Welcome back to Top Shelf Prospects, the column that brings you the next crop of professional hockey players. As we go through the summer of 2023, each day our LWOS Prospects Writers will bring you a look at one NHL team’s top prospects or other topical article. Be sure to bookmark the site, follow Ben Kerr, Kyle Pereira and Frederik Frandson on Twitter, and spread the word for the site that will bring you analytical and critical profiles and scouting reports! You can find all the articles here as well as our extensive NHL Draft preview. Today, we look at the 2023 Carolina Hurricanes Top Prospects.
For those wondering, the cut-off for what is or isn’t a prospect is typically about 50 NHL games played (including playoff games) or is 25 years old. These are not hard or fast rules though, and we may make some exceptions depending on the circumstances.
2023 Carolina Hurricanes Top Prospects
1.) Alexander Nikishin
Alexander Nikishin, the former third-round pick (69th overall) in the 2020 NHL draft, kicks off the Carolina Hurricanes prospects list. The 6’4” and 216-pound left-shot defender has done nothing but impress. Since his draft year, he has played a majority of his games in the KHL, the top men’s league in Russia. In all, he has played 169 KHL games, and has managed 82 total points from the blueline. That alone is pretty impressive. But then there’s the fact that his first 95 games resulted in only 20 total points. Last season, he put up an incredible 55 points in 65 games, and so far this season, he has posted seven points in nine games.
Nikishin is a big body, as mentioned. He uses every bit of his big frame. Nikishin loves throwing hits and being an aggressive presence in his own end. That, paired with his ability to properly use his long reach and stride to defend the rush make him reliable. Then, this past season, he proved his offence is also a weapon. His slap shot is dangerous from the point, and when that lane isn’t open, he shows strong vision and smarts as a playmaker. Nikishin has far surpassed his draft stock as a third-rounder and looks like the real deal. His contract in Russia is up after the 2024-25 season concludes. But when it is up, he’ll likely step into an NHL role immediately.
2.) Scott Morrow
Following up the Russian blueliner who was a third-round draft choice is an American blueliner, drafted in the second round. Scott Morrow, the 40th overall pick in the 2021 NHL draft, was a highly debated prospect coming into the draft. There was a section of the hockey world who were big believers, and another section who had big doubts. Morrow proved the believers right. He has since played two seasons in the NCAA for UMass Amherst and scored 64 points in 72 games. Morrow has turned into the real deal.
Standing at 6’2” and 195 pounds, Morrow has just about everything in his arsenal. Great skating? Check. Strong instincts and anticipation, which allow him to carve up teams transitionally and in the offensive zone? Check. Aggressive and in-your-face style in the defensive end, allowing him to force opponents into mistakes to allow his transition game to take over? Check.
Morrow is still a bit raw and will need another season in the NCAA to continue refining his overall tools. But he looks more and more like a legitimate top-pair defender down the line. The Carolina Hurricanes prospects pool having him and Nikishin certainly explains why the Hurricanes are praised for their drafting ability.
3.) Bradly Nadeau
Bradly Nadeau, the most recent addition to the Carolina Hurricanes prospects pipeline, was taken with the 30th overall pick in the most recent NHL draft. Similar to that of Morrow, the top forward in the Hurricanes pipeline played his draft season in a weak league but looked like a man amongst boys the whole year. Is it a risk? Absolutely. But look how the Morrow selection has panned out. Nadeau dominated the BCHL with 113 points in just 54 games and is slated to play in the NCAA this season. He is committed to the University of Maine.
Standing at 5’10” and 161 pounds, Nadeau is undersized. However, with that comes an excellent skating ability. Not only is his top speed high end, but his ability to change direction and accelerate at the snap of a finger allows him to leave defenders guessing. Paired with solid stickhandling and an ability to create room for himself, he’s dangerous. But that doesn’t even take into account a fantastic shooting ability.
As for the rest of his game, it’s tough to gauge where he stands. Sure, he did well in his own end, but that was against BCHL competition. Sure, he flashed some strong playmaking at times. But again, it came against BCHL talent. Can he create space for himself to unleash that shot at a higher level? That question will be answered in the NCAA, hopefully.
4.) Ville Koivunen
Ville Koivunen closely follows Nadeau as the second forward on this list. Koivunen, who was drafted in the second round (51st overall) in the 2021 NHL draft, has had a different development path. While Nadeau played against BCHL competition, the Finnish forward spent the last two seasons playing against men in Finland. In that time, Koivunen has produced 57 points in 105 games, solid production. Last season, at the conclusion of the Liiga season, he stepped into 12 AHL games, where he scored one goal. This season, he was sent on loan to play in Finland again and has scored a point through four games.
