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Southeast: Good future growing on the farm

by Mike G. Morreale
Now halfway through the Olympic break, there's no better time to unveil a few of the top prospects ready to make their mark with the big clubs in the Southeast Division next season.

We already have seen a few young gems provide a glimpse of what figures to be a very promising future. Carolina Hurricanes goalie Justin Peters certainly made quite an impression in his two NHL starts -- defeating the New York Islanders on Feb. 6 and the New Jersey Devils on Feb. 13, stopping 57 of 60 shots in the process.

The 2004 second-round draft choice is 2-0 with a 1.51 goals-against average and .950 save percentage in two career NHL games. Not too bad, particularly when you consider the Hurricanes need all the support they can get in goal with Cam Ward on the shelf with back issues.

Carolina coach Paul Maurice expected the 'Canes to play hard for Peters in his two starts and the young goalie did his part in return. In a 3-1 victory against the Islanders, Peters stopped 34 shots and his teammates blocked 23 while helping kill off five Islanders' power plays. Peters was returned to Albany last week but there's a good chance he'll get another shot if Ward is not ready to return.

"He's real well-liked, and that matters," Maurice said of Peters. "He's got a great work ethic, and everybody's pulling for him."

Peters isn't the only player in Carolina's system opening some eyes this season, either. Here's a look at their top prospects, as well as a breakdown of other youngsters on the brink of becoming full-time performers for their respective teams.

Atlanta Thrashers -- Associate general manager Rick Dudley is a great evaluator of talent. He was instrumental in helping former Chicago Blackhawks General Manager Dale Tallon build a team that reached the Western Conference Finals last spring -- fueling trade talks for Patrick Sharp in 2005, Martin Havlat in '06 and Kris Versteeg in '07. He also played a role in selecting Jonathan Toews with the third pick in the 2006 Entry Draft and Patrick Kane with the first pick one year later.

In Atlanta, Dudley sees many similarities between this group and the one he had in Chicago when he was hired in 2004 as a consultant before being named director of player personnel in 2005. He feels Atlanta, behind defenseman Zach Bogosian and forward Evander Kane, is headed in the right direction.

"I think it's an organization that's on the way up," Dudley said. "I think we have some very good players and what I'm going to try and do are the same things I did in Chicago -- stress patience and build a little more each day."

Two youngsters certainly in Dudley's cross-hairs are starring for Atlanta's AHL affiliate in Chicago -- forward Spencer Machacek and defenseman Arturs Kulda. Forward Jeremy Morin of the Ontario Hockey League's Kitchener Rangers is another.

Kulda, 21, ranks fourth among Wolves defensemen with 16 points in 43 games this season. He also ranks first in the AHL with a plus-35 rating, producing a plus or even rating in 38 contests. He's learned plenty playing beside defense partner and NHL veteran Chris Chelios.

Morin, who won a gold medal with the U.S. team at the 2010 World Junior Championships in January, has 37 goals and 69 points in 47 games in Kitchener this season.

"We're probably not where Chicago was last year but we might be where Chicago was a year or two before that and we've got some very good young players," Dudley said. "I think kids like Morin or Kulda could possibly step in and be that (Dustin) Byfuglien or one of the kids who came on so strong in Chicago. We do have depth and it's depth that could very quickly transcend into success in Atlanta."

Machacek, who has been referred to by Thrashers GM Don Waddell as a Colby Armstrong-type, has 12 goals and 30 points in 55 games with the Wolves.

Carolina Hurricanes -- There are a few other players in addition to Peters who already have earned time in the NHL this season.

One is forward Zach Boychuk, who scored his first NHL goal against New Jersey on Feb. 13. The Airdrie, Alb., native, who has been called up from the minors on five different occasions this season, has 4 points in 12 games with the Hurricanes. With Matt Cullen traded away, Boychuk was placed on a line with Tuomo Ruutu and Brandon Sutter in the victory against the Devils.

Right wing Jerome Samson, an undrafted free agent, leads AHL Albany with 22 goals and 44 points in 54 games, while left wing Drayson Bowman, a third-round pick in 2007, has 12 goals and 24 points in 39 games. Defenseman Jamie McBain, also projected to see plenty of ice time with the Hurricanes in 2010-11, is second on the team with 30 points in his first full season with Albany following three seasons at the University of Wisconsin.

Peters isn't the only goalie making headway in the minors, either. When healthy, Mike Murphy also has looked sharp. In 20 games with the River Rats this season, last season's Canadian Hockey League Goaltender of the Year is 10-9-0 with a 2.81 GAA, .917 save percentage and two shutouts.

