.

Noah Delemont Alexandr Pashin
Noah Delemont of Team Switzerland checks Alexander Pashin of Team Russia (Russia Hockey/FHR.RU)

From a pure talent standpoint, Pashin probably should have been a second or third-round pick in 2020. He’s swift, deceptive, and an all-around dynamic skater. He has great hands to match, with the ability to make plays at top speed and set the pace of the hockey game when in control of the puck. He is equally threatening as a passer and shooter, with the ability to make quick moves in tight on goalies or beat them at range with a shot and wonderful playmaking ability on top of that. Everything about his offensive game is simply electric. But he’s 5-foot-7 and 154 pounds, so it’ll be an uphill climb to survive the NHL grind, especially in his own end. Still, for a seventh-round pick, he has legitimate top-six upside, with the potential to be the next Kirill Kaprizov, he can overcome those considerable odds.

NHL ETA: Your guess is as good as mine here.

18. Aidan Hreschuk (LHD)

I was super excited when the ‘Canes selected Aidan Hreschuk in the third round of the 2021 NHL Draft. He really has the potential to be a steal. He’s a strong puck-mover and an NHL-level skater. As is the trend with most of the defenders in Carolina’s system, he’s a very intelligent player and that makes him effective in all three zones. He carries the puck aggressively and is always looking to create off the rush. On the defensive side, he’s a battler and is well-rounded in his technique. I really think he has the raw talent to evolve into a legitimate fourth or fifth D down the road. He might not have a defining trait to his game, but the fact that he has very few flaws in his overall structure makes me very excited about his room for growth.

ETA: 2025-26

17. Scott Morrow (RHD)

This may surprise some people, as many scouts had Morrow ranked in the first round of the 2021 NHL Draft, and maybe they’ll turn out to be right. However, Morrow has a lot to prove before he is anywhere near NHL-ready and is one of the toughest projections from the entire class. His defense is a work in progress, and almost always with the legendary Shattuck St. Mary’s program, he was the best player on the ice, which allowed him to get away with things that simply won’t work in the NHL – poor defensive zone gaps, trying to dangle through entire teams (which usually worked, but, again, won’t as he faces better competition). He’s a good passer, has solid mobility, and is a right-hand shot at 6’2. There’s a lot to like, and this ranking could change drastically (in either direction, really) next year as he heads to the University of North Dakota.

NHL ETA: A long time. Maybe 2025-26-ish, maybe longer.

16. Patrik Puistola (LW/RW)

Due to the depth in the system and a disappointing season in 2020-21, it’s easy to forget just how good of a prospect Patrik Puistola is. I wrote on what went wrong during his season a couple of months back, but to summarize, he was stuck in a fourth-line role and wasn’t in a great position for success. Getting cut from the 2021 Finnish World Juniors team was a tough pill to swallow, especially after he led that team in scoring as an 18-year old at the 2020 tournament.

However, Puistola is still a legitimate goal-scoring threat. He goes to the paint, has a wicked release and he just finds a way to score. He’s still very raw, but the ‘Canes have no reason to rush him and that’s a good sign for his long-term development. He’ll likely spend the next 2 years in Finland and should secure an entry-level deal before Carolina would lose his rights in June 2023. He’s far from a sure thing, but he puts the puck in the net, and that gives him a chance.

NHL ETA: 2025-26

15. Jesper Sellgren (LHD)

Sellgren is one of the most under-appreciated players in the entire system. He is just solid, from his defensive play (despite his lack of size) to his mobility to his crisp puck-moving skills. I’ve thought for a while that Sellgren could potentially slide into the Hurricanes’ bottom pairing and provide what they need in that role, and probably provide more (for what specifically the Hurricanes need out of that role) than a player like Jake Bean would have. The signing of Brendan Smith effectively ends any chance he breaks camp with the team, but with him moving to the AHL this season, I expect him to be on the shortlist when injuries occur in the defense corps.

