Traverse City – What I Hoped to See and What I Saw

(video via NHL_Suomi)

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Now that training camp is fully under way and the first couple of practices have actually taken place, a quick review of the youngsters’ efforts in Michigan might seem like an odd place to revisit. Those who know me realize that nobody has ever accused me of being overly rational. But I digress….

When the baby Carolina Hurricanes announced the roster for their annual trip to Northwestern Michigan, it sparked a number of questions. Some of those questions would hopefully be answered in the affirmative. Others, almost assuredly, would be chalked up as disappointments. More still would fall into the category of “additional information needed”. Applied more directly to the players, there are some guys who gave their futures a boost, who didn’t do anything to hurt themselves, and a few who might have benefitted from staying home.

Let’s focus on the more obvious questions and take it from there.

There are 4 or 5 guys with best shot at potentially making the NHL team and they need to show up as clearly “head and shoulders above” the rest.

Who is on that list? Clearly Haydn Fleury leads this group. Julien Gauthier and Janne Kuokkanen have something that needs proving. Warren Foegele and Nicolas Roy want to elbow their way into the conversation. While some of the other guys might think they are in this group, it is unlikely to be the case.

So what was learned? Few should have questioned whether Fleury looks to be ready for the next level. He is just plain solid. He didn’t try to do too much, but always seemed to be where he was supposed to be, consistently moving the puck quite well. I cannot recall a single time when he got cleanly beaten. There’s probably more of an offensive game to come, but right now he’s using his speed and strength to do, you know, the defensive thing. Of all the players that I watched, he looked the most composed (even during the Chicago shellacking), going about his business without a lot flash. Effective is the word I’d use to describe him.

Janne Kuokkanen also stood out as potentially being ready. He could probably use a bit more strength, but that shot, and especially that release, is pretty world-class. Something that rarely gets mentioned about his game is his defense. Especially during the game against the junior Rangers, Kuokkanen could be found constantly pestering his man as he brought the puck up ice. A few times this led to errant passes with the play heading back in the good guys’ favor. There’s still some work he can do on his game, but it will be an important camp for him. My guess is that Janne Kuokkanen will be giving notice to the team that he’s just about arrived.

Along those same lines, Nic Roy looked awful good for most of the tournament. His skating appears to continue to advance. While I don’t have the exact stats, he appeared to dominate in the faceoff circle. His defensive game, especially on the penalty kill was likely the most noticeable on the team. Yet, what really stuck out were those buttery hands of his. Mixed with some excellent vision, the big guy made outstanding feeds over and over again. His pass from just below the net setting up Kuokkanen’s one-timer, power play goal against the Rangers was a thing of beauty. His short-handed goal against the kiddie Red Wings showed off his great hands as well. Here’s to hoping he recovers from his concussion none the worse for the wear.

I’ve long been a fan of Warren Foegele and still remain as such. There’s talent there, such great skating, and a willingness to do what it takes to be a pro. That’s a lot to admire. During the tournament, he wasn’t really “quiet” but he didn’t stand out significantly either. Don’t get me wrong, he played very well, especially defensively. Offensively he continues to go to the net and make the non-sexy plays that often lead to very good chances for his teammates. But as other’s have pointed out, he’s “older” for a 1st year pro (Andrew Poturalski also says hello), should be more physically mature, and while his production has been good, he’s not really blown the proverbial doors off. Simply put, I didn’t come away disappointed with his efforts, but I had hoped for more. There’s still a middle six upside to his game, but I think a year in Charlotte will do wonders for him, as well as for….

Julien Gauthier was essentially a non-factor in Michigan. Well, that’s not exactly true. Despite his 2 goals and 2 assists, he really played something more like the decoy role. He was the guy that the opposing team seemed to key on, seemed to always have schemed defensively for. There were some surprisingly good passing efforts out of the Goat as he seemed to realize he was a point of focus. There also was the occasional flash of defensive play. When a guy with his size, skill, and speed puts for the effort on that side of the puck, it doesn’t go unnoticed. But, here’s the rub….he is big, he is skilled, and he should have spent some time dominating. That just didn’t happen. Perhaps it wasn’t in the game plan, but at last year’s tournament, after a slow start, Gauthier was “the man”. He was just about everywhere. He could be counted on for a noticeable offensive burst. None of that surfaced this year.

Perhaps more than anybody, time in Charlotte will benefit Julien Gauthier. He takes a while to get used to line mates and a particular scheme. Personally, I don’t view this as a lack of hockey sense, but more not wanting to make the glaring error, or going out on the limb without a full understanding of what happens when the bough breaks. Goat feels like the type of player that will be described, early on, using the phrase “fits and starts”. Understanding the concept of systems (instead of relying on pure size and strength) and continuing to learn how best to use teammates seem to be where time with the Checkers will help most. If I were a gambling man, I’d put money on a second half of the season surge for the Goat. He likely won’t see time in Raleigh barring a significant injury to Williams or Stempniak. However, his tutelage in Charlotte won’t be a lost effort and it will pay dividends for years.

