While the Carolina Hurricanes languish in another playoff-less season, their AHL affiliate, the Charlotte Checkers, will begin their push for the Calder Cup on Thursday, April 20 at 7:00 pm. Facing the second-seed Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins in the first round, the Checkers are riding high off a seven game winning streak and are poised to make a deep run this year.
Let’s take a look at a few more promising prospects who we can expect to see on the Hurricanes roster in the next few years.
Ned scores at the rate of one goal a season. That may not sound impressive, but Alex Nedeljkovic is a goalie. Drafted 37th overall in 2014, Nedeljkovic has played 49 games this season – the second most in the league – and posted a respectable 31-12-3 record. He’s only played one game with the Canes, coming in relief of Cam Ward on Jan. 17, 2017. While the Canes lost that game 4-1, Nedeljkovic stopped all 17 shots he faced in 30 minutes. However, he’s been out with an undisclosed injury since March 30. Thankfully, the club has said it isn’t serious and that he should return in time to play a key role in the playoffs. With the trouble in net the Canes have had over the past few years, Nedeljkovic is definitely a player to keep an eye on. He may not be ready to backup just yet, but he will be soon.
The first overall pick in the QMJHL Bantam Draft in 2013, center Nicolas Roy made headlines when he refused to report to the Cape Breton Screaming Eagles and was instead traded to his hometown Chicoutimi Sagueneens, a move that resulted in a rule change for the 2014 Q draft. He was drafted 96th overall in 2015 by the Hurricanes and went on to put up 80 points in 53 games in his last season with Chicoutimi. While he certainly isn’t scoring at that rate in his rookie season as a pro, he played well enough to garner a call-up for the last game of the season. Although he didn’t get on the score sheet like many other Canes rookies did this season, he played well and drew two penalties. He has plenty of time to grow into his big, 6-foot-4, 207 pound frame. Give Chicoutimi a season or two in Charlotte to develop and it won’t be long until he’s in a Canes jersey.
Obtained from the New York Rangers in the Eric Staal trade, center Aleksi Saarela has found success at every level of the game except the NHL so far. As a 19-year-old, he led his top-tier Liiga team in goals and was tied for fourth in the entire league. Saarela, who was drafted 89th overall in 2015, also represented Finland for the 2016 World Juniors Championship and won a gold medal for his country. In his first full season, he scored 42 points in 68 games, ranking third on the Checkers with 25 goals. This production earned Saarela a call-up earlier in the year, although he did not get any action with the club before being sent back down. However, he’s still young, and a few more years in the minors should be enough to get him going strong in the big leagues.
With the best points per game in the AHL (1.22) for players who’ve played over 10 games this season, center Lucas Wallmark is one of the most important pieces of the Checkers. Drafted 97th overall in 2014, Wallmark holds the team record for most goals scored by a rookie (24 in 2017). While his goal rate has dropped a bit this season, he still led the team in scoring while only playing 45 games. Some of Wallmark’s missed games came because he received a few call-ups to the Canes, playing 11 games over the course of the season. He scored his first NHL goal in his first game of the season on Dec. 30 against the St. Louis Blues, but produced no more points after that. At 6 feet, 176 pounds, Wallmark may need to bulk up a bit more before he’s ready to make the jump.
Possibly the most heralded call-up of the 2017-18 season, right winger Valentin Zykov looked ridiculously good on NHL ice towards the end of the campaign. Zykov was drafted by the Los Angeles Kings in 2013 (37th overall), but came to Carolina in the Kris Versteeg trade. He scored his first NHL goal in his first game with the Canes and spent most of his time playing with Teuvo Teräväinen and Sebastian Aho. While he may not have been considered ready for the big leagues for most of the season (which is another debate entirely), Zykov has been barreling through the AHL — over 63 games, Zykov had a ridiculous 29.5 shooting percentage (the highest in the league for players with over 15 shots on the season – sorry, Ned, that counts your 100 percent SH% out). Despite only playing 63 games in the AHL this season, Zykov won the league’s goal-scoring title with 33 goals. Suffice to say, there’s a pretty good chance he makes the Canes out of camp next season.
This is the second of a two-part series previewing ten prospects currently playing for the Checkers. No criteria were used to pick these players beyond name recognition and basic stats. Players are ordered alphabetically.