In part four of this five part series, we’ll examine the Hurricanes’ depth on the back end. Over the past four or five seasons, the Hurricanes’ defense has quickly evolved from an area of weakness to arguably their best asset as a team. A top four of Jaccob Slavin, Brett Pesce, Dougie Hamilton, and Jake Gardiner is something that other teams could only wish for. Haydn Fleury has shown that he’s more than capable of handling a full-time NHL job, and with Brady Skjei locked up for four more years, the Hurricanes’ defense is poised to be as strong as it has ever been.
In this article, we’ll take a look at every defensive prospect in the system, assess the strengths and weaknesses of the Hurricanes’ current crop of defensive prospects, look ahead to the draft, and group the prospects into tiers.
Roland McKeown – “Prince Pretty” needs a new contract for the upcoming season and I’m not entirely sure if he’ll be sticking around. I would love for McKeown to stay in the organization and help lead the Checkers, but an NHL job is likely out of the question. McKeown is a solid defender that skates well, but there isn’t a whole lot of flair to his game. He’s just a reliable two-way defender that is great for your locker room. Prince Pretty may want a better opportunity at an NHL job, however, and he’s more likely to find that outside of the organization.
Joey Keane – Keane was acquired from the New York Rangers in February in a deal that sent right wing prospect Julien Gauthier to the Rangers. Admittedly, I wasn’t all that familiar with Keane before the Hurricanes acquired him, and so I was a little skeptical about the trade. After talking to a number of people who cover the OHL and AHL as well as seeing Keane play for the Checkers, I’m fairly confident in his chances at becoming an NHL player. Keane was a late bloomer that hit his stride in his draft +1 year, causing the Rangers to select him 88th overall in the 2018 draft. He’s a responsible two way defenseman that can skate well and drive play in the offensive zone. Keane may not have the highest ceiling, but it’s likely that he’ll see NHL time in some capacity before too long. At the NHL level, Keane could likely become a mainstay on your third pair and fill in on the power play if needed. His hockey sense and defensive zone play are great as well. As strange as it sounds, Keane has a better chance at being a full-time Hurricane than Julien Gauthier would have. His defensive zone play is consistently improving, which will help Keane gain the trust of the Hurricanes’ coaching staff.
Oliwer Kaski – Kaski is a dynamic offensive defenseman with above average skating and a great shot. The problem is that he hasn’t been great defensively at the AHL level, and despite solid production since coming to the Checkers via trade, I can’t see an NHL future for him. Kaski could stay in the organization for one more season and hope to impress in camp, but I honestly can’t see a scenario where Oliwer Kaski makes the team ahead of a guy like Joey Keane, Trevor van Riemsdyk (if re-signed), or someone else. Still, Kaski’s offensive tools make him a consistent threat in the offensive zone and a power play specialist.
Jake Bean – Josh Bean is the Hurricanes’ premier defensive prospect and was poised for a career year before the coronavirus pandemic. It was possible for Bean to be the AHL’s highest scoring defenseman by the end of the year, which goes to show you how dynamic he really was. Bean thinks the game at an elite level and is one of the best passers on the back end in the entire AHL. Originally touted for his goal scoring, Bean has become a well-rounded defenseman in all three zones. His defensive zone play is still a little shaky, although we’ve seen consistent improvements since he made the jump to the AHL. It’s going to be crowded on the blue line next year, but Jake Bean will likely make it very hard for the Hurricanes to cut him next year. It’s possible that some moves are made to keep Bean on the roster rather than to send him down. Jake Bean has top four upside and can be used on the Hurricanes’ power play unit. I could see him being compared to Jake Gardiner, but I believe that Bean could be better in the offensive zone.
Luke Martin – The Hurricanes have yet to sign Luke Martin, who just finished his senior year at the University of Michigan. Martin is a player that you can depend on in the defensive zone. He rarely makes mistakes, covers his gaps well, and gets in the way of almost any form of offense. It’s a pain to play against Martin in the defensive zone, but the biggest problem in his game is that he’s a non-factor in the offensive zone. Martin seems limited to simple passes in the offensive zone and can disappear at times as well. A player with his size, strength, and good defensive zone play can make his way to the NHL, but his offensive limitations will make it all the more difficult.
Anttoni Honka – Honka is a player that will be divisive for years to come, just like he was in his draft year. If he’s good at something, he’s really good at something. His playmaking and offensive zone play could have made Honka the top offensive defenseman in his draft class. Couple that with his above average skating and it seems that you have a defenseman capable of being a star at the NHL level. He’s such a good playmaker and makes everything in the offensive zone look easy. Here’s the problem: Honka makes everything on the defensive side of the game look so damn hard. He can disappear often, lose his man, forget to cover a pass, lose a puck battle, you name it. There’s a gap the size of the Grand Canyon in terms of where his offensive game is at compared to his play without the puck, although it did shrink a bit this season. Slowly but surely, Honka is improving in his own end. Some say that it’s a case of Honka overthinking the play, while some say that he’s inexperienced and may end up with a disappointing NHL stint like his brother. Anttoni Honka has loads of potential, and there’s a clear reason why the Hurricanes selected him in the third round. His offensive skills could bring Honka to NHL stardom, provided that his defensive issues get sorted out by then. If Honka can continue to improve, then the sky is the limit. Until then, he’ll still be a polarizing player.