The rest of the young crew played fine, but with the exception of young Martin Necas and his fantastic skating, few others stood out – neither bad nor good. Jake Bean was fine but unexceptional (which is better than last year’s borderline train wreck for the 19-year-old). Old man, Andrew Poturalski, felt like a bit of a leader, but he still plays a “little man’s game”. Josh Wesley showed significantly improved play, but is that really saying much of anything? Noah Carroll, who stepped up quite well when Fleury went down last year, wasn’t really particularly good. Even big Hudson Elynuik and his two goal game had to put in that performance just to make up for what was arguably one of the worst individual efforts the previous night.

The boys will be fine and those now in camp but destined for Charlotte will be on a squad that should be very competitive, perhaps even one of the better AHL teams…but with a new coach and lots of youth, nothing is a sure thing.

There’s always an unknown or two that surfaces during the Traverse City tournament, putting the team on notice.

A few years back, Victor Rask burst onto the stage at this tournament. His “hello world” tournament demonstrated to many that his improved skating and excellent shot were things many had not seen or considered. Tiny Sergey Tolchinsky flashed skills Hurricanes fans rarely experienced given the historic dearth of such things with this franchise. While last year was a bit of a coming out for both Kuokkanen and Gauthier, the buzz around Valentin Zykov and his skilled, burly-man’s game was probably even noisier. Suffice it to say, the little knowns or the unknowns can show up and elevate their position relative to their peers.

So who was that guy this year? One might argue that Morgan Geekie quietly demonstrated that he’s quite capable while dishing out a couple of timely assists. Stelio Mattheos, while not doing much offensively, did show some outstanding PK work and was very good defensively. Jake Bean was often on the scoreboard and made some excellent reads. The aforementioned Martin Necas played exceptionally well all tournament. With 2 goals and 3 assists he was one of the team scoring leaders. When he was on the ice, things happened. His speed and ability to change direction at will, made for exciting viewing. Still, as a first round pick, much should be expected of him, so it wasn’t really a “burst on the scene” type of thing.

The two guys who seemed to put their mark on the board were camp invitee Nick Schilkey and Roland McKeown. The former was mostly lined up with Necas and might have benefitted from that alignment. Still, he demonstrated poise, an ability to find the open spots, and generally was offensively dangerous whenever he was on the ice. With only an AHL contract in hand, his season is off to a pretty darn good start. Don’t be surprised if Schilkey finds a spot on the Checkers’ roster.

McKeown was coming off of what many would characterize as a disappointing first season. Despite outward appearances, the coaching staff seemed somewhat pleased in his progression. The numbers on both sides of the puck just weren’t there. At the tournament, however, Roland McKeown seemed to get better with each game. For the tournament he finished with an impressive +/- of plus 5. Much like Fleury, he seemed to be extremely confident and was well positioned throughout. Moreover, there were a number of times where he seemingly covered for his teammate’s missed assignments. There’s not a lot of buzz surrounding him at camp, but don’t be surprised if he again ends up being one of the last guys sent down to the Checkers.

We get a good look at our goaltending of the future during this tournament.

In season’s past we always got a glimpse of how good or how shaky our goaltending could or would be. Way back in 2009, we were treated to Mike Murphy‘s efforts, winning 3 games, one by shutout. His tournament the next season might even be considered a better effort. In 2014 Alex Nedeljkovic put up a sub 2.00 GAA and a .923 SV%. Neds came back in 2016 winning 3 games (with less impressive stats) which included a number of highlight reel saves. As we all know, the baby Canes walked away with the tournament crown. Would this be another season of standout goalie performances?

Despite a 3rd place finish, both Carolina goalies looked pretty good. It is unclear what happened in the Chicago tilt. Nobody on the team looked ready….at any point during that contest. Throw that game out and Callum Booth saved 62 of 64 shots. Jeremy Helvig pitched a 19 save shutout himself. When they were on, there was an economy of movement, especially with Booth. There were lots of good saves and a couple of great saves. Gaffs were few and far between. Perhaps one of the most impressive things is that both of these guys are big, as in 6’4″ big. However, they move quickly and efficiently. Both also appear to be able to handle the puck pretty well, something that is crucial to a Bill Peters coached team. With Helvig poised for one more season in the CHL, Booth will be battling the previously mentioned Nedeljkovic and veteran AHL’er Jeremy Smith for ice time in Charlotte. Perhaps the best thing that could happen would be for Callum Booth to end up in Florida, eating up big minutes every night.

The upshot out of this year’s road trip to Michigan is that most of the guys who needed to prove something actually did. While the surprises were a little more muted, there were a few and they were pretty impressive. With training camp going on, it will be interesting to see how much Martin Necas forces the issue. Can Janne Kuokkanen actually make a play for the NHL roster? It is a shame that Nic Roy is in the concussion protocol as he might have shown the most of any youngster in Traverse City. Essentially, what we saw was a team that is deep in talent, some of it even B+ level. Truly elite level players might surface from this group. But for the most part, they will need continued development in the AHL.

 

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