With some prospects beginning their training camps in the next few days, I thought that it would be a good time to look at which players are due for a breakout 2019-2020 season. The Hurricanes have such a good pipeline that it’s nearly impossible to pick just five players, but we’re going to try. In case you missed it, EliteProspects ranked the Hurricanes pipeline 3rd best in the NHL, which is a good indicator of how well the Hurricanes have drafted and developed their prospects over the past five years or so. The Hurricanes have done well in both drafting in high volumes and setting up all of their prospects for success. They’ve done an excellent job in building a great AHL team to better prepare their prospects for an NHL role. So who are the five prospects in juniors or the AHL that are ready for a breakout season?
5. Lenni Killinen
A full season in the Liiga will do wonders for Killinen. Assat was by far the worst team in the Liiga last year and so Killinen’s numbers weren’t the best. Combine that with his injuries and lack of ice time and you get a fairly disappointing first year in the men’s league. There were some positives, however. Killinen’s ice time increased as the season went along, he was one of the best Corsi players on Assat, and he saw some playing time with the national team during the season. Killinen then came to prospects camp with the Canes and looked like a well-rounded player. He wasn’t great in any areas, but some things that stood out to me were his skating, his hands, and his hockey sense. Heading into this season, we’re looking at a prospect that impressed at the national level once again and will likely play top nine minutes on a consistent basis with Assat. Killinen’s performance in the World Junior Summer Showcase (and a couple of pre-tournament games) was enough for him to put his name on that roster in pen. Realistically, we could see Killinen double his point totals from last season, assuming he stays healthy. Assat is slightly better this season and will surround Killinen with players that can finish the chances that he sets up. We’ll see him play in a top nine role with Finland at the World Juniors, which will be another big step for his development. I still believe that Killinen will need another three years before being ready for the NHL. He has a lot of potential but still needs to improve in a lot of areas before I’d be comfortable with playing him in an NHL role. His next two seasons with Assat will be very telling.
4. Matt Filipe
Filipe is a player that finally started to reap the benefits of his hard work last season. A good freshman year was followed up by a poor sophomore year which saw Filipe look lost on the ice and confused. Last season, Filipe regained his confidence. He was stronger, a better skater, better offensively, and even more dangerous in the defensive zone. Filipe was one of the players that impressed Sergei Samsonov, director of forward development, at prospects camp as well. He’s come a long way since being drafted 67th overall by the Hurricanes in 2016. This year, Filipe projects to play on one of Northeastern’s top two lines. You’re looking at roughly 25-35 points from Filipe during the season and a few more during the Hockey East Playoffs. This is his last chance to impress the team enough to earn an NHL contract, and so he’ll come out of the gate hot. Assuming Filipe does well enough, he’ll earn an NHL contract and start the 2020-2021 season in the AHL. We likely will not see Filipe in the NHL until the start of the 2023 season. He’ll need plenty of time to adjust to the pace and level of compete of the AHL, so it may take a while. Still, Filipe has top nine potential and could be a very good power forward in the NHL.
3. Jamieson Rees
Rees was the Hurricanes’ second round pick, 44th overall, in 2019. His 2018-2019 season was plagued by injuries and suspensions, which made his season a lot tougher than most. Despite all of that, Rees finished his season with 32 points in 37 games. Rees was excellent for Canada at the U18s, scoring twice and finishing the tournament with eight points in seven games. Rees plays a gritty game with some finesse as well, making him the type of player that will wear down an opposing defense. His speed is his greatest asset, both in terms of acceleration and top speed. He might be one of the Hurricanes’ fastest prospects, and you’ll always see Rees using that to his advantage. Rees is dangerous in transition, on the forecheck, and on the power play as well. A full season with a much improved Sarnia team will mean that we’ll see Rees take a leap forward in his development this season. I think that we’ll see Rees hit the 70 point mark this season. It’s a big jump from last season’s totals, but he’s talented enough to make it happen. Rees is three to four years away from being ready for a full-time NHL role. You’re looking at a prospect who can play in your middle six and be a wrecking ball in all three zones. Rees is going to need to stay healthy and work on staying out of the penalty box in his next season. Assuming that he can do that, it’s not out of the question to expect a 70 point season.
