If the Carolina Hurricanes hope to evolve into a perennial playoff contender, they must look first and foremost to their well-stocked but unproven cast of young prospects.
The performance of those youngsters, regardless of the results of this summer's NHL free agency and trade period, could well decide the fate of the 'Canes in 2013-14.
In recent low-round picks such as Ryan Murphy, Brock McGinn, Victor Rask, Keegan Lowe and Phil Di Giuseppe, the franchise must prove that their days of ineffective draft selections are long gone.
Additionally, though, the club must finally take advantage of their generally successful AHL affiliate in Charlotte, which has previously failed in the past to produce NHL regulars out of farm-system stars like Zach Boychuk, Drayson Bowman, Jerome Samson and Justin Peters.
But, for an elite class of Hurricanes prospects reaching big-league readiness, optimism remains strong. The group will be counted on significantly in this autumn's new season as the 'Canes seek greater depth scoring and more dependable defensive core, opening several opportunities for these prospects to earn full-time NHL roles.
Which youngsters in the Carolina system could have the biggest impacts in the fall? Which prospects should fans observe particularly closely as they fight for a training camp job? A breakdown of the 'Canes top prospects to watch in the 2013-14 NHL season falls on the coming slides.
Victor Rask is somewhat of a longshot to make the 'Canes opening-day roster this year, but his performance during training camp will be scrutinized heavily nonetheless.
The Hurricanes' second-round pick (42nd overall) in 2011, Rask came to North America and registered 64 points in 63 games with the WHL Calgary Hitmen in 2011-12.
This past season, Rask spent time with both the Swedish U20 team (scoring eight points in 13 appearances) and AHL Charlotte (scoring five points in 10 games), but also managed 41 points in 37 regular-season games for the Hitmen and then an impressive 16 points in 17 playoff appearances.
Rask is expected to take on a major role at the professional level in 2013-14, even if his NHL odds are fairly slim. Per Brian Fogarty of Hockey's Future:
Rask has speed and good size, and he uses both to protect the puck and buy time for his linemates to find space. He has the ability to battle in the corners and maintain puck possession, even when harried by several opponents.
He'll likely attempt to challenge Riley Nash for the 'Canes third-line center role in the fall, but the 20-year-old will probably see most of his Raleigh action via injury recalls. However, expect Rask to thrive all season long in first-line minutes at the AHL level.
If not for a massive injury bug—one that left NHL defensemen Justin Faulk and Bobby Sanguinetti and AHL rearguards Michal Jordan and Marc-Andre Gragnani all on the sidelines—Brett Bellemore, an unrestricted free agent come July, could have played his last professional hockey season in 2012-13.
But, instead, the 24-year-old blueliner had a miraculous eight-game stint in the NHL, playing literally for a new contract.
And he was fantastic.
Bellemore stepped directly into a flawless defensive defenseman role in Raleigh, registering 14 hits, 13 blocked shots and two assists. The 6'4", 210-pound former sixth-round pick played 110:07 of ice time during his handful of appearances, with just four opponent goals scored during those shifts.
Assuming he does earn a much-deserved new contract this summer, Bellemore's reliability in his own end—an important trait desperately lacking in the 'Canes "D" unit—could help squeeze him into an NHL gig in October.
At the very least, however, his training camp play will be well worth watching.
Among skaters with 10 or more appearances, Zac Dalpe led the 2013 Hurricanes in Corsi rating, according to BehindTheNet.Ca.
That's an impressive and much-needed accolade for the former second-round pick, who, for three consecutive seasons now, just hasn't lived up to expectations at the NHL level.
Dalpe has 157 points in 209 career games in the AHL, including 42 and a plus-16 rating in 54 this past season in Charlotte; the 23-year-old, however, has just 10 points and a minus-10 rating in 41 career NHL appearances.
Many feel that 2013-14, conversely, could finally be the year everything clicks for Dalpe.
He took major strides forward in his two-way versatility and offensive reads this past campaign, and those two improved areas should greatly improve his appeal to GM Jim Rutherford during the team's third- and fourth-line makeovers this offseason.
With a steady 'Canes job in hand, Dalpe would, at last, have the opportunity to settle into a rhythm at the NHL level—something he hasn't previously had the chance to do.
Watch for Dalpe to vie for a regular spot alongside former teammate Riley Nash on the third-line wing this coming 'Canes season.
Ryan Murphy, the 12th overall pick in the 2011 draft, will enter September's training camp with a great many eyes on his back.
The highly touted 20-year-old defenseman had an extremely busy 2012-13 hockey season.
In between starring on the OHL's Kitchener Rangers with 39 assists and 49 points in 54 regular season games and seven points in 10 playoff appearances, Murphy also played in eight games for AHL Charlotte (registering four assists), six games for the Canadian U20 team (scoring three points) and four games on emergency call-up duty for the 'Canes (going pointless).
Many hope and expect the blueliner's 2013-14 campaign will be much less varied, though. After returning 'D'-men Justin Faulk, Tim Gleason and Joni Pitkanen, Murphy could fall fourth on the Hurricanes' defensive order and first on the power-play quarterback hierarchy in his rookie season.
Moreover, a swift and efficient transition by Murphy to the NHL game could even send injury-prone offensive defenseman Pitkanen packing at the trade deadline; by the time March 2014 rolls around, the Ontario native could feasibly be playing 20 or more minutes a night.
Regardless of how the season plays out, however, Murphy will most certainly be in the spotlight from Day One on.