CHARLOTTE — Charlotte Checkers coach Jeff Daniels quickly noticed a difference in defenseman Justin Faulk at the team’s training camp.
"Just confidence," Daniels said. "He proved here last year what he’s capable of doing, and then he went and did it up top in the National Hockey League."
What Faulk did last season was become one of the NHL’s most consistently impressive rookies with the Carolina Hurricanes. He then joined the U.S. team for the 2012 World Championship and became a surprise star.
It was assumed Faulk, who played 12 games with the Checkers early last season, would never suit up for another game in the American Hockey League. But the NHL lockout has many young NHL players assigned to the AHL and Faulk is back with the Checkers – for now.
"Obviously it’s not the ideal situation but it’s the hand I’ve been dealt and I’ve been having some fun down here and enjoying being around the guys," Faulk said. "I’m taking it day by day, have a lot to work on and improve on, and I’m expecting to become a better player, obviously.
"It’s a better league with the guys who have been sent down (by NHL teams). I don’t think anyone is complaining about the competition."
Faulk, 20, first joined the Checkers in 2011 after helping lead Minnesota-Duluth to an NCAA championship. His freshman year would be his only year of college, as he soon left to play for the Checkers in the Calder Cup playoffs.
Faulk made the Hurricanes’ roster out of training camp last year, when general manager Jim Rutherford said he was one of the team’s top four defensemen. He was briefly assigned to Charlotte a couple of times early in the season, but soon was back with the Canes and became a fixture on the back end.
In 66 games, Faulk had eight goals and 14 assists. He was used on the power play and the penalty kill, earning the trust of Canes coach Kirk Muller.
"He didn’t just play 12 or 13 minutes a night last year," Daniels said. "He played 22, 23 minutes, and against top lines.
"It shows. It’s just his confidence, the way he passes the puck, the way he skates. You forget how young he is. Technically, it should be his first year as a pro this year, but he’s a proven NHL player. He’s fun to watch."
Faulk was named to the NHL’s All-Rookie team. His strength, grit, puckhandling, agility and a heavy shot were impressive, and he played with a maturity that belied his age.
At the IIHF World Championship in Finland, Faulk had four goals and four assists in eight games. He also led Team USA with a plus-9 rating.
"It was good to get a feel for the next level of international play," Faulk said. "To go over and play against players who are in the NHL and other pro leagues, you hope to play in other competitions like that."
Competitions such as the 2014 Winter Olympics. But Faulk said that’s looking too far ahead.
For now, it’s all about the Checkers, about waiting out the NHL lockout. Despite missing a game with a muscle strain, he has five assists in Charlotte’s 3-1-1 start.
"The last two years, I’ve been pretty happy with it," Faulk said. "But at the same time, that’s not all I’m striving for. I want to continue to build on that."