One Area of Growth I’d Like to see from Each Prospect

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It’s a weird season that is finally starting to get underway in for a handful of the Hurricanes’ prospects. There are plenty of prospects who are heading into this season knowing it’s their last chance to convince the Hurricanes that they’re worth a contract. For some, it’s a chance to develop and build on a successful 2019-20 season and to continue to develop. Each prospect develops differently and has a different set of skills that made them an NHL prospect in the first place. Most of these prospects will need to develop different skills in order to take their game to the next level this year, so in this article, I’ll be talking about one way that I’d like to see each Hurricanes prospect improve this season.

Additionally, I’ve asked some scouts that aren’t Hurricanes fans to give their opinions on each prospect and how they can grow during the upcoming season. Jokke Nevalainen, DobberProspects’ Head of European Scouting and co-host of the Dobber DraftCast, provided his thoughts on some of Carolina’s promising Finnish prospects. Mark Scheig, who covers the Blue Jackets, Cleveland Monsters, Erie Otters, and more for The Hockey Writers provided his thoughts on the Hurricanes’ three prospects in the OHL. Josh Tessler, founder and Director of Scouting at Smaht Scouting provided his thoughts on Vasily Ponomarev. I hope you all enjoy!

Tuukka Tieksola

There’s no denying the fact that Tieksola is one of the more talented prospects in the system from an offensive standpoint. He can take over games with his elite vision and slick hands, his shot, and his playmaking ability. Tieksola is more than capable of being a dynamic offensive forward at the Liiga level, so why hasn’t he gotten his opportunity yet? Karpat is obviously a tough team to play on as a U20 player, and they seem hesitatnt to give Tieksola a legitimate shot due to his size and lack of strength. For that reason, I’d like to see Tieksola add some muscle and fill out a bit. He’s already able to take control of possession in the offensive zone, but his lack of strength means that he can get pushed around at the Liiga level. If Tieksola were to add about ten pounds to his frame, it would help him win some more puck battles and hold his own in all three zones. Adding some strength would give Karpat’s coaching staff a reason to loosen his leash a little bit.

Jokke Nevalainen, the Head of European Scouting at Dobber Prospects provided his thoughts on where he’d like to see Tieksola improve this season: “Strength. He needs to get stronger and be willing to battle against men. He’s never going to be the biggest or the strongest player on the ice but he needs to get stronger to survive and then find ways to make an impact despite those physical limitations.”

We’ve essentially come to the same conclusion about Tieksola. In order to survive at Finland’s highest level, he absolutely has to get stronger. Jokke is one of the hosts of Dobber’s Draft Cast podcast and you can find their latest episode here.

Kirill Slepets

I’m going to be honest with everyone and say that I don’t know much about Slepets. He is currently playing for Voronezh in the Russian second league but only played in one game for the team. From what I’ve read, Slepets is quick and has a knack for scoring goals, which seems like it would translate well to the KHL. I think that the best thing for Slepets would be to play for Lokomotiv in the KHL. I have no idea how he will find his way onto one of the better KHL teams, but it needs to happen if he’s to improve.

Jesper Sellgren

I like Sellgren as a prospect and I believe that he does a lot of things well. His skating stands out as an asset from the first chance you get to watch him, then his willingness to step in offensively, and then his defensive game. Sellgren could be a nice two way option capable of chipping in 20+ points on your third pair in the near future, so what is there to gain from another season in Sweden? In my viewings of him during the Calder Cup run and in the 2019-20 season, I noticed that Sellgren wasn’t able to keep up as well when he was skating backwards. He had the mechanics down, but he was consistently a step or two behind the attacking forward on the rush. If he can improve his backwards skating by as little as a half step, I think that we’ll see some noticeable improvements in his defensive game. Defending on the rush is an important skill to have in the NHL and can make or break a defensive prospect.

Jason Cotton

The elder Cotton brother will be out to prove himself on a one year ELC this year, so I’m curious to see how he handles the professional game. Jason Cotton wasn’t playing on the best program, but he still managed to be a prospect worthy of an NHL contract. I would love to see Jason Cotton find a way to translate the goal scoring success he had at Sacred Heart to the AHL. Chicago may have access to better AHL veterans, but the Hurricanes are lacking a lot of depth at the prospect level after trading away a number of prospects at the trade deadline. It’ll be a great opportunity for Cotton to carve out a depth role on the team and work his way up the roster.

