Welcome back, Caniacs!
First off, I’d like to apologize for the delay in this series. I probably didn’t time it all that well to start with considering how it lined up with the summer events. I likely would have only been about three editions into the series by the time the draft and free agency came around, and that means a lot of my profiles would have been less meaningful with all the player movement we saw. In addition, I had a bit of a rough month or so with some big unforeseen changes in my life coming that I was dealing with. I didn’t even have my laptop for a couple weeks, so even if I had been mentally around at all I wouldn’t have been able to work on these anyway. So again, sorry for the prolonged absence, but we’ll pick it back up now and continue to look into how the seasons of the Canes prospects at the AHL level unfolded. This week we’ll look at Roland McKeown, Alex Nedeljkovic, and Martin Necas.
Roland McKeown – Defenseman (Acquired: Andrej Sekera deal with LA, February 2015; Drafted 2nd round, 50th overall by LA, 2014 Entry Draft)
By the Numbers – 4 goals, 21 assists, 25 points in 70 games; 56 PIMs, +30 rating; 3 assists in 10 playoff games.
What Got Him Here? McKeown is very much cut from the Pesce mold, as a right-shot defenseman that takes care of his end of the ice first and foremost, but doesn’t add a ton of value in the offensive end. He is an excellent penalty killer and solid one-on-one defender who doesn’t allow much space for attacking forwards. He is very positionally sound and shows a high hockey IQ. While he doesn’t have a ton of offense in his game, he’s a solid puck mover from his own end and effectively gets the puck moving up ice on the breakout. McKeown is the type of player that will eat up 20+ minutes very quietly, in a good way. He will block shots, cut off lanes, shut down a scoring line, and throw his body around a bit as well. Additionally, McKeown has shown to be a great teammate and leader over the years as well, as he was the captain of the OHL’s Kingston Frontenacs from 2014-2016. And, if you’re into this kind of thing, this was the second year in a row he’s ranked in the top ten in the AHL in +/-. I know it’s a flawed statistic, and he played for the best team in the AHL which surely provided a boost, but I think it’s worth mentioning nonetheless. Either way, for two straight years McKeown has been a stalwart on the Charlotte blue line, a very valuable and consistent shutdown defenseman for a talented blue line. Like I said, pretty reminiscent of Brett Pesce.
Questions/Room for Improvement? If you want to be picky the obvious area to point out is the offense, but at this point I just don’t really think that’s his game. And that’s ok – he brings enough other attributes that still make him projectable as an NHL defenseman. I would like to see him play with an edge a little more often. McKeown is certainly willing to mix it up, but this seems to be an area of his game that will kind of come and go. When his intensity level is at 100, he’s very valuable. In an April 2018 game with the big club, Mackenzie Weegar of the Panthers laid a big hit on Brock McGinn while in the Florida zone, who stayed on the ice afterwards. Weegar was in front of his own net, and McKeown came flying all the way down from the neutral zone to drop the gloves with him. He held his own as well; he didn’t win, but Weegar is a pretty tough customer, so can’t dock him too much for that one. Another qualm is that he seems to deal with a couple small ailments every year that cost him a handful of games each. I guess this is better than one major injury a year that costs a player 30+ games, but it is still notable. Hopefully next season he can prove he can stay healthy and in the lineup on a nightly basis.
ETA, Future Outlook: 2019-20. Roland McKeown is a really nice depth piece waiting in the wings in Charlotte. I think he is pretty much ready for a role in the NHL, but being that the right side is more than set with Faulk, Hamilton, Pesce, and TvR, he’s likely ticketed for Charlotte to start the year again. I would say he’s likely to be called up when injuries hit, but even then, we have Fleury, Bean, Jesper Sellgren (who has been playing professionally in Sweden and is going to turn some heads this year), plus Forsling… You know the story. This blue line is deep. So, we shall see. I like McKeown as a stay at home, shutdown, second or third pair defenseman down the road. However, he may be more valuable as a trade piece at this point in time.
Alex Nedeljkovic – Goalie (Acquired: 2014 Entry Draft, 2nd round, 37th overall)
By the Numbers – 34-9-5, .916 sv%, 2.26 GAA, 4 shutouts in 51 games played; disappointing zero goals, but did add two assists; 10-4, 2.34 GAA, .916 sv% in 15 playoff games; first NHL win with 23 saves on 25 shots against Vancouver in only 2018-19 NHL appearance.