Center Zac Dalpe, the team's second-round choice in 2008, is in his second year at Ohio State. He leads the Buckeyes in goals (16), power-play goals (7), points (32), shots (122) and plus/minus rating (plus-10) through 30 games this season.

Florida Panthers -- The Panthers seem to have struck it rich with defenseman Dmitry Kulikov, the 14th pick of the 2009 Entry Draft, who's been a mainstay along the blue line this season.

Now all the club needs to do is uncover some other missing parts, including an offensive sniper -- the Panthers traditionally have been a group that thrives on scoring by committee. Still, there are some players capable of making the transition, including Russian prospect Evgeni Dadonov. The 5-foot-10, 178-pound right wing has 10 goals and 25 points in 55 games with the AHL's Rochester Americans.

Right wing Michal Repik, the 40th pick in '07, has been recalled from Rochester on five occasions, and in 14 games this season, he has 2 goals and 4 points. In 42 games with Rochester, Repik has 19 goals, 36 points, 5 power-play goals and a plus-9 rating.

Rookie goaltender Alexander Salak, an undrafted free-agent signee last May, boasts a 23-11-0 record with a 2.73 GAA and .915 save percentage in 36 games with Rochester. The club also has another potential standout in goal in 2008 second-round choice Jacob Markstrom, who stars with Brynas in Sweden, leads the Swedish Elite League with a 2.02 GAA and .928 save percentage.

The Panthers still have high hopes for defenseman Keaton Ellerby, who has played two games with the big club and 52 with Rochester this season. Ellerby, a physical defender with mobility, was the 10th pick in 2007.

Tampa Bay Lightning -- General Manager Brian Lawton has a tough decision to make regarding his goalies this summer. Antero Niittymaki, who has played admirably this season, will be an unrestricted free agent July 1, while 2008 fifth-round pick Dustin Tokarski is waiting in the wings.

Tokarski appeared in two games for the Lightning this season, both in relief. He's in his first professional season after finishing his junior career with the Spokane Chiefs of the Western Hockey League last season. In 33 games with the AHL Norfolk Admirals, Tokarski is 17-15-1 with a 2.57 GAA, .925 save percentage and three shutouts. He led Canada to a gold medal at the 2009 World Junior Championships, going 4-0 with a 2.65 GAA and a .906 save percentage, capped with a 39-save performance in a 5-1 victory against Sweden in the gold-medal game.

Among the forwards, center James Wright could push for a role out of training camp next fall. Wright played 48 games with the Lightning this season, posting 2 goals and 5 points while averaging 11:38 in ice time and dishing 51 hits. Lawton returned Wright to his junior team, Vancouver Giants of the Western Hockey League, in January, and he's notched 4 goals and 11 points in nine games. The 2008 fourth-round pick has 43 goals and 106 points in 190 WHL games.

Washington Capitals -- The Capitals have set themselves for continued success. Not only is the NHL club tops in the League with 90 points through 62 games, but the Hershey Bears are atop the AHL with 41 wins and 84 points. The Bears are the heavy favorite to repeat as Calder Cup champion.

There have been numerous contributors to Hershey's success this season and they've come from every position.

Offensively, AHL veteran forwards Keith Aucoin and Alexandre Giroux are again atop the scoring list. Aucoin, who played nine games with the Caps this season, has notched a team-leading 28 goals and 72 points in 46 games. He averages 1.57 points per game and sports a plus-21 rating. Giroux is second with 27 goals and 68 points in 42 games. He averages 1.62 points and owns a plus-26 rating.

Two other prospects to keep a close eye on along the forward line are center Mathieu Perreault (10 goals, 34 points) and right wing Francois Bouchard (13 goals, 38 points), the younger brother of Minnesota Wild forward Pierre-Marc Bouchard.

Defensively, John Carlson, who scored the overtime gold medal-game winner for Team USA against Canada in the World Junior Championships in January, has 1 assist and a plus-6 rating in seven games for the Capitals. He leads all Hershey defensemen with 33 points and sports a team-leading plus-32 rating. Karl Alzner has 5 assists in 21 games for Washington and 7 points and a plus-24 rating in 31 games for Hershey.

In goal, it appears Michal Neuvirth has arrived -- he's 9-4-0 with a 2.75 GAA and .914 save percentage in 17 NHL games this season. Neuvirth was selected to the 2010 AHL All-Star Game on Jan. 19 but didn't participate due to his recall to Washington. Braden Holtby has picked up where Semyon Varlamov and Neuvirth left off in Hershey. In 21 games, he's 17-3-1 with a 2.18 GAA and .922 save percentage.

Contact Mike Morreale at

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