Wednesday’s first evening of Carolina Hurricanes prospect development camp ended with defenseman Roland McKeown beating goaltender Callum Booth on a breakaway, shifting from backhand to forehand to sneak the puck inside the right post.
It was an impressive move for a defenseman – and, potentially, a good omen for one of the young blueliners eyeing an open spot on the Hurricanes’ depth chart.
“I want to make decisions tough when I come here in September (for training camp),” said McKeown, 20. “There’s a job open now, so that’s inspirational for me. I’m going to work as hard as I can this summer to come in here and earn a job.”
Since the final year of James Wisniewski’s contract was bought out last month, the Hurricanes have just five of their six jobs on the back end filled, unless general manager Ron Francis opts to acquire another NHL veteran during the remainder of the offseason.
McKeown, a 2014 second-round pick, is expected to compete in training camp with a pair of former first-round selections – Haydn Fleury, a fellow camp attendee, and Ryan Murphy, who played 35 games for Carolina last season – for the vacant spot.
“He’s a world-class skater … (and) he’s quick to the puck,” Hurricanes director of amateur scouting Tony MacDonald said of McKeown. “Those are things you have to have to play in today’s NHL game.”
The 6-1, 195-pound blueliner was acquired from the Los Angeles Kings, along with the first-round pick that became Julien Gauthier, in exchange for Andrej Sekera at the 2015 trade deadline. In his first full season in the Carolina organization, he finished third in OHL Defenseman of the Year voting after his fourth campaign with the Kingston Frontenacs, tallying 42 points as team captain and leading Kingston to the best regular-season record in the conference. He called it a “special year” and said he developed substantially “in all aspects.”
MacDonald, however, said he was concerned about McKeown being overworked, noting that “some bad habits” creeped into his game when he was trying to conserve energy.
McKeown and Fleury were teammates on Team Canada at the U20 World Championships, providing an early preview of this week’s development camp, training camp in two months and, possibly, the Hurricanes of the future. But for now, the two must compete for a single opportunity to stay in Raleigh for the 2016-17 season.
Making his third consecutive appearance at camp, Fleury is the veteran of the group and said a number of younger prospects have come to him for advice. The confidence in his step was noticeable both on the ice and in the locker room Wednesday – but he, too, has plenty to prove.
“I went back to junior the last two years and got better at the areas I needed to get better at to give myself the best chance to make the team this fall,” said Fleury, who turns 20 on Friday. “I’m going to come into main camp in the fall and do my best to take that spot.”
Fleury has yet to replicate the 46 points he recorded in 2013-14 in the two years since, but the 6-3, 207-pound defenseman did set a career high with 12 goals last season for the WHL’s Red Deer Rebels.
MacDonald said Fleury had been somewhat contained by Red Deer coach Brent Sutter’s system but that he is capable of being more active in transition than he’s been able to showcase in juniors.
“When we drafted him, he was still evolving as a player, and he still is,” MacDonald also said. “Physically, he can probably make a run at playing in the NHL. Whether (he’s) ready for that day-to-day grind is the question, but from a physical perspective we’re real pleased with where he is.”
When Fleury and McKeown attended camp last summer, they did so alongside fellow defensemen Noah Hanifin, Brett Pesce and Jaccob Slavin – all three of whom emerged as standout rookies for the Hurricanes last season.
This year, it’s their time to try to follow that same path.
“They were sitting in this room one year ago and they had the same mindset and look where they are today,” McKeown said.
“It’s nice that Carolina’s not afraid of young defensemen,” Fleury added.