NHL ETA: 2021-22

14. Alexander Nikishin (LHD)

I didn’t know much about Nikishin when the Hurricanes drafted him in the third round of the 2020 NHL Draft, but he really impressed me with his overall play throughout this past season. His nickname is “Boom,” – which should clarify the type of player he is. He’s a big boy at 6-foot-4, 216 pounds, and uses every bit of that frame to his advantage defensively.

He also moves the puck well and he’s smart with his pinches. He’s imposing, and he’s already emerged as a KHL regular as a 19-year old. That’s a testament to his smarts and his physical advantage, which should help him to the NHL down the road. I think he’ll probably plateau as a 3rd-pair, physical, shut-down type defender, but obviously fills a huge need in the Canes’ organization.

ETA: 2024-25

13. Pyotr Kochetkov (G)

I’ve seen a lot of questions about whom the Hurricanes “Goalie of the Future” is now that Nedeljkovic is gone, and, to me, the answer is pretty easily Kochetkov. I certainly didn’t expect him to be the second goalie ranked here, but alas, here we are.

Kochetkov is the prototypical modern goalie prospect; listed at 6-foot-3, 205 pounds, he combines size with elite athleticism, making one dream of what he can become. He already gained KHL experience as a teenager. His numbers have been understandably up-and-down as he has never been given a chance to truly get comfortable in the league. He’s consistently been sent back and forth between leagues and teams. He has one more year on his deal in Russia before heading to North America, and hopefully, it’ll be a year with a little more stability. I’d like to see a more flush highlight reel of dazzling, acrobatic saves this time next year and to have a better read on where he stands currently. As an age-20 draftee, he’s not as far off as a typical goalie prospect.

NHL ETA: 2023-24

12. Eetu Makiniemi (G)

The top goaltender to appear on this list, I’ve been conducting the Mäkiniemi hype train for the past two years. This isn’t just an “against-the-grain” selection for me. I truly believe that, as of today, this kid has the best chance of any goalie in the Canes’ system to succeed at the NHL level. Drafted back in 2017, he’s slowly developed into a goaltender that looks to have real pro potential. He has prototypical size, he moves really well, and he’s outstanding athletically. He also makes desperation save look routine:

He finally emerged as the starting goaltender for Ilves in Liiga this past season and played at a level I haven’t seen from any other goalie prospect in the Canes’ system. He single-handedly willed his team into a playoff spot down the stretch, and he was then their MVP in the playoffs – with a .915 save percentage. He’s still rather raw, but he’s only 22 and is set to play in Chicago of the AHL next year, which is a great step for his development. He’s already proven he can routinely steal games for his team, and with his overall measurables and skill-set, I’m very optimistic that he has an NHL future.

NHL ETA: 2023-24

11. Ville Koivunen (LW/RW)

Despite being the third player selected by the Hurricanes last week, it wouldn’t be the least bit surprising if Koivunen turns out to be the best player. He has elite hockey sense in the offensive zone, beating the opposition with his eyes and mind as much as anything. But Koivunen has it all offensively – he can pass, deke, and score with the best of them. He isn’t fast, but he is a quick and deceptive skater. His defense has a ways to go, but if he can grow in that end and add a step or two to his skating speed as he gains leg mass, it wouldn’t be surprising to see him in the Hurricanes’ top six in relatively short order. He’s also playing for Harri Aho, alongside Tieksola. They have a great program that develops players extremely well, so he’ll be fun to track in 2021-22 as he should break into Liiga full time. 

NHL ETA: 2024-25

10. Tuukka Tieksola (RW)

Tieksola is amongst the most skilled and smartest prospects in the Hurricanes organization in terms of pure raw talent. His offensive IQ is off the charts. He’s an agile skater who loves to hold onto the puck until he finds a dangerous option. Even as an undersized forward (5-foot-10, 156 pounds), Tieksola is fearless, and he’ll take the puck to any area of the ice. He finally graduated to Liiga this past season, up from the Finnish U20 level, where he literally skated circles around the competition:

He scored nine goals and 18 points in his 37-game sample for Karpat last season, where Sebastian Aho’s father, Harri, is the team’s general manager. Tieksola could very easily move up these rankings with a strong showing over the course of a full season with that program next year. His offensive package is incredible, and his game is comparable to players like Elias Lindholm and Teuvo Teräväinen. He’s one of the smartest players on the ice and has legitimate top-six upside. The risk-factor here (size and pro reps) are the only reason he’s not a top-five prospect for me right now. But all the talent is there.