2. Martin Necas
Necas is a pretty obvious choice, and he’s on the verge of being #1 for this list. Still, I think that because it’s so obvious, he has to be number two. Necas finished his first professional season with two points in seven NHL games, a fairly unimpressive number. What was more impressive was his 52 points in 64 games with the Charlotte Checkers in the AHL while contributing 13 points in 18 playoff games for the Checkers. Necas looked very comfortable in the AHL while working on his two-way game and play without the puck. He evolved as a goal scorer as the season went on and was more of a threat on the power play. This coming season, I expect Necas to take his experiences with the Checkers and build on them with the Hurricanes. He likely won’t be put into a top six role just yet, but rather a third line role to prepare him for a much larger role. We’ll also likely see Necas on the right wing since the Hurricanes have loads of center depth right now. I’m expecting a very big season from Necas. He looks faster, stronger, more confident defensively, and less prone to mistakes. His shot has improved and he’s much more willing to take the shot rather than to pass it through a couple of defenders. This type of confidence is exactly what you want to see from Necas. Next season, I’m expecting Necas to play in the NHL full time and take on top nine minutes. It’s not entirely out of the question for Necas to have a 40-point season (~15 goals, ~25 assists) provided that he gets power play time. If that’s the case, you’ll see the Hurricanes have yet another great forward and a boost on the power play.
Before we talk about the player that is most likely to have a breakout season with his team, here are some players that almost made the list.
1. Julien Gauthier
Noted member of the Julien Gauthier Fan Club here. Julien Gauthier is actually developing right on schedule and anyone else that tells you otherwise is just trying to get those sweet, sweet off-season clicks. Gauthier has taken a bit of a longer road to the NHL than we initially thought, partially due to the hype surrounding him post-draft. We were all excited about the size and shooting ability combo that we forgot about the issues in Gauthier’s game: everything else. He had an awkward stride, wasn’t good at all away from the puck, and had one of the worst cases of tunnel vision that I’ve seen. Still, the goal scoring and physical dominance that he provided in his draft year were enough to sell a lot of fans. Since then Gauthier has had one more season in the QMJHL and two AHL seasons. He has shown steady progress but still isn’t quite ready to take the next step. “But Matt, every prospect that takes more than two AHL seasons to develop is a bust! That’s how it works!” As I said before, Gauthier’s hype may have caused fan expectations to soar and become a bit unrealistic. So, now that Gauthier has played in two AHL seasons, what’s next? The talented forward has gotten faster, much smarter, and better without the puck. He’s making better decisions with the puck and is less of a liability in the defensive zone. We’ve seen Gauthier start to use his strength to overpower opposing forwards, create turnovers, and just wear them down. Gauthier gave Canes fans plenty of reasons to believe in him last season, but the narratives persisted. He had 27 goals during the 2018-2019 regular season, which was more goals than he had points (25) in his first professional season. Gauthier hit the 40-point mark and became more of a playmaker as the season went on. He’s assessing his options and starting to figure out that shooting isn’t always the best option. Gauthier likely spends the season in the AHL after getting an extended look in camp. It’s reasonable to expect him hit the 30 goal mark this season and bring his point totals up to 50. What’s been impressive is that Gauthier’s ice time was that of a third line player, and he was still able to score 27 goals. With top six ice time this season, Gauthier could easily improve on those numbers. While it may be frustrating that Charlotte has seen an exodus of talent this summer, it’s a good thing. They were able to make room for their prospects to succeed and develop quicker. Players like Julien Gauthier have a spot opened up for them. Expect big things from Gauthier this season.
All of these players could see improvements in both their all-around game and production this season. These five prospects’ 2019-20 seasons will be defining moments in their careers. Whether it’s in the Liiga, NCAA, OHL, or pro hockey, these five prospects have a lot to show this year.
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