What Got Him Here? Though not necessarily the prototype for the 2019 NHL goaltender standing at just 6’0 and under 200 pounds, Nedeljkovic has given reason for optimism that he can be the Hurricanes’ goalie of the future. He’s improved significantly since turning pro, as he struggled a good bit in his first two years in the AHL before making a huge leap and taking home the league’s Goaltender of the Year award in 2018-19. Incidentally, he was also was named the OHL’s Goaltender of the Year in 2013-14, basically on his own carrying a very weak Plymouth squad to the postseason behind a .925 save percentage (seriously, go check out that roster. They had Ryan Hartman, who’s a good NHL fourth liner, and… that’s it, unless Josh Wesley still has a soft spot in your heart. Terrible. Insanely impressive year from Nedeljkovic). “Ned” is a battler. He never gives up on a play, and extremely high-level athleticism allows him to recover to make unbelievable saves when he’s seemingly down and out. He combats his lack of size by playing a very aggressive style in the net, coming out to the top of his crease to take away the shooter’s angle. Additionally, he’s an elite puck mover for a goalie. He takes every chance he gets to come out and play the puck, and does so very well. This may not seem like a huge deal, but it’s extremely valuable to have almost a third defenseman back for dump-ins, as he has his eyes up and can see the oncoming traffic, unlike a retreating defender whose back is to the play. Additionally, Nedeljkovic is a big-game player; when the lights shine brightest, he shines brightest. He was absolutely outstanding in the 2016 World Juniors, posting a sparkling 1.66 GAA and .943 save percentage. We also have seen this in his two NHL appearances – a 17 save on 17 shot relief appearance for Cam Ward in 2017-18, and his excellent start in Vancouver last season for his first NHL win. When he’s locked in like that, he’s very, very tough to beat.
Questions/Room for Improvement? The biggest area for most talented young goaltenders is consistency and keeping focus on a night-in, night-out basis. No starting goaltender is going to be on their A+ game every night, and sometimes they have to find a way to win when they’re not at their best. At the moment, when Ned doesn’t have his best stuff, he seems to lose his focus and can get beat for some ugly, soft goals. This happened less frequently last season once the calendar turned from 2018 to 2019 (coincidentally, right when the Canes season turned was really the exact time Ned’s season went from not-so-great to outstanding), but this is still an area for improvement. Also, his aggressiveness is great in my opinion, but there are times he needs to tone it down a bit and let the play come to him. This is true for both when coming out of his net to challenge, where a deke or pass can leave him susceptible to wide-open-net goals against, as well as when playing the puck. There are times he tries to make a stretch pass through the neutral zone when he has defensive support for an easy, simple play. Sometimes it worked and the Checkers were on a quick attack, and sometimes it was intercepted and he was left scrambling back to the crease. If it only worked “sometimes” in the AHL… it’s probably not going to have an increased success rate in the show.
ETA, Future Outlook: 2019-20, full time 2020-21. I’m quite proud watching Ned these days, because while a lot of Canes fans gave up on him the first couple years of his AHL career, I was always a big believer in his athleticism and feistiness. I think sometimes people forget how tough the transition to the pro game is for a 20-year-old – especially at goalie, which is the toughest and longest development road of any position. Patience was always going to be necessary, and now we’re be on the cusp of seeing that patience pay off. Ned will likely start this year as the #3 behind Mrazek and Reimer. I think ideally the staff would like to see 10-15 games from him to test the waters without putting too much pressure on him. If he outplays Reimer, great, and maybe that prediction will end up being pretty low. Of course, injuries are a big part of hockey too, so he could always see more starts that way as well. If he’s not ready, he’s still on a two-way deal this year and can continue to receive a bulk of the starts in Charlotte to prepare for the full-time backup/1B job in 2020-21. I think Ned has the potential to be a top-10 goalie in the NHL down the road. He plays a very similar style to Jonathan Quick, or Canes legend Arturs Irbe (though not quite that small). He’ll surely be a fan favorite and make plenty of highlight-reel saves, but also supply quite a few heart attacks when watching him. However, he ideally needs to show he’s ready to be at least an average NHL goalie starting this season, especially with 2019 draftee Pyotr Kochetkov already being 20, playing in a men’s league, and not being as far off as most draft picks. That will be a fun tandem down the road, and I’m really looking forward to seeing them battle it out.