NHL ETA: 2024-25

9. Vasili Ponomaryov (C)

I feel like there are many parallels between Jack Drury and Ponomaryov, the biggest difference being that the latter is only 5-foot-10. As much as the league seems to be shying away from this stigma, I can’t help but wonder if he would have been drafted earlier, perhaps even in the first round, if he were a couple of inches taller.

Ponomaryov is absolutely relentless on the puck, with a motor that never wavers. He’s got more skill in his game than his raw Quebec Major Junior Hockey League (QMJHL) numbers would suggest, too, mainly because he has often been deployed in defensive roles, an area he excels at. There is legitimate skill and flash in his game, too, with legitimate playmaking ability and fantastic puck protection along the end boards. He’ll play on loan in the Kontinental Hockey League (KHL) next season.

NHL ETA: 2023-24

8. Aleksi Heimosalmi (LHD)

In what may be a bit of a surprise, the first appearance on this list from the Canes’ 2021 NHL Draft class is Finnish defender Aleksi Heimosalmi, who I believe has the highest ceiling of the 13-player haul. He plays a style that translates seamlessly to the modern-day NHL and is very technically gifted. He’s a smooth skater and similar to Honka with his ability to transition the puck. He surveys all of his outlets, skates the puck out of trouble and makes smart decisions. He’s small (5-foot-11, 168 pounds) but is a competitive defender. He uses his stick effectively to break up odd-man rushes, and he’s very sound positionally. He’s a project, but he has all the tools that you’d covet from a top-4, all-situations defender.

ETA: Likely not before 2025-26

7. Noel Gunler (RW)

There are many similarities between Dominik Bokk and Gunler, with Bokk really just being a year older and more mature. The same concerns that caused his draft day slide from top-15 hopeful to second-rounder remain, but Gunler is still only 19 and has immense upside. He has the potential to be a lethal sniper, but he isn’t a one-trick pony, either, with great hands, underrated vision, and good size to work the interior of the ice. He’s still a boom-or-bust prospect, especially in the Hurricanes system, where he would be unlikely ever to become a regular if he can’t shore up his off-puck motor and defensive inconsistencies. However, his ceiling is still a legitimate, top-six point producer.

NHL ETA: 2023-24

6. Dominik Bokk (RW)

A volume shooter, Bokk has one thing in mind when he steps out on the ice – and that’s to score. He has a wicked release and a dead-accurate shot, and he’s smart enough to find open space in the offensive zone. When he has a clean look, there are not many goalies that can stop Bokk’s shot. He’s also a very slick and creative stick handler and has no problem dangling around defenders.

The biggest concern for him is rounding out his overall game. He can be frustratingly inconsistent, isn’t very physical, and can be lackadaisical defensively. The hope is that as he matures, so will his game. He has a skill-set that you can’t teach, and I think it’s enough to get into the NHL regardless. He’ll be a powerplay specialist with top-six upside.

NHL ETA: 2023-24

5. Jamieson Rees (LW/C)

You can look up all of the Hurricanes prospects pieces I’ve written over the last two years, and there are going to be very few that doesn’t rave about the former Sarnia Sting forward. Rees is a fantastic fit for what the Hurricanes want to do as an aggressive, extremely competitive, and legitimately talented forward that can dangle in a phone booth with elite vision to match. I’m extremely excited to see him get a full year in Chicago and think there’s an outside chance he can get a call-up at some point later in the season.

NHL ETA: 2022-23

4. Anttoni Honka (RHD)

Honka might very well be my sole favorite prospect in the organization. I wrote a piece covering his development from top to bottom back in March, so if you want a complete breakdown of his game – check it out here! But to summarize, Honka is a creative threat from the back-end, with elite vision and puck-moving ability in transition. He’s high-risk, but he’s incredibly fun. His vision is incredible, and he has no problem winning 1-on-1’s with his hands. This is a kid that could run a top power-play unit down the road.

