Only 20, Roland McKeown could still sense the potentially life-changing moment afoot. The kind of chance he had Friday night, essentially an opportunity to play his way into the NHL ahead of schedule and against all odds, does not come along often, for anyone. For some, it never arrives.
So as McKeown sat in a temporary locker in the hallway of the Carolina Hurricanes’ dressing room Friday morning, separated from all the NHL players whose ranks he soon hoped to join, he was aware of the stakes. A year earlier, Jaccob Slavin had sat in one of those during a training camp where he came out of nowhere to do everything but make the team. Slavin spent only a month in the AHL before making the jump for good.
“I feel like I’ve put my best foot forward to make it a hard decision for the coaching staff and management,” McKeown said Friday morning. “That’s all I wanted to do and that was my goal coming into camp. Tonight, it’s in my control and I’m going to be on the ice, so ultimately it’s up to how I play.”
Friday night, McKeown did everything he could to state his case, pressed into extra duty after Justin Faulk left the game with a “lower body” injury early in the second period and did not return. He started out playing with Noah Hanifin and ended up playing 18 solid minutes with just about everyone in the 3-2 shootout win over the Washington Capitals.
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Even before Faulk’s mysterious departure, Ryan Murphy suffered a “lower body” injury of his own that will keep him out for at least three weeks. That left the Hurricanes hoping one of their young defensive prospects would emerge as a sixth or seventh defenseman, barring a last-minute waiver claim or trade ahead of Thursday’s opener at the Winnipeg Jets.
Friday, the Hurricanes took a long look at McKeown, acquired from the Los Angeles Kings in the Andrej Sekera trade. The Ontario native played well in a four-game cameo with Charlotte at the end of last season, opened eyes during the Traverse City rookie tournament and played Friday with a roster spot potentially his to lose.
This is McKeown’s first pro season after playing four seasons of junior hockey with Kingston (OHL), the last as a teammate of fellow Hurricanes prospect Warren Foegele. It would likely be better for McKeown’s long-term development if he started the season with Charlotte and spent most of the season there. But just as Slavin and Brett Pesce claimed NHL jobs as first-year pros after a few games in Charlotte, the door is open for McKeown to do the same, perhaps right from the start.
“His job is to make sure we have to keep him,” Hurricanes coach Bill