Lucas Wallmark played his first NHL games for the Carolina Hurricanes late this season – eight chances to make a favorable impression.
Canes coach Bill Peters called it an evaluation. But it also might have been an audition for next season for the Swedish center, who would like to be on the Canes’ 2017-18 opening-night roster and stay there.
“He’s real smart guy, a competitive guy,” Peters said. “He’s competitive on faceoffs, good defensively. He should get better and better all the time.”
For Wallmark, 21, the evaluation continues this week. The Charlotte Checkers, the Canes’ American Hockey League affiliate, are in the AHL’s Calder Cup playoffs for the first time since 2013 and will face the Chicago Wolves in a best-of-five opening round.
Canes management were to be on hand Thursday and Friday for the first two games, both at Charlotte’s Bojangles’ Coliseum. They’ll have their eyes trained on Wallmark, who played eight NHL games before being reassigned to the Checkers, and others who could figure into the Canes’ plans next season.
Wallmark and forward Aleksi Saarela both were sidelined recently with upper-body injuries but both played Thursday in the playoff openr.
Here’s a look at five Checkers players who may have the best chance of making the big club next season:
The Canes have several options at center, but Wallmark should be one. After scoring eight goals in 48 games for Lulea in the Swedish Hockey League in 2015-16, he came to North America and scored a team-high 24 for the Checkers in 67 games this season.
Wallmark, who had two assists and a plus-1 rating in his eight NHL games, said a strong 2016 postseason for Lulea – seven goals in 11 games – convinced him he could be more of a scorer and not just a playmaker.
“Maybe the first 10 games (in Charlotte) I looked to pass first, then tried to take more pucks to the net,” he said. “That worked for me. I tried to have a lot of shots.”
Wallmark, a fourth-round pick by Carolina in the 2014 NHL draft, said a priority this summer would be putting on muscle and filling out his 6-foot, 176-pound frame. Peters said Wallmark already has the right instincts on the ice, regardless of his size, saying, “You have to go through him to get to the net. He establishes body position.”
Phil Di Giuseppe
Di Giuseppe played 36 games for the Canes this season but with uneven results, saying he “wasn’t there offensively.” The forward scored just once, on 68 shots, although his one goal gave the Canes a 1-0 overtime victory over the Tampa Bay Lightning in early December.
Di Giuseppe, 23, had seven goals and 10 assists in 41 games for the Canes in 2015-16 and was third on the team with 113 hits. But he also suffered two concussions, the first at any level of hockey for the former second-round draft pick, who played college hockey at Michigan.
Before the 2016-17 season, Di Giuseppe said it would be a big one for him. Next season may be even bigger.
Fleury has seen young defensemen Jaccob Slavin, Brett Pesce and Noah Hanifin become staples in the Canes’ lineup the past two years, wondering when his time would come on the blue line. Like Hanifin, Fleury was a first-round pick by Carolina – No. 7 overall in 2014 – and the D-man has the size at 6-3 and 221 pounds to handle the physical element of the NHL.
Fleury, 20, did not get a callup this season from the Canes but has put in a productive full season with the Checkers, showing steady improvement. His plus-16 rating in 69 game is a team-best, and he has seven goals and 19 assists to add some offensive support.
Talk about having an instant impact. The Finnish forward joined the Checkers on March 28 from Lukko Rauma of SM-liiga and had six goals and 10 points in his first seven games before his injury April 12 against Grand Rapids.
Saarela, 20, was a part of the February 2016 trade that sent former Canes captain Eric Staal to the New York Rangers, who drafted the Finn in the third round in 2015. Saarela was on Finland’s gold-medal winners in the 2016 World Junior Championship along with Canes forward Sebastian Aho.
The Russian forward, 21, has the kind of size at 6-1 and 224 pounds the Canes need and the willingness to go to the front of the net. That’s what he did in his NHL debut March 9 against the New York Rangers, outmuscling defenseman Marc Staal and Ryan McDonagh to score his first NHL goal.
Unfortunately for Zykov, he sustained an upper-body injury two days later in his second game with the Canes. After missing eight games, he was reassigned March 27 to the Checkers.
CHICAGO WOLVES AT CHARLOTTE CHECKERS
What: AHL Calder Cup playoffs.
When: 7:15 p.m. Friday
Where: Bojangles’ Coliseum, Charlotte.
Ticket information: www.gocheckers.com