Charlotte sits atop the American Hockey League standings as 2019 arrives. For the Carolina Hurricanes, the success of their affiliate is a central facet in the rebuild of their team.
Charlotte (24-8-0-3) leads the AHL in wins, points (51), and points percentage (.729). Much of the success has come from the performance of Carolina's top prospects, forcing the Hurricanes to find the proper balance between player development and winning at the AHL level.
Coach Mike Vellucci walks the fine line between demanding defensive responsibility while allowing a skilled lineup the freedom to generate offense. Charlotte is 12th in the AHL at 3.37 goals per game while also ranking fourth in shots-against (27.03 per game) and eighth on the penalty kill (83.2 percent).
Here is a look at some of the top young talent the Hurricanes have in Charlotte:
Jake Bean, D -- The first pro season for any AHL defenseman can be an adventure, but Bean has made the jump from the Western Hockey League rather smoothly. The No. 13 pick in the 2016 NHL Draft, he already has played in the NHL, making his debut on Nov. 27 against the Montreal Canadiens. In Charlotte, the 20-year-old has 19 points (five goals, 14 assists) in 34 games. At 6-foot-1, 186 pounds, his task is to continue to build the strength and experience needed to become a full-time NHL defenseman. He plays a skilled, patient game that he combines with a good shot (he had 24 goals with Calgary of the WHL in 2015-16). His 77 shots lead all Charlotte defensemen.
Janne Kuokkanen, LW -- While first-round selections generate the most headlines, the top NHL development systems often excel with their second-round picks. The Hurricanes look to have a success in Kuokkanen, selected at No. 43 in what could be a very bountiful 2016 draft. The 20-year-old forward (6-1, 193) is with Carolina, where he has six shots on goal in seven games. Last season, as a 19-year-old making his AHL debut, he had 40 points (11 goals, 29 assists) in 60 games. This season, prior to his NHL call-up, he had 27 points (11 goals, 16 assists) in 29 games. His play has made him a frequent recall option for Carolina management, and it seems to be only a matter of time before he pushes his way into the lineup as a regular.
Martin Necas, C -- The Hurricanes selected Necas (6-2, 189) at No. 12 in the 2017 NHL Draft. Much like Kuokkanen, they opted to bring him to the AHL as a 19-year-old, and it has been a success. He has 22 points (seven goals, 15 assists) in 26 AHL games and has two points (one goals, one assist) in seven NHL games. Carolina loaned Necas to the Czech Republic for the 2019 IIHF World Junior Championship and he is tied for the team lead with three points (one goal, two assists) in four games. A busy second-half schedule after his return from the WJC should give him the opportunity to become acclimated to the demanding day-in, day-out grind of a North American pro season.
Alex Nedeljkovic, G -- A workhorse for Charlotte, the 22-year-old goaltender (6-0, 189) has played an AHL-high 24 games after he was second with 49 games last season. He's 15-5-2 with a 2.92 goals-against average and .892 save percentage this season. The Hurricanes invested a second-round pick (No. 37) on him in the 2014 NHL Draft. Still in search of a long-term goaltending solution, Nedeljkovic panning out would be a significant victory for Carolina.
Andrew Poturalski, C -- Most of the top development systems have their undrafted, unheralded finds that need AHL time before moving on to NHL success. Poturalski may be the same sort of find for the Hurricanes. Amid the top picks that the Hurricanes have dotting the Charlotte roster, it is Poturalski (5-11, 189) whose 33 points (13 goals, 20 assists) lead the team. The 24-year-old forward, signed out of the University of New Hampshire on March 8, 2016, is in his third full AHL season. He turns 25 on Jan. 14 and is further along in his development curve, but he continues to make a case for himself with Carolina.
Aleksi Saarela, C -- The Hurricanes acquired Saarela from the New York Rangers in the Eric Staal trade on Feb. 28, 2016. It has been a somewhat lengthy development process for the forward (5-10, 200) who turns 22 on Monday. He has yet to make his NHL debut and was an early cut in training camp but scored 25 goals last season as an AHL rookie. His offensive production has continued this season with 24 points (nine goals, 15 assists) through 33 games. At different points in his Charlotte tenure he has shown that he can be an elite AHL scorer. The challenge for him is to round out his game to create a spot for himself with the Hurricanes.