This part 2 in a series of articles that offers first impressions of Hurricanes prospects who are new at the AHL level this season (or only had a cup of tea there at the end of another season).
Part 2 today will feature Roland McKeown, Lucas Wallmark and Alex Nedeljkovic.
Roland McKeown is projected to be a potential top four defenseman at the NHL level once he fully develops. He was drafted by the Los Angeles Kings 50th overall in the 2014 NHL Draft. McKeown has spent the previous three seasons with the Kingston Frontenacs of the OHL. In 2015-2016, his last season with the Frontenacs he posted 7 goals and a career high 35 assists.
For most of the season McKeown has been playing on the second defensive pairing with second year Checker Jake Chelios. He has also played on the second unit of the power play and the penalty kill from time to time with Chelios.
McKeown, like Haydn Fleury, has yet to make a large impact with the Checkers. However, although not an outstanding playmaker so far, he also does not make many mistakes turning over the puck. He often favors making the simple play and does not try to force the puck up the ice. He also displays beautiful vision sometimes when he is hits an offensive player with a nice breakout pass leading to a Checkers two on one or three on two heading into the opposing team’s defensive zone. McKeown also has illustrated a smooth skating stride that allows him to have tremendous mobility when he is out on the ice.
Areas of improvement
One of McKeown’s biggest flaws is his tendency to try to pinch up into an offensive play or rush, ultimately leading to this man slipping behind him on the defensive end of the ice. This has allowed opponents to get quality scoring chances on the Checkers when he gets caught out of position trying to make a play that could lead to a scoring opportunity.
With his skating style and ability to move the puck, he looks stylistically like a Justin Faulk type of player. He might not possess the skill level of Faulk, bu style-wise they are comparable.
In the 12 games he has played so far, McKeown has tallied three assists but has yet to register his first AHL goal. Watch for one to bounce his way soon and for him to get his offensive game rolling on a more consistent basis as it gets later into the year.
Lucas Wallmark has been projected to be a potential solid third center winger at the NHL level if he continues to develop. The Hurricanes drafted him 97th overall in the 2014 NHL draft after he went undrafted in his original draft year of 2013. He spent 2015-2016 with Lulea HF of the SHL, where he scored 8 goals and added another 32 assists in 48 games.
For the majority of the season Wallmark has been playing center on the Checkers’ third line, with Sergey Tolchinsky on the left wing and either Brendan Woods or more recently Andrew Miller on the right wing. He has also received some time on the power play and he is sometimes dispatched for the penalty kill on the second unit.
Wallmark has been a high energy type player, who is not afraid to explore the dirty areas of the ice and get rough to help contribute to the team. One thing indisputable about his game are his passing ability and his skill in spotting his teammates in wide open areas of the ice, giving them excellent scoring chances near the net.
Areas of improvement
At the end of the day, Wallmark does not project to be a great goal scorer, and it would be nice if he could improve in that category as the season progresses on. While not expected to be the Checkers leading goal scorer, but getting into the teens or at least double digits for goals on the season would be ideal for the team. He also sometimes lacks speed, and other players seem to move past him when heading down the ice.
A good comparison for Wallmark is Calgary Flames center Mikael Backlund, who is also from Sweden. They are both small but are skilled on the offensive end of the ice with their playmaking abilities. A couple former Hurricanes who could be decent comparisons to Wallmark are Scott Walker because of his willingness to get rough and be a pest the opposing team and Cory Stillman, because even though they both are not the fastest players, they can still put up points.
In 12 games played Wallmark has contributed two goals and four assists. He seems to be finding his role on the team and is embracing it. It will be interesting to see if he will be able to keep up the solid play he has put on display early on as it gets later into the season.
Alex Nedeljkovic is projected to be a potential starting goalie someday in the NHL if everything pans out the way that it should. The Hurricanes drafted him 37th overall in the 2014 NHL Draft. Nedeljkovic split time during the 2015-2016 season with the Flint Firebirds and the Niagara Icedogs of the OHL. He would finish the year with 24-20-4 record and a .907 save percentage.
After starting the first game of the season Nedeljkovic has only started three games out of the 12 that the Checkers’ have played. Michael Leighton has owned the season and has stepped up as the number one option in goal for Charlotte.
Nedeljkovic has not been able to showcase much in his limited action, but he has illustrated that he can be calm under pressure. He has also stopped a couple of small breakaways that have come his way. Nedeljkovic is good at positioning himself in the net and making himself look bigger than he actually is by taking away short side angles for opposing offenses.
Areas of improvement
The biggest area of improvement needed for Nedeljkovic has to be his rebound control. He has had some struggles early on of not being able to corral shots from the point and letting out juicy rebounds for big scoring opportunities from the opposition. Once he gets that fixed he could be a formidable goalie at the AHL level. Fans just need to be patient and give him time to improve as goalies notoriously take longer to develop than other positions.
Because he is not a large goaltender, a good comparison style-wise would be Mike Richter. Not at the skill level of Richter (although he could be!) but they are both smaller type goalies who can move quickly to recover. A comparable Hurricanes player would be Stanley Cup Champion Martin Gerber who was also only six feet tall and could use his quickness to recover on a play when it looked lost. To his credit Nedeljkovic is projected to be a much better goalie though in his career than Gerber ever was.
He only has one win on the season so to go along with the three losses he suffered at the beginning of the year. He is also donning a 3.91 goals against average and an .862 save percentage. Once he gets more comfortable playing with this new team and his nerves calm, look for him to improve those numbers and take a run at retaking the starting goalie position from Leighton.