With the NHL Draft being on the horizon, now would be a good time to evaluate the Hurricanes farm system and look at some areas they should consider addressing with their picks this year. When it comes to draft discussion, most people focus on the first round because that is where you are most likely to land a future star or an NHL player in general. However, the rest of the draft is also very important, especially for the Hurricanes because their farm system can use some rebuilding. Not too long ago, they had a decent amount of great-looking process but over the past few years, they have either become full-time NHLers (Skinner & McBain), were traded (Dumoulin & Alt) or are reaching their mid-20's and are still playing in the lower levels (Boychuk & Dalpe). The Canes still have a interesting prospects in their system but their pedigree isn't nearly as high as it was a few years ago. This draft can be a good chance to change that, though and it will be interesting to see what the Hurricanes do with their five draft selections.
Before that happens, we're going to take a look at who is in the Hurricanes system now, where their prospects stand and which areas need to be addressed. Today we'll start by looking at their centers, which is where Carolina is the most set at. Eric Staal is still in his late-20's and should be able to hold the fort down on the first line for the next few years. Meanwhile, Jordan Staal is only 24 and has the second line center spot nailed down for awhile and can possibly take over for Eric when he gets older depending on how much he progresses offensively. With the Staal brothers anchoring the top two lines, the Hurricanes mostly just need someone to pivot the third & fourth lines for the next few years. They might also need someone to take over the second line center spot if one of the Staals is traded or moved to the wing, but the likelihood of either happening is pretty low.
Anyway, with the way the team is set up now, the Hurricanes are going to need one of their younger players to step up as the third or fourth line center within the next year. The good news is that they have plenty of centers who are capable of doing so and one of them, Riley Nash, was in the NHL for the majority of the last season. Some believe that he is the team's third line center of the future and while that is possible, there are a lot of other players the Canes can turn to if Nash doesn't work out as a full-time NHLer. After the jump, we'll take a look at some of these players, how they've progressed in the past year and evaluate where the Hurricanes at this position in terms of prospect depth.
Victor Rask - 2nd Round Pick, 2011 6'1", 192 lbs.
Birthplace: Leksands, Sweden
Rask is arguably the Hurricanes best forward prospect right now and had a terrific season with the Calgary Hitmen of the WHL. He spent the first half of the year with the Charlotte Checkers and while his playing time there was limited, he was pretty impressive when he did see the ice. Once he was returned to Calgary, Rask had no issues with contributing offensively, scoring at over a point-per-game rate during the regular season and having 16 points in 17 playoff games on top of that. He was also helped Team Sweden take home the Silver medal in this year's World Junior Championship, so he got plenty of experience in different leagues and got to play against some of the best young players in the world. The question is when will Rask be ready to contribute in the NHL? I think he might be a couple years away, but he could always impress the coaching staff during training camp.
Rask's play-making skills make him a desirable offensive player, but his size and willingness to go to the dirty areas to score could be what puts him ahead of some other prospets in the system when it comes to getting NHL time. I think he'll spend most of the next year in Charlotte, though since he might need more experience playing against professionals before he makes the jump to the NHL. Although, with the Hurricanes third line center spot open, Rask could put his name into the running if he is good enough in training camp. Charlotte might be the better destination, though since they are going to be losing some veteran players and there's a good chance he will get a lot of minutes down there.
Progress: Improved in juniors, played in WJC and should be in the pros next season.
Future: Possible top-six or third line center.
Jeremy Welsh - Undrafted NCAA Free Agent signed 2012, 6'3" 200 lbs.
Birthplace: Bayfield, Ontario
Welsh is barely a "prospect" anymore since he just turned 25 last April and what we're seeing from him now could end up being his ceiling. NCAA players are always a little different since they tend to peak at different ages, but there were a lot of people (myself included) who thought Welsh would be in the NHL full-time next season. That didn't happen, as he played only five games with the Hurricanes in a limited fourth line role. The lockout may have hurt his chances a little but Welsh wasn't exactly an impressive offensive player in Charlotte either, so that could have put his name further down the list in terms of call-ups.
That being said, Welsh has a lot of qualities that would make him a good NHLer. He is a pretty good sized player and played a strong two-way game with the Checkers, so he could be a very good fourth line center at the NHL level. He is also on a one-way deal next year, too and might have a good chance to make the Hurricanes out of training camp if the team doesn't want to expose him to waivers. He didn't exactly get that much of a chance with the Canes last year, either and I'm interested to see what he can do if he's given a bigger role.
Progress: Decent AHL season, but wasn't very impressive overall."
Future: Possible fourth line center.
Erik Karlsson - 4th Round Pick, 2012, 6'00", 192 lbs.
Birthplace: Lerum, Sweden
While not nearly as talented as Erik Karlsson of the Ottawa Senators, his younger namesake appears to be a pretty solid prospect. Corey Pronman had him listed as one of his Top 100 Prospects of last year's draft and the Hurricanes managed to get him in the 4th round. Admittedly, I haven't been able to see much of him so I'm not sure what type of game he plays, but his offensive production has been getting better every year so he is at least making progress in that area. Karlsson is in for a pretty big year next season, as he will be playing for Frolunda in Sweden's professional league and could have a chance to make their World Junior squad if he is good enough.
