TRAVERSE CITY, MICH. - The here and now is going to be painful for Carolina Hurricanes fans. But the future? Much, much brighter. GM Ron Francis and his staff have very quickly built one of the most impressive cadres of blueliners in their prospect pipeline and at least one of those players will likely suit up in Raleigh this season.
The Canes, who are taking part in the Traverse City prospects tournament, showed up in Michigan without top 2015 pick Noah Hanifin (fifth overall). The former Boston College standout is in Raleigh, after it was determined that a slight injury he received this summer (he took a puck off the wrist at Team USA's world junior camp) wasn't worth risking with NHL training camp around the corner. Luckily, Carolina is still flush on 'D.'
Leading the pack is 2014 first-rounder Haydn Fleury, who was also at Traverse City last season. The big Red Deer Rebels rearguard was ready for his second stint at the tourney.
"This year I'm playing more of a complete role, I'm playing in all situations," he said. "I've developed in all areas, where I can be on that penalty kill unit against the other team's first unit. I can be successful at that."
Glen Wesley, a pretty notable NHL defenseman during his playing days, is now director of defenseman development for Carolina and he likes what he has seen from Fleury since last year.
"Maturity-wise, not only has his strength gotten better, but his defensive game is better," Wesley said. "He's more physical in his own end and from a development point, that`s what you want to see: growth and maturity."
Fleury says he still wants to live up to his proclamation from last year, that he would get to the NHL as a 19-year-old, though there are some interesting circumstances. His Rebels are hosting the Memorial Cup, so he's guaranteed a berth in the CHL classic. He'll also have a chance to play a big role on Canada's world junior team, as the Canucks try to defend gold in Finland. But it's hard not seeing him in a Canes jersey by 2016-17 at the latest.
Brett Pesce is a couple years older than Fleury, but because he was at the University of New Hampshire before now, this is his first Traverse City outing. Nonetheless, Pesce will be one to watch since he already got in some AHL games with Charlotte last year once his NCAA campaign with the Wildcats ended.
"It was definitely a little faster than college hockey," Pesce said. "It was a good opportunity for me, because I knew what I needed to work on this summer to get ready for training camp this fall. In the corners, you could just feel how much stronger guys were than in college."
Wesley loves the smarts and compete level that Pesce brings to the ice. Though he has great size at 6-foot-3, 200 pounds, Pesce is more of a stick-checker and positioning expert than he is a masher.
Being at New Hampshire, Pesce saw the Hanifin Show at Boston College a few times. Canes fans will have to wait until after Traverse City to see their prized new prospect now, but the organization is happy to wait.
"We're excited for Noah," Wesley said. "He's a very smooth skater, very sound defensively and physically strong for his age. He`s close to being NHL-ready. It`s just a matter of how it goes in training camp: making sure you`re not making the big mistake in your own end, not turning the puck over and keeping your game as simple as possible."
If Hanifin can do that, there is definitely room on the Carolina depth chart right away. His growth during one season at Boston College was practically astronomical and the Eagles couldn't keep him off the ice in the second half. I had been told before the draft by a non-Canes related source that Carolina would not let Hanifin get past them and the franchise hit on their number when Toronto took Mitch Marner at No. 4 (it was an open secret who the first three picks would be).
If anything, the one missing ingredient for Carolina's future 'D' corps is toughness. Justin Faulk is already emerging as a top-flight NHL defenseman, but he's not a mauler, either. Some of these youngsters may develop more snarl over time, but in the immediacy, they're setting up one heckuva competition for main camp.
"This is probably the best depth we've had in the organization on the back end for a long time," Wesley said. "There's going to be a lot of tough decisions coming out of here and training camp and that's a great thing."