When the calendar turned from 2009 to 2010 last winter in Raleigh, Nc., the situation of the city's one professional sports team was anything but steady.
That team, the Carolina Hurricanes, had begun the year dreadfully, just one season removed from a run to the Eastern Conference Finals. The 'Canes were currently posting a miserable 10-27-7 record with just two measly wins away from the RBC Center.
But now well over seven months later, the Carolina Hurricanes are just a shell of their former over-their-prime roster.
Today, the new seventh youngest team is preparing for training camp with just 15 players signed to a one-way contract, leaving five spots available for prospects to earn during the preseason.
While the 'Canes still have nearly $12 million in cap space to work with, allowing for plenty of mid-season flexibility, the 2010-2011 Hurricanes have riddled themselves of much of the age weighing down their youth movement.
There are a number of youngsters already having secured a spot on the opening day roster. Jiri Tlusty, 22, and Brandon Sutter, 21, have both signed their first one-way deals this offseason, as well as 28-year-old former AHLer Jay Harrison.
Also this offseason, 40-year-old former team captain Rod Brind'Amour retired, accepting a staff position but replacing his declining former role with a new slot available for a prospect. 39-year-old Ray Whitney also signed with Phoenix, and while his departure may still hurt, this year was a good time for it to happen.
Those two over-the-hill players will join a number of other "veterans" who were shipped off at the March 3 NHL Trade Deadline, a collection including Matt Cullen, Aaron Ward, Stephane Yelle, and Andrew Alberts.
The prospects taking their places are still yet to be determined, but the battles will not be beginning without a lack of competition.
Prospect forwards Zach Boychuk, Patrick Dwyer, Jonathan Matsumoto, Riley Nash, Oskar Osala, Drayson Bowman, Jerome Samson, Jared Staal, Zac Dalpe, and Chris Terry will all be hoping for a chance to see some NHL action this season, and defensemen Jamie McBain, Brett Carson, Bryan Rodney, Bobby Sanguinetti, and Casey Borer will also be hoping for the same thing.
However, with a crowd like that and only five spots available, many of them will, at the least, not be making an appearance on Opening Day, which for the Hurricanes will happen in Finland.
It will only be the best of the best that will see themselves filling a starting role for the first time of their career, and with the amount of talent on the waiting list behind them, they will need to remain the best of the best during their NHL tenures.
But we can't get ahead of ourselves; training camp might be just around the corner, but it hasn't even started. Everything is still up for grabs, and that "everything" is truly everything—even finding the top candidates to be the future faces of the Carolina Hurricanes franchise.
And thankfully, the 'Canes have at least a few players who could very well fill that role someday.
Three Rookies To Watch For
To start with, I'm considering "rookies" as players who have never played more than 20 NHL games in a season. That criteria eliminates prospects Zach Boychuk, Patrick Dwyer, Brett Carson, and Bryan Rodney.
However, even with those four included, the elite three of the Hurricanes latest class of up-and-comers are still the ones mentioned here.
Without doubt, the first of the three has to be aggressive defenseman phenom Jamie McBain.
Last summer at this time, McBain was the new kid in Albany. After spending the previous two years with the University of Wisconsin hockey program, recording 42 points in 71 games and impressing scouts with his awareness and balanced talent, the American had played only 10 games with the Albany River Rats ('Canes former AHL affiliate, now the Charlotte Checkers) at the end of the '08-'09 season.
McBain had recorded just two points and an ugly minus-seven rating, but coaches still had high hopes for the future.
While there wasn't a lot of previous success by McBain backing up that promise, he certainly proved over the next five months that he had the skills to excell on any level.
During last season, McBain recorded a plus-eight rating at the AHL level, the best mark on the team, along with seven goals and a very notable 33 assists. Further raising the expectations for McBain was his discipline; the former second round pick had taken only five penalties in 68 appearances.
And finally, in early March, it was time for his first NHL stint. However, instead of McBain's NHL tryout being a learning experience for McBain, it was rather a learning experience for the rest of the Hurricanes defense.
Without question, McBain was the best defenseman on the 'Canes roster from March 16 on.
In just his first four games, McBain had not only already recorded his first NHL goal—a powerplay game winner with less than a second left in overtime in Pittsburgh—but also found a place on the box score in every one of the four.
While McBain cooled off a bit over the last 10 games of the season, he still finished up the year with three goals, seven assists, and a team leading plus-six rating.
The American also impressed everyone involved with the Hurricanes with his calm style, intense work ethic, and willingness to block shots. In fact, McBain had 34 blocked shots in just 14 games, ahead of eight players who had made more than four times as many appearances. His blocked-shots-per-game average of 2.43 was also best on the team by 0.4 per game (Aaron Ward was second at 2.03).