Martin Necas – Forward (Acquired 2017 Entry Draft, 1st round, 12th overall)
By the Numbers – 16 goals, 36 assists, 52 points in 64 games, 5 goals, 8 assists, 13 points in 18 playoff games; 1 goal, 1 assist in 7 NHL games played.
What Got Him Here? Circle back to the statement I just made about the transition to the pro game being very difficult. Necas: “Nah, no biggie”. Oh, and he was only 19 until mid-January. The Czech-born center had to have been disappointed to get sent to Charlotte after his seven-game stint in Raleigh, especially the day after scoring his first NHL goal, but he clearly didn’t let it bother him for long. Necas went down and got to work, and put together an outstanding rookie year. He was the fifth-leading rookie scorer in the AHL, behind two players who are two years older than him and one player three years older (the other was Ottawa’s Drake Batherson, who looks like a very, very good prospect in his own right). So, it’s easy to make an argument that his season was just as impressive as the others, if not more so. The first part of Necas’ game that sticks out is his skating ability. High-end speed, agility, and the ability to make plays at that top speed – he has everything you can ask for in this area. His vision and passing ability are fantastic. He’s very creative with the puck on his stick, capable of making nifty dekes and just generally creating space for himself and others. This is part of the reason I think he’ll make for a great linemate for Svechnikov down the road – Necas puts the defense on their heels, creates a lane, and finds Svech for a one-time bomb. Yeah, that sounds real nice. Necas is a ton of fun to watch go to work on the powerplay as well, as five of his goals and 18 points came on the man advantage. Often times for Charlotte he would set up on the left side of the umbrella where he essentially served as a co-quarterback, frequently being the one to initiate the attack. Nearly every part of his offensive game was NHL-ready last year, he just needed to sharpen up some of the edges and other areas a bit. I think he did so. There’s a reason he’s a top-ten, and top-five by some outlets, prospect in all of hockey.
Questions/Room for Improvement? Necas needs to add some weight – especially if he’s going to play center in the NHL. He hit the ice too often, not only in his Hurricanes cameo, but also in AHL games. If he can add some grown-man strength (again, only 19 for about half of last season) and can therefore work the corners and win battles more effectively, he’ll be an absolute load for any defenseman to handle. Necas is a playmaker first and foremost, but I’d like to see his shot improve as well. He has a solid release and very good accuracy on it, but he doesn’t get a lot on it at times. Again, adding strength and maturity will surely help in this regard. Also, much like many other pass-first players, he simply needs to use his shot a bit more frequently. There are times that goalies overplay the pass with playmaker-types such as Necas. Take Teravainen for example. He has an outstanding shot in his own right, but there are times it almost surprises goalies that he even takes the shot and he ends up beating them cleanly. The other question is his away-from-the-puck and defensive play, but that can be said about probably 90% of offense-first players at Necas’ age.
ETA, Future Outlook: 2019-20. Necas will make the team out of camp this year and will stick. Because the defensive game and play away from the puck will always give pause, especially on a Brind’Amour coached team, expect to see him on the Sebastian Aho plan – two years on the wing, where he played much of last year with Charlotte, before moving down the middle full-time as the Canes 2C starting in about 2021. Necas may not project to be a true first line, point-per-game player, but the Canes don’t need that for at least five years anyway (Thanks, Bergevin!). Necas is an excellent talent, and expect him to be about a 40-50 point contributor and powerplay mainstay this year before settling in as around a 65 point-per-year player in the near future.
No need to check back next week, it would have been Saarela and I’m forever dead inside because we traded him. They knew how I felt about him, and they traded him anyway. Jerks. (Just kidding. But considering all the players that are gone I had planned on profiling such as Poturalski, Saarela, and Roy, we’re going to go in a different direction and take an early look at Stelio Mattheos, Jesper Sellgren, and Jacob Pritchard).
Hope you’re all having a great summer, and as always, Go Canes!