Koivunen is one of those under-appreciated forwards that a team has in their possession. He is a dual-threat offensive zone presence, though not flashy. His playmaking is strong, as he consistently manages to find teammates in good spots all the time. That’s a testament to his vision and instincts. Meanwhile, he has a strong shot to pair with that, which allows him to play any way he is asked to. Now, he isn’t the most explosive player, and that likely means he won’t drive his own line in the future. But, he can play with anyone and can thrive, and any team would love to have a player like that. For the Hurricanes, they surely are happy he slipped through the cracks to them.
5.) Jack Drury
Jack Drury, a former second-round pick (42nd overall) in the 2018 NHL draft, has been pushing for a full-time NHL role now for two seasons. The 5’11” and 174-pound center has, over the last two years, combined for 40 NHL games and 105 AHL games. In the AHL, he has produced 76 points, including 24 points in 37 games last season. Meanwhile, in a small NHL role, he produced 10 points. But he has yet to secure a larger role, while the Hurricanes have gathered quite an impressive group of young prospects.
The biggest question over the years about Drury was if he had another level to his offensive game. That’s because the young centre has always been a strong defensive presence, with high-end awareness and constantly kept his defensive responsibilities at the forefront of his mind. But he has somewhat answered those questions, with solid production in the AHL. But a bigger NHL shot seems like it won’t be with the Hurricanes. Drury requested a trade. And, with the Carolina Hurricanes prospects pool being as strong as it is, it may be smart to get a good trade package for him.
6.) Ryan Suzuki
Suzuki, the younger brother of Nick Suzuki, is a 6’1” and 190-pound center. He was drafted 28th overall back in the 2019 NHL draft by the Hurricanes. Over the last three seasons, he has played in the AHL, and last season was his best. In his first season, playing in 26 games, he managed 10 points. Then, he followed that up with just 14 points in 34 games, a step back despite playing in a few more games. But this season, he somewhat broke out, recording 32 points in 50 games.
While injuries have slowed down the development of Suzuki, he still has managed to show flashes of potential. He has strong playmaking instincts when he is healthy and playing well, and pairs that with solid skating abilities. Meanwhile, away from the puck, he can flash brilliant hockey IQ, constantly able to find open areas for teammates to get the puck to him. However, he isn’t much of a shooter, opting to play more of a pass-first style. Additionally, he tends to play a bit safer at times. That’s not a bad thing, as he can defend fairly well, but it does limit what he can put on display in the offensive zone. Better health moving forward could allow him to gain more experience and confidence, which could allow him to open up his high-upside offensive game a bit more.
7.) Noel Gunler
Gunler, a right winger who was taken in the second round (41st overall) in the 2020 NHL draft, is one of the most interesting prospects in the league, never mind just the Carolina Hurricanes prospects pool. Two seasons ago, he finished with 23 points in 52 SHL games, the top Swedish men’s league. He then joined the Hurricanes AHL squad to finish the year, playing in 11 games and putting up five points. Last season, getting a full slate of AHL games, he put up 18 points in 31 games.
The Swedish winger has decent size, standing at 6’1” and 176 pounds, though he could bulk up a bit more. But when Gunler is on his game, he can be a game-changer. At his best, Gunler is a dual-threat offensive zone dynamo, able to break a game open with excellent stickhandling ability and vision. That said, he can create plays on his own and in many different ways. But he can also score all on his own. He was praised for his shooting ability for years, and he still has a weapon of a shot.
But the problem is consistent effort. Especially away from the puck. There are times when Gunler looks like he just doesn’t care, completely disengaged. That needs to be sorted out. In a system that has done an excellent job so far in developing prospects, he’s in as good a place as any. But he needs to figure that part of his game out sooner rather than later.
8.) Jayden Perron
Perron, one of the newest acquisitions for the Carolina Hurricanes prospects pool, was drafted in the third round (94th overall) in the 2023 NHL draft. Playing in the USHL for the Chicago Steel last season, Perron produced 72 points in 61 games, solid output. This season, he is slated to play for the University of North Dakota in the NCAA, alongside fellow Hurricanes prospects Jackson Blake and Michael Emerson.
Perron is a smaller forward, standing at 5’8” and 157 pounds, and with smaller players generally comes strong skating. His top speed is above average at best, and that prevents him from out-skating defenders off-the-rush. While he can be slippery, thanks to his ability to change directions on a dime, that speed element needs to be added to his game, especially considering his size.
Perron’s playmaking is his money-making trait, with fantastic vision and stickhandling to create space for himself and buy time for his linemates. Paired with a decent shot, he has the upside to be a true top-six forward. However, consistency is a massive issue, especially due to his size. Players who are larger or have a longer reach tend to thwart Perron’s opportunities to set up teammates a little more often than one may feel comfortable admitting. But if he can bulk up in college and hit a growth spurt, as well as improve that top speed, he could be a dangerous player. The Hurricanes have had success with players like him, so he is absolutely in one of the best, if not the best, situations for him with the Hurricanes.
