Wherever Noah Hanifin went on the ice Monday, heads in the stands swiveled to follow. The big defenseman, the fifth overall pick in last month’s NHL draft, was the center of attention.
With general manager Ron Francis and the rest of the Carolina Hurricanes’ front office watching, Hanifin’s first appearance at PNC Arena was the unquestioned focus of the Hurricanes’ prospect development camp, and will be for the rest of the week.
From the tunnel leading to the bench, Brett Pesce, a fellow prospect, watched as well, arms folded across his chest, unable to participate in the on-ice portions of the development camp because of a minor knee injury.
While Hanifin is getting all the attention this week, Pesce may be in the NHL just as quickly.
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When the Hurricanes drafted Hanifin, it was widely noted that they now had a trio of young defenseman to build around for the future: Hanifin, 2014 first-round pick Hadyn Fleury and 23-year-old NHL regular and U.S. Olympian Justin Faulk.
Pesce, 20, has a chance to make that trio a foursome.
He turned pro last spring after his junior year at New Hampshire and stepped right into a starring role during a brief end-of-season stint with Charlotte (AHL). In many ways, he fits the mold of the kind of defenseman the Hurricanes are trying to draft and develop: He skates smoothly and moves the puck well even if he isn’t a big offensive producer.
Without comparing him to Faulk as a player, there’s a chance Pesce could follow a similar career trajectory. Neither was a first-round pick – Faulk went in the second round, 37th overall; Pesce in the third, 66th overall – and both are Americans who played at elite NCAA programs. Faulk turned pro after his freshman year at Minnesota-Duluth, impressed during a Charlotte audition and spent most of the next two seasons in Raleigh as he established himself as an NHL regular.
Pesce, who’s a year older than Faulk was when he turned pro, has a chance to make the Hurricanes this season out of training camp with a good performance. It’s more likely he starts the season in Charlotte, gains some experience at the AHL level and gets a look at mid-season to see whether he can contribute in the NHL.
“I’m looking to go into camp in September with an open mind,” Pesce said. “I have a good trainer and he’s getting me a lot stronger than I’ve ever been. I’m looking forward to giving it my all and seeing where it takes me.”
Pesce knows exactly what the Hurricanes have in Hanifin, having played against him last season in Hockey East, when Hanifin was a freshman at Boston College. Because of the injury, Pesce is slightly under the radar this week but the Hurricanes know exactly what they have in him.
“He looked real comfortable in his four games with Charlotte,” Francis said. “He’s a smart player positionally, has a good feel for the game and moves well. And it doesn’t hurt that he’s 6-3.”
The Hurricanes have a handful of other promising defensive prospects who aren’t at the Fleury-Hanifin level. A few were on the ice Monday, including Glen Wesley’s son Josh; Roland McKeown, acquired in the Andrej Sekera trade; and Jaccob Slavin, who just turned pro after his sophomore year at Colorado College.
Pesce’s somewhere in the middle, between those two groups, heading into his first full pro season, but he’s almost certain to get a chance to play in the NHL at some point this season.
While Hanifin’s attempt to make the Hurricanes began on the ice Monday, Pesce had to watch and wait, but his chance will come soon enough.
DeCock: email@example.com, @LukeDeCock, 919-829-8947