The only question surrounding Honka is how well he’ll hold up physically and defensively at the NHL with a 5-foot-10, 176-pound frame. He’s slowly becoming a much better defender and took a big step in that regard this past season in Liiga. He’s only 20 and he’s already the best defender on his team, and he is learning how to control gaps and use an active stick to his advantage against players that can out-muscle him. I really think Honka can become a top-four defenseman in time, and his game is very reminiscent of the Colorado Avalanche’s Sam Girard.

NHL ETA: 2023-24

3. Jack Drury (C)

Perhaps the most NHL-ready player on this list, Drury’s game just oozes maturity, confidence, competitiveness, and attention to detail. Drafted as a two-way forward who truly excelled in the defensive zone, Drury has answered all the questions – and then some – about his offensive game. The last two seasons, the first in the Eastern Collegiate Athletic Conference (ECAC) at Harvard, then with Vaxjo of the Swedish Hockey League (SHL) in 2020-21, Drury has risen from a likely bottom-sixer to a legitimate second-line possibility, thanks to his strong work in the dirty areas, sneaky-good vision, and finishing ability.

While he remains a pure center that can shut down an opposing team’s top line, Drury’s high-end hockey sense has driven his stock up substantially, and the Hurricanes are going to start seeing a return on their 2019 second-round investment very soon. Perhaps he starts in Chicago to re-acclimate to North American ice and get a tad more seasoning, but I’d be quite surprised if he doesn’t make his NHL debut this season. Drury is simply a Rod Brind’Amour player.

NHL ETA: 2021-22

2. Ryan Suzuki (C/LW)

Suzuki remains one of the top prospects in the Hurricanes’ organization, and his first pro season with Chicago of the AHL cemented that. Despite being just 19 years old (and otherwise ineligible to play at the AHL level), COVID-19 shutting down the 2020-21 OHL season created a great opportunity for Suzuki to develop. He posted five goals and 10 points across 26 games and began to learn the ins and outs of being an everyday pro player. I’d argue that the 26-game AHL season he played did more for his growth than an entire OHL season would have.

Ryan Suzuki Barrie Colts
Ryan Suzuki of the Barrie Colts (Terry Wilson OHL Images)

Suzuki’s ceiling remains as a top-six center. He’s a fantastic playmaker and uses a combination of soft hands and what seems like third-eye vision to create scoring chances for his teammates. His shot is pretty deceptive, with a quick release and sharp accuracy – though he’s a total pass first, shoot second type player. He’s still got some developing to do before he reaches the NHL, but working with coach Ryan Warsofsky in Chicago is the perfect situation to get his game to the highest level.

NHL ETA: 2022-23

1. Seth Jarvis (C/RW)

The obvious pick for the top spot to get us started, Jarvis has the most star potential of anyone in the Hurricanes system. Jarvis is in the conversation as the best skater amongst Hurricanes prospects, with simply “good” top speed but elite edge work that allows him to cut away from defenders and stop and start on a dime. He was phenomenal in the AHL, a league he wouldn’t have ordinarily been eligible to play in for another two years, then scored 15 goals in 24 games upon returning to the Western Hockey League.

Jarvis will also fit very well with the Hurricanes because he’s a great forechecker, crafty with poke checks and causing turnovers, and can quickly turn them into offense the other way. He’s a lethal goal scorer, has the high-end vision to match, and all signs point to him becoming a top-six mainstay in the near future. I still think he needs one more full year to develop physically before he’s ready for the NHL, though. 

NHL ETA: 2022-23

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Final Thoughts

There’s absolutely no question about just how strong of a prospect group the Hurricanes have put together over the past few years. Prospects like Jack LaFontaine, Ronan Seeley, and a majority of the 2021 Draft class couldn’t even crack this list, and some of those guys would be top prospects in other organizations. The team has set themselves up very nicely to sustain long-term success, as they have dynamic youngsters at every position in their system, and it’ll be very interesting to watch how these kids develop moving forward.

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