9.) Vasili Ponomarev
Ponomarev, a center who was taken with the 53rd overall pick in the 2020 NHL draft, made his presence felt in North America last season. In 2021-22, after concluding his QMJHL tenure, he was loaned out to Russia for much of the season before returning to play at the end of the AHL season. There, he drew into 11 games, and managed to produce an impressive 10 points. That set up his break-out 2022-23 season, where he played 64 AHL games and impressed with 46 points.
Ponomarev has truly developed into a do-it-all center. He can play in his own end very well, often tasked with playing on the penalty-killing unit at the most recent prospects showcase. Then, last season, he took a massive step with his offensive upside. His shooting ability has always been lethal, but his more defensively sound and responsible game led to questions as to how high his ceiling truly is. Ponomarev silenced those concerns. Add to it a solid playmaking sense, and he is a guy who very likely could be the next man up for the Carolina Hurricanes prospects pool. Already, he seems like a challenger for a bottom-six role at the NHL level as soon as this season.
10.) Jackson Blake
Blake, a winger who plays with Perron with North Dakota in the NCAA, was drafted in the fourth round (109th overall) in the 2021 NHL draft. Getting drafted after a short sample of games in the USHL was a risk by the Hurricanes, as he scored 17 points in 25 games. Most of that season was spent playing for Eden Prairie High School, where he dominated with 58 points in 19 games. But that risk has seemingly paid off in spades, as he dominated the USHL with 77 points in 61 games with the Steel. Then, he followed that up with an excellent freshman season in North Dakota, scoring 42 points in 39 games. He remains committed to play at least one more season in college.
Blake is a high-energy, high skilled and fast-paced player. With the puck on his stick, he oozes creativity and high-end stickhandling to beat defenders and create off-the-shot. He also plays hard every single shift, getting in on the forecheck, crashing the slot looking for chances in tight, and just simply out-working everyone. Blake is an exceptional playmaker as well, with strong instincts and vision to set up teammates. He has gotten bigger since his draft year, going from 148 pounds to 165 pounds, as well as growing an inch from 5’10” to 5’11”. However, size remains a concern, especially with his play style. But the upside is definitely there if he can match or, somehow, surpass last season’s production in the NCAA. Definitely someone to monitor moving forward this season.
HM (Round 4 or Later): Timur Mukhanov
A late riser in the 2023 NHL draft, Mukhanov has found arguably the perfect home in the Carolina Hurricanes prospects pipeline. Somehow slipping to the sixth round (163rd overall) in the 2023 NHL draft, it really feels more and more like teams are letting the Hurricanes scouting staff embarrass them. Mukhanov is coming off a season where he scored 17 points in 15 MHL games, plus eight more in 31 VHL games. He has had a slow start this season, with one goal in seven KHL games and one point in two MHL games. But the upside is tantalizing.
Mukhanov is a diminutive forward, as he’s just 5’8” and 179 pounds. But Mukhanov consistently made some incredibly difficult passes look easy. He has mastered the ability to manipulate defenders with his eyes and ability to manipulate the puck with his hands. That ability to be unpredictable every time he touches the puck is incredibly impressive but has come against lower-skill opponents. Additionally, Mukhanov’s passing skills often didn’t lead to any real results; sure, they looked fantastic, but it was towards a low-danger spot that resulted in very little.
However, Mukhanov has a few things going for him. His effort is at a high level, as he possesses a great motor. The engagement he shows in the defensive zone and aggressiveness when covering the point will help him earn respect from coaches at higher levels. It’s yet to be seen if his offence can translate, but he seems like a great bet to at least play NHL games if he makes the move to North America.
In The System
The Hurricanes have been a competitive team for a few seasons. Despite that, they have done a phenomenal job of constantly finding late-round gems. Additionally, players who have already graduated to the NHL at a young age include Andrei Svechnikov, Jesperi Kotkaniemi, Martin Necas, Seth Jarvis, and Pyotr Kochetkov. Some other names that the Hurricanes have under contract that just missed out on the top ten include Felix Unger Sorum, Jamieson Rees, Alexander Pashin, Justin Robidas, Domenick Fensore, Anttoni Honka, Ronan Seeley, Aleksi Heimosalmi, and Yaniv Perets.
That doesn’t even include the players yet to sign with the Hurricanes. That includes names like Gleb Trikozov, Alexander Perevalov, Alexander Rykov, Zion Nybeck, Cruz Lucius, and several more. So, it’s safe to say that the Carolina Hurricanes prospects pipeline is deep and impressive. They have done such an exceptional job that it feels like they will remain Stanley Cup contenders for a long time and win a couple in the process.
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