While a few questions remain, I, and many others, believe that Jamie McBain is one of the most promising young stars in the entire league at this point.
It's completely legitimate to believe that he could be a consistent top pairing defenseman by the 2012-'13 NHL season, and perhaps even before that. Compare him to a two or three seasons earlier version of the Thrashers' Tobias Enstrom, the Kings' Drew Doughty (no, not exaggerating), or even the Hurricanes' own Joni Pitkanen.
On the other hand, though, even the NHL's next superstar defenseman needs an offense in front of him to complete the package. Thankfully, plenty of young prospects in the 'Canes farm system can provide that.
One of the most inviting of them is 22-year-old right winger Jerome Samson.
At first, Samson was never expected to ever even make the NHL level for a single game. Back in the spring of 2007, he was still just an undrafted winger playing for Val-d'Or Foreurs of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League (sounds like a double negative). However, following that season, Carolina decided to give him an AHL tryout.
Although the tryout opportunity wasn't unearned, as Samson had recorded 151 points in his past three seasons in the QMJHL, it was quite an out-of-the-blue decision. Fortunately, Samson quickly proved that he deserved a spot in the farm system, to say the least.
Samson played in just 65 games his first season there ('07-'08), but made the most of it, recording 21 goals (including 12 on the powerplay) and 18 assists. Once again, he improved on those totals the next season, making five more appearances, scoring one more goal, and adding 14 more assists.
While his plus-minus rating dampened those tallies slightly (it was a combined minus-29), there was no doubt Samson was moving up in the ranks.
This past season, though, Samson truly broke free. The Canadian was first on the River Rats in goals and assists during both the regular season and playoffs.
Additionally, his 37 goals and 41 assists were good enough to tie for the fourth best in the AHL, along with with David Desharnias of the Hamilton Bulldogs (affiliate of the Montreal Canadiens).
Albany's best regular season point total since the lockout can arguably be somewhat credited to Samson's breakthrough, truthfully.
While Samson was not a standout in his first seven NHL games this season, recording two assists and 10 penalty minutes, he has the potential to be a solid top six forward much sooner than most think.
Having come from such a little-known junior league without being drafted takes a lot of the same effort that's necessary for an NHL-caliber player to have, and Samson already has a jump start in that regard.
As with McBain, Samson has the skill and ability to develop into a player similar to quite a few current well-known players. Comparable young stars could be Vancouver's Mason Raymond, although Samson can't quite match up with Raymond in terms of speed, the Islanders' Kyle Okposo, or Atlanta's Niclas Bergfors.
Lastly, a player who has the skill set to make a spot on the Hurricanes this autumn and conceivably play alongside Samson will be newly signed center Riley Nash.
A former 21st overall pick in 2007, Nash was acquired from Edmonton for the 46th overall choice in last June's NHL draft. While the Oilers had grown impatient and eventually traded Nash due to his reluctance to leave Cornell's hockey program and sign an entry-level contract, Nash's experience at the NCAA hockey level will certainly come in handy with Nash now on a new deal.
Nash had played in all but six games over his past three seasons at Cornell, and averaged an impressive point-per-game during his time there (102 points in 102 games). This past season, Nash finished second with the Big Red in scoring, earning 35 points (along with Colin Greening, former draft pick of the Senators).
While Nash should have plenty of competition for the two available slots at center this season, his new three-year contract that could earn him over $2.1 million indicates a significant amount of confidence in Nash from the Hurricanes.
Indeed, Nash has shown he has the natural touch to light up some leagues, as indicated in the '06-'07 BCHL season; Nash had 84 points in just 55 games with the Salmon Arm Silverbacks.
He may still be somewhat "raw", but I can see Nash becoming the next Brandon Dubinsky (N.Y. Rangers), T.J. Oshie (St. Louis), or Peter Mueller (Colorado) if he "clicks" with the 'Canes. Otherwise, Nash could still be very inviting trade bait if he can't transition to the NHL as quickly as many suspect.
Hopefully, though, it won't just be Nash who can quickly transition to the NHL. With Jamie McBain and Jerome Samson also both at the helms, Carolina could have a deadly three-pronged sword of youngsters taking the league by storm within the next several years.
But, for now, all they can do is watch out for these three as they attempt to make a great impression in their first true opportunity at playing a full NHL season.
Mark Jones is currently Bleacher Report's featured columnist and community leader for the NHL's Carolina Hurricanes . In his 21 months so far with the site, he has written over 215 articles and received over 180,000 total reads.
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