As for Karlsson's NHL potential, I'm not exactly sure what his ceiling is or when he'll have a chance to make the Canes so that's up in the air right now. Hopefully we'll get a chance to learn more about him this summer at the team's prospect camps because he seems like an interesting prospect with a decent amount of upside.
Progress: Improved in Finland's junior league this year.
Future: Unknown, but he has potential
Luke Pither - Undrafted player acquired in trade with Flyers this winter, 6'00, 194 lbs.
Birthplace: Burketon, Ontario
An overager in juniors and undrafted player, not much was thought of Pither when the Hurricanes acquired him from the Flyers in exchange for Brian Boucher & Mark Alt. If anything, he was acquired to give the Charlotte Checkers more depth after they lost quite a few of their key contributors to NHL and he did just that. Pither was a point-per-game player for most the season with the Checkers and played a big role as their second and third line center for most of the year. Unfortunately, he missed a good chunk of the season including the playoffs with an injury and that was a huge blow to the Checkers considering how well he played there.
I don't know if Pither has much of a future in the NHL, but his play with the Checkers last season could have put him on the coaches radar and might earn him a call-up somewhere down the line. I'm also not sure how sustainable Pither's scoring rate is because it was much higher than it ever been before. Sometimes a change in scenery does a player good, but I have doubts that Pither is this good.
Progress: Thrived after being traded to the Checkers & had his best professional season.
Future: Possible call-up or injury replacement.
Riley Nash - 1st Round Pick, 2007 acquired in trade with Edmonton Oilers, 6'01", 191 lbs.
Birthplace: Consort, Alberta
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Nash was called up after the Hurricanes sustained a wave of injuries in February and he definitely made the most of his ice time by earning the third line center spot. I thought Nash was a "dark horse" to make the team in camp last year because his strong two-way game made him a decent fit for one of the bottom-two lines and while he didn't make the team out of camp, he was the team's third line center for the second half of the seasons. I thought his performance with the team was okay, but he didn't really do enough to convince me that he is a long-term fit. Nash skates well and plays a solid, fundamental game, but he wasn't much of a difference-maker. Five of his nine points came in two games and while he was a solid possession player, I thought he could have done more to make himself stand out.
Nash will probably be in the NHL to begin next season but the question is how long will he stay there and what line will he play on. I think he has the qualities to be a third line center, but he needs to do a little more to show that he can be a long-term fit for the Hurricanes. If someone outperforms him in training camp then he could find himself on the fourth line or back in the AHL again. Having a year of NHL experience could go a long way, though and I'm interested to see how he improves next year.
Progress: Made the jump to being a full-time NHL-er but has room to improve
Future: Possible third-line center.
Brody Sutter - 7th Round Pick, 2011, 6'04", 200 lbs.
Birthplace: Calgary, Alberta
One of two Sutters left in the Hurricanes organization, Brody spent last year going back and forth between the ECHL and AHL. I thought he was one of Carolina's prospects that was "hurt" by the lockout, because he would have likely made the team out of camp, but Charlotte's roster was a bit over-crowded at the time and he had to play in the ECHL until the lockout ended. Sutter is mainly a bottom-six player so his point totals didn't end up being very impressive, but I expected him to cruise in the ECHL and he appeared to have his struggles there. He was still promoted to the AHL full-time after the lockout ended and didn't put up great offensive numbers with the Checkers either. He was being used as the fourth line center, so that's partially why. He did have two goals and five points in five games in the playoffs, though so that has to count for something.
Being a late draft pick, there isn't a whole lot being expected from Sutter and I don't see him being more than a fourth-line player at the NHL level, but there are a lot of things I like about his game. He is pretty big for a player his age and that's partially why he was such a good goal-scorer during his last couple of seasons in juniors. He was able to get to the areas around the net easier because he was bigger than most of his competition and that is much tougher to do when playing against bigger players at the professional level. His willingness to go to the net and forecheck well could make him a solid bottom-six player at the NHL level, but I see him being more of a key player for the Checkers than the Hurricanes.
Progress: Struggled to score in ECHL & AHL
Future: Bottom-six center at NHL level, possible career AHLer
Organizational Depth Status: Good
Aside from maybe Rask, the Hurricanes don't have many center prospects who are future stars, but they don't really need any of them to be one within the next few years. If something terrible happens to one of the Staal brothers, then this is a different story but as of right now, they just need one of their center prospects to take over the third & fourth line spots within the next year and they have more than enough players who can do that. We saw Nash center the third line for most of last season and Welsh should be in the NHL for at least the start of next season. Then you have players like Rask and Karlsson who can possibly contribute somewhere down the line if the players in front of them do not pain out. There is room for improvement here, but center isn't the first possession that needs to be addressed in this year's draft. Although, taking one in the first round wouldn't be the worst move if someone like Aleksander Barkov is available.