Domenick Fensore – Fensore was the second defenseman taken by the Hurricanes in the 2019 draft and is another player that could see NHL time in his career. Despite being on the smaller side at 5’7″, Fensore is still an electrifying player. His offensive skills are noticeable and his ability to set a play up is impressive. Fensore’s skating is great and bordering on elite, his compete level is through the roof, and his defensive zone play isn’t too bad either. The biggest thing about Fensore that stands out to me is his work ethic. Fensore has always been on the smaller side, so he has always had to work twice as hard. That’s evident when you watch him play, and it could lead to him seeing some time in the NHL later on. If Fensore continues to improve like he did this season, I could see him making it to the NHL. I’m not sure what the team will look like by then, but the Hurricanes drafted another solid prospect in Fensore.
Cade Webber – Webber missed most of this season due to a lower body injury, so this may set him back a tad in terms of development. As for his skill set, Webber is a tall, rangy defenseman that skates incredibly well. His defensive zone play stands out as a strength, largely due to his mobility and size. Webber can struggle offensively, and like Luke Martin, can be limited to simple breakout passes and shots. However, with his size and speed, I see a player that could be dangerous in transition with a little bit of development. The Hurricanes will likely allow Webber four full years at Boston University before making a decision on his future with the franchise. There are some great elements to his game, but he’s still a work in progress.
Jesper Sellgren – Sellgren burst onto the scene during Charlotte’s Calder Cup run last season, earning an entry-level contract along the way. Sellgren has a bright future as a defenseman in North America, mostly due to his effortless skating and offensive skills. He can be responsible in his own end as well, although I would like to see him challenge the puck a little more. Sellgren makes skating look easy, similar to how Joni Pitkanen would look during his time with the Hurricanes. This makes Sellgren such a threat in transition, because his quickness and great first two steps can catch opponents off guard. It’s been a few months since I’ve seen Sellgren play, but what I noticed is that he can struggle to keep up when skating backwards. It’s not an area of strength and he can get skated around fairly easily depending on who is challenging him. If Sellgren can work on that and add a few pounds, the Hurricanes could have another NHL-ready defenseman on their hands.
Ville Rasanen – The Rasanen pick was a head scratcher at the time and still looks to be a head scratcher in 2020. Injuries and inconsistent playing time have hindered Rasanen’s growth since he was drafted in the seventh round of the 2017 draft. In the years after the draft, Rasanen has seen time with two Mestis teams, one Liiga team, a U20 team, and two USHL teams. This also doesn’t count a brief stint in Slovakia. He looks to have found his home with Jokipojat in Mestis, and actually had a decent season with the club. Rasanen does not have a contract for next season, so it’s not clear where he’ll play. Rasanen’s rights expire on June 1, 2021, and I would imagine that the Hurricanes will not offer him a contract.
Strengths and Weaknesses
The Hurricanes have a plethora of defensive prospects, and the amount of prospects that could see NHL time is staggering. I would argue that the Hurricanes’ defensive prospects as a whole don’t have any weaknesses. They have plenty of strong offensive defensemen, some great two way prospects, and a few defense-first prospects as well. It’s a well-rounded group and one that will ensure that the Hurricanes are successful well beyond the next five years.
As for the draft, it’s likely that the Hurricanes select more defensemen in the middle rounds of this year’s draft. It’s by no means a strong year for defensemen, but there are some players in rounds 3-5 that could see NHL time at some point. I doubt that the Hurricanes take a defenseman with either second round pick since there are forwards with higher upside available in the second round. Once you get to the third round, you can afford to take a gamble or two.
- A: None
- B+: Bean
- B: Keane, Fensore, Sellgren, Honka
- C: Webber, Martin, McKeown, Kaski
- D: Rasanen
As of right now, Jake Bean is the Hurricanes’ best defensive prospect. While he may not be an elite prospect, Jake Bean could be a fine top four defenseman at the NHL level in the near future. The next tier is split into two categories: unproven with high upside and players with third pairing upside. Keane and Sellgren fit into the latter category. Keane’s stats and growth pattern make him a likely candidate for a third pairing NHL job in the next year or two, and I could see the same for Sellgren. Both players play a different style but have shown that they’re capable of handling the AHL. Fensore and Honka both have high ceilings, but it seems to be a bit too early to tell where each player will end up. Both prospects are trending upwards, but they’re still two or three years away from seeing time in the pros. Webber is also unproven, but he goes into our “C” tier because of his weak offensive zone play. There’s plenty of room for growth, however, and he could be a great prospect for the Hurricanes once his collegiate career has finished.
As a whole, the Hurricanes’ group of defensive prospects is their second deepest group behind the centers. Both groups have high-end prospects and plenty of depth in between. While it may be a little more difficult for the defensemen to make it to the NHL, we’ve seen that the Hurricanes are willing to make room for a prospect that they deem ready for the NHL.