David Cotton

David Cotton’s most glaring need for improvement has always been his skating. It was good enough for the NCAA level, but Cotton’s speed might prove to be an issue at the professional level once he starts to play against faster and stronger opponents. He’s strong enough to power his way to the net and to cut to the center of the ice, but getting a step or two faster would make Cotton a challenge to defend against. I’m not worried about his playing time or his ability to translate his skills to the AHL (or even the NHL, for that matter). We saw that Morgan Geekie, a player with average to slightly above average foot speed, was able to thrive in the right role at the NHL level. I could see the same happening for Cotton, but getting faster would only help his chances for long-term NHL success.

Dominik Bokk

Canes fans got a taste of how great Bokk can be when we saw him play at the World Juniors this past season. Even after the World Juniors, Bokk seemed unstoppable and was finding ways to score goals and create offense out of nothing. Consistency was a big issue in Bokk’s game this past year, as we saw in the first half of the season. His ice time dwindled and there were games where you wouldn’t be able to notice him on the ice. As much as I’d love to see Bokk improve upon his consistency this season, that seems like a bit of a cop-out. Bokk is 6’2″ and almost 190 pounds, yet he shies away from physical contact. I’m not expecting him to be a guy that consistently plays the body and looks to make a hit on every shift, but I’d like to see Bokk become more of a physical player. The AHL is a much more physical league than the SHL and may take some getting used to if you’re Bokk.

Jack Drury

Most players and prospects could stand to improve upon their skating. Hell, who wouldn’t love it if a player got a little faster? Let me explain why I think that Drury needs to improve on his skating before you think that this is a bit of a weak answer. Drury’s last season showed that he’s more than capable of carrying a good Harvard team’s offense with his goal scoring and strong hockey sense. Drury was also utilized on the penalty kill and plays a strong defensive game. He’s everything that you want in a player. Strong offense and a great 200-foot game. His skating is currently average and would push his game to a level that could very well have him in the Selke conversation if it were to improve. After all, Drury is a complete player with a legitimate shot at making the NHL roster in the fall of 2021. If his skating improves, you’re looking at a player that could be one of the best two way centers in the league.

Cade Webber

Webber missed the majority of last season due to an injury, which is unfortunate considering the fact that he was looking comfortable in the BCHL. He was solid defensively and was discovering his offensive game a little more each game. I said this last season, but I really do believe that Webber could be a monster in transition if he were to improve his offensive hockey sense. The size and skating are all there and would make him a pain to defend on the rush. Part of his improvement will have to start with confidence. Once Webber becomes more confident in his offensive game, you’ll start to see more of the aspects of his game that made him a fourth round pick.

Lenni Killinen

Killinen has two more seasons in Finland to earn an NHL contract, and while I’ve seen progress these past two seasons, I’d like to see more. Right now, Killinen is a decent middle six player on a young Liiga team. That’s not going to be good enough if he wants to make it to the NHL. There’s plenty to like about Killinen, such as his skating, size, strength, and shot. He’s dangerous in front of the net as well as towards the mid to low slot and can make goalies pay for a bad rebound on a consistent basis. The problem that I’m finding in Killinen’s game is that he struggles to keep up with the mental side of the game. He struggles to find open teammates and to anticipate where a play is heading. This causes him to be out of position and to hold onto the puck too long, killing any sort of offensive momentum that his team had. Drafting a player with low hockey sense is a risk because there’s not a high chance that they’ll develop into great NHL players because of that. Hopefully Killinen can begin to improve on his hockey sense over the course of this season, because I believe that it’ll help him round out his game.

Kevin Wall

If there’s an NCAA season this year, it looks like it’ll be a big one for Wall. He was the odd man out a lot of the time last season and so now that Penn State has a spot for him on the roster, he’ll start to grow a lot more. Wall is a finisher with a good shot and a knack for finding ways to score. His skating could improve, but I think that his on-ice vision could be an asset moving forward. Right now, I think that he’s a goal scorer that has untapped potential as a setup man as well. Being a dual threat in the offensive zone will do wonders for his game and make him a valuable late round selection for the Hurricanes.

Anttoni Honka

Honka obviously needs to improve defensively. Saying that is almost as obvious as saying that Jim Rutherford will make an offseason trade. Right now, Honka is looking at top four, maybe even top pairing, minutes on a young Liiga team with the potential to run a power play. With that role comes greater defensive responsibility, something that I’m not sure Honka is ready for. He has all of the tools necessary to be a great offensive defenseman at the NHL level. Hell, he’s even great at even strength provided the puck is in the offensive zone. Improving his defensive zone play would make Honka a legitimate NHL prospect, more so than he already is. I considered choosing his average foot speed as an area that needed improvement, but that’ll come with time. The defensive zone play is easily the most important thing right now.

Patrik Puistola

“More consistent ice time” screams Captain Obvious. That’s not really Puistola’s decision, though, so it doesn’t make sense to list that as an area of improvement. I’d like to see Puistola develop as a playmaker this season. He has all of the goal scoring tools, he’s a much more improved skater, and is a decent two way player. Now, Puistola could develop as a playmaker and become a dual threat at the Liiga level. Getting top six minutes in the Liiga will help him develop, so it’s only a matter of time before we see him take over games. Even if he’s not a consistent threat early on in the season, that increased ice time will allow for development in every area. I think that if he improved as a playmaker, we’ll see massive progress in other areas such as hockey sense, vision, and production.

Jokke: “Consistency. Making a positive impact on the ice throughout the game, not just when he’s scoring. He has the ability to make plays and be a good player without the puck but he needs to do those things all game long, not just occasionally.”

Jokke brings up a good point here. At the World Juniors, we saw how good of a finisher Puistola can be, which caused Canes fans like myself to drool a bit. The problem was that he didn’t make an impact when he wasn’t scoring. He was…present and that’s about it.

Domenick Fensore

Fensore looked great offensively last season and didn’t look out of place in the NCAA. Defense is still a struggle for him, and due to his size, he can struggle to defend on the rush. If Fensore can keep up and defend attacking forwards at a better rate this season, that’ll help improve his defensive game by leaps and bounds. He’s pesky enough to bother teams once they have set up shop in the offensive zone, but defending on the rush is a challenge. Fensore can smother forwards in the defensive zone and cause turnovers because of his relentless attack, but if he’s struggling to defend on the rush, he won’t get as many opportunities to do that.

Pyotr Kochetkov

I have liked what I’ve seen from Kochetkov so far this season. He’s kept Vityaz, a not so great team, in almost every game that he’s appeared in and has looked comfortable handling the pressures of playing on a KHL team. Kochetkov has all of the athletic ability in the world and puts it on display any time he gets the chance. There are a few things that I’ve noticed from Kochetkov this season that I’d like him to improve on, and it’s hard to pick just one. I think that Kochetkov’s positioning could improve because he has happy feet at times. He’s athletic enough to make the save after getting out of position, though. I would like to see Kochetkov track the puck better, particularly from longer distances. He struggles to read where shots are going to go when they’re coming from the top of the circles and the point, so I’d like to see some improvement in his vision and puck tracking. Limiting goals allowed from low and medium danger shots would help Kochetkov earn the trust of his coaches. Right now, he’s one of three goalies on the roster and might earn more playing time if he limits the “softies.”

Jake Kucharski

Obviously I’d like to see Kucharski play this season. He hasn’t appeared in a game in almost two years now, so playing time is as important as ever. Kucharski is a little slow when he’s going into the butterfly and covering the five hole, so I’d like to see him work on that. He’s 6’4″ and takes up plenty of the net, so improving his coverage of the lower half of the net would do wonders for him.

Jack Lafontaine

This is Lafontaine’s last chance at earning an NHL contract. If there is an NCAA season this year, I need to see Lafontaine emerge as one of the best goaltenders in his conference. Lafontaine was a capable starter on a young Minnesota team last year, but he’ll need to prove that he’s more than that in order to earn an NHL contract. I’m not sure what Lafontaine can do better right now. His confidence is very clearly at an all time high and that reflects in his performance this past season. If he can show that he’s a top goalie in the NCAA this year, then it might be possible for him to reach the NHL.

Ryan Suzuki

Ryan Suzuki benefitted from a mid-season trade this past year and could be one of the OHL’s best players next season. He’ll likely be on a line with Cole Perfetti, so there most certainly will not be a shortage of offense in Saginaw next season. I would like to see Suzuki utilize the middle of the ice more often because I believe that it could bring his game to the next level. We already know that Suzuki is a high end distributor and can make plays happen from anywhere on the ice. But what would happen if he wasn’t afraid to take the puck to the middle? It could open up a new avenue of opportunities from both a playmaking and a goal scoring point of view.

I asked Mark Scheig of The Hockey Writers about Carolina’s prospects in the OHL, and here’s what he had to say about Suzuki.

Mark:  “I was curious to see how Suzuki’s trade to Saginaw would impact his development. He thrived in his short time there before the season was canceled. He continues to trend towards becoming a top-six NHL’er thanks to his scoring acumen and hands. He is stronger and starting to make better decisions with the puck. He needs to continue to develop on the defensive side. I believe he will start a new season in Charlotte and will have an opportunity to continue his development against pro-level talent.”

Jamieson Rees

Rees had an impressive season despite playing on one of the worst teams in the entire CHL last year. Rees brings a physical element to the Hurricanes’ pipeline as well as a good amount of skill. Rees’ discipline is an issue, for sure, so I would like for him to focus on that. He can’t be an impact player for his team if he’s sitting in the press box. Rees has the ability to change the tide of a game with his stickhandling and his shot, and if he can get going, he can be an elite OHL player next season. Staying out of trouble with the league will help Rees establish some consistency in his game and he’ll be able to carry Sarnia no greater lengths next year.

Mark Scheig:  “Sarnia had a tough season, but Rees shined. He was consistently the best player on the ice for the Sting. The thing I’ve always wondered with him was his size and can he adjust at the higher levels. He played bigger than his 5-11 size in the OHL. He will need to get stronger moving forward but makes up for it with an aggressive, in-your-face style of play that makes life tough on opponents. Rees trends as a bottom-six NHL forward.”

Blake Murray

Blake Murray is a dangerous goal scorer that is capable of scoring 20 to 30 goals at the NHL level. Murray can score from just about anywhere and can be dangerous one on one if given the opportunity. He has an elite release and an accurate shot, as well. Couple that with his above average skating speed and his size, and you have a player with plenty of NHL assets. Murray’s consistency has been the biggest question mark in his game over the past two seasons, and once again, it’s the thing that I would like to see him work on the most. During his draft year, he was inconsistent on every shift. One shift, he’d be fantastic. The next shift, you’d barely notice him. He was still inconsistent this past season, but it was more on a game to game basis rather than shift to shift. That would be a huge step for Murray, who is coming off of a career year in the OHL.

Mark Scheig: “I like this gamble late in the draft for the Hurricanes. Murray is the kind of player who has the tools but leaves you wanting more. One moment he can take over a game. The next, you wonder where he is. If he can put all his tools together and find consistency, he could end up being one of the steals of the draft.”

Spencer Smallman

Spencer Smallman hasn’t played in a full AHL season yet, and so I’d love for that to happen this year. Obviously, it’s a weird year and the AHL hasn’t put forth a concrete start date yet, but that’s the goal for Smallman. He does a lot of things well and can be put in a penalty killing role while chipping in a few goals here and there. Let’s see what he can do with a full season under his belt.

Stelio Mattheos

I would like to see Mattheos gain some more confidence in the offensive zone this season. He played well in a depth role, but if he’s given the opportunity for more offense, I want to see him run away with it. There’s a lot of untapped potential in his game, so if he can find a way to return to his WHL form next season, that would be huge. There’s middle six upside, particularly when you look at his ability to drive the pace of play in the offensive zone. Mattheos is a good skater with great hockey sense, and both of those will be factors in his performance next season.

Joey Keane

Keane is close to making it onto the NHL roster. There’s a lot to like about his game in the offensive zone, and from what I’ve heard from other scouts, he’s going to be a good NHL player. I don’t know a ton about Keane since the AHL season was cut short before I got a good look at him, but I have heard that he could stand to improve in the defensive zone. He projects as a solid two way defenseman, so if he could improve there, I don’t see any reason as to why he should be left off of the NHL roster. He may even get a call up as the season progresses, depending on how the season is going for the Hurricanes.

Steven Lorentz

Is it too much to ask him to replicate last season’s AHL totals in the NHL? Probably, but I do think that we’ll be seeing him in the NHL very soon. Lorentz projects as a solid bottom six option for the Hurricanes due to his size, work ethic, and ability to play in any situation. This is a player that Rod Brind’Amour will trust with the penalty kill and closing out a game, as well as shutting down the opposition. I’d like to see Lorentz grow into an NHL player this season. After last year in the AHL, I’m not sure that there’s much left for him to prove at the AHL level. I believe that the NHL will be a good test of his skills and that he’ll be eased into a full-time role with the team.

Eetu Makiniemi

Makiniemi’s season hasn’t gone as planned so far, but we’re only three starts in. His first start of the season was a good performance, while the other two were a little shaky. If Makiniemi has hopes of signing an NHL contract this year, I’ll be looking to see him work on being a top goaltender at the Liiga level. Right now, the Liiga is crowded with players from NHL teams, so the level of competition might be a little higher than what he’s used to. Still, it’s a good test for him and he’ll grow because of this opportunity. If Makiniemi can string some starts together after Lukas Dostal leaves, I think we’ll see tremendous amounts of growth. Last season, Makiniemi was able to string together a ton of good starts while Dostal was at the World Juniors. If it was able to happen then, it’s able to happen now.

Seth Jarvis

Jarvis is good at a lot of things, so it’s hard to pinpoint one area of growth that I’d like to see from him. He’s a dominant presence in the offensive zone and there are few players in his age group that can control the game in as many aspects as he can. I would like to see Jarvis translate some of his offensive smarts to the defensive side of the game. There are few players capable of reading an offensive play like he can, so if he can find a way to anticipate a play in the defensive zone, he’ll be a takeaway machine and a pain to play against. More so than he already is.

Vasily Ponomarev

Ponomarev is one of the best defensive forwards in the QMJHL and a reliable two-way player. He will never give up on a play and has a great work ethic to go with a good amount of offensive skill. Shawinigan seems content with keeping Ponomarev in a defensive role, but I really want to see him burst onto the scene as a dynamic offensive player this year. We’ve seen that he’s capable of being that type of player when he has played for Russia internationally, so we know that he’s capable of it in the QMJHL as well. If Ponomarev can establish himself as a dynamic offensive threat as well, then the Hurricanes could have a gem on their hands.

Josh Tessler: “When it comes to Vasili Ponomaryov, the most appealing attribute is his hands. Ponomaryov constantly will show you how dominant he can be when stick-handling and thwarting an attacker. The Russian forward possesses a flashy style of puck-handling that tends to be more prevalent when he is in the offensive zone and driving towards the net. He is also a deceptive playmaker. Ponomaryov has the ability to fake out his attacker at a moment’s notice. One of the highlight reel plays from this past season was against the Quebec Remparts. Ponomaryov deceptively made his attacker believe that he intended to carry the puck behind the Quebec net and continue the cycle from the red line. But, he decided to slip a no-look behind the back pass to his Jérémy Martin. Ponomaryov ability to confuse attackers will make him a challenge to slow down at the NHL level. From a skating perspective, the only major drawback is his edge work. His edges need some adjustment as he tends to struggle with balance when deploying outside edges.”

Noel Gunler

Gunler’s struggles tie to his play away from the puck, so that’s the one area of his game that I’d like for him to improve on the most. When he’s on his game and playing in the offensive zone, Gunler can raise hell in the offensive zone and is a threat during every shift. When he’s playing in the defensive zone, however, he tends to disappear. That leads to trust issues between Gunler and his coaches, which results in a lack of ice time. Through ten games with Lulea, Gunler has averaged just over seven minutes of ice time per game. Despite the lack of ice time, Gunler has three points and is still able to take control of the game when he’s given the opportunity. Gunler has points in three of the four games in which he’s been given more than nine minutes of ice time, so if his coaches were to play him more, I bet that they would see an increase in goal scoring for their team. Crazy how that works, right?

Alexander Nikishin

Boom.

Boom.

Boom.

Let me hear you say way-ooh! Awful music jokes aside, it’s very obvious that Alexander Nikishin knows how to hit people. He’ll be every Canes fan over 40’s favorite player since he plays old time hockey and people eat that up, apparently. I’d like for Nikishin to show me that he’s not exclusively a big body that can hit people, however. He’s clearly smart enough to go for the shoulder as opposed to the head, but will those smarts translate to other areas of his game? We won’t be able to tell when he’s only playing nine minutes per game, but it’s good to see that he’s providing a physical presence. Seriously, Nikishin has about one of these hits per game. It’s crazy.

Zion Nybeck

Nybeck is another prospect that could stand to get a little stronger and I wouldn’t hate it if he received more ice time as well. Both of those will come with time, however. As Nybeck gets older and fills out, he’ll get stronger and his coaches will play him more. What he needs right now is to improve his defensive positioning. I have seen a few comments from scouts saying that Nybeck can be a little passive in the defensive zone, causing lapses in his coverage. That may be causing some of the distrust between Nybeck and his coaches, leading to meager ice time in the SHL. Nybeck has stated that he’s open to playing in the Allsvenskan, the Swedish second-tier league. This could be a good opportunity for him since he’ll still play against tougher competition and he’ll gain an increased role with a team down in that league.

Lucas Mercuri

With some prospects that I’m not as informed about, it’s tough to pinpoint one area of growth that could take their game to the next level. Mercuri is one of those prospects. From what Darren Yorke mentioned in the zoom call after the draft, the Hurricanes liked his hockey sense, size, and stickhandling and felt that they were assets that would help Mercuri find his way to the NHL in the future. Most players above 6’3″ aren’t the best skaters, so improving his skating wouldn’t hurt. Every player could stand to improve in the defensive zone, too. So those are options, but at this point, I want to see Mercuri round out his game in the USHL. The USHL provides Mercuri with a slight step up in the level of competition that he’ll face, so it provides him with an opportunity to polish his game before heading to the NCAA. After the second round or so, you’re not looking for players that can help your team in two years. You’re looking for players that’ll be NHL ready in four or five years, when your core starts to age a bit. The Canes are going to give Mercuri as much time as he needs to develop, so rounding out his game now will help him in the long term.

Alexander Pashin

It’s clear that Pashin is too good for the MHL, Russia’s U20 league. It’s also clear that he’s not quite ready to make the jump to the KHL. Pashin’s biggest need is his defensive game. There’s no denying his offensive skills and his skating speed. If Pashin can improve in his own end and be more of a consistent threat, then the Hurricanes could have one of the steals of the draft on their hand.

Ronan Seeley

The Hurricanes’ last pick of the 2020 draft is another player with high hockey sense and upside. Seeley is one of the best skaters in his age group and can close gaps quickly in the defensive zone. From what I’ve heard, Seeley’s offensive decision making could stand to improve. This is a player that went from nine points in his rookie year to 32 in his draft year. If his offensive decision making improves, then the Hurricanes could have an elite distributor and two-way defenseman on their hands.

Jake Bean

Just make it to the NHL. Please.

Roland McKeown

Stay gorgeous, Prince Pretty.

Massimo Rizzo

Massimo Rizzo was recently traded to Chilliwack in the BCHL, and if he plays there, this will be his fourth straight season in that league. The BCHL doesn’t offer much in terms of development for Rizzo, and I would have preferred to have seen him try his luck in the WHL. I’d like to see Rizzo become an elite player in the BCHL if he is going to be playing in that league once again. He has shown that he can be a point per game player, but if he is to continue developing in a league that he has seemed to plateau in, he’ll need to be one of the league’s top scorers.

Kevin Wall

I want to see Wall develop as a playmaker this season. He has a good shot and is a pretty good skater, both of which could be helpful in the NHL someday. Wall’s two way play is solid as well, so if he could develop as an elite passer, a whole new level of his game will be unlocked. Increased ice time in the NCAA will help that, and now that Penn State has a few holes to fill in the lineup, it’ll be the perfect opportunity for Wall to continue to develop. Players can find success in the NHL if they are goal scorers first and everything else second, but the truly elite players are able to make plays just as well as they can score goals.

And that’s it! I’m looking forward to the new year when we’ll get to see the rest of our prospects begin their seasons and take the next steps in their development. Carolina has built an impressive pipeline that will only continue to get better thanks to the moves that they have made to stay competitive. A huge thank you once again to Jokke, Josh, and Mark for providing their thoughts on some of the Hurricanes’ prospects! All three put a lot of work in to ensure that they produce amazing content for everyone and deserve a lot of recognition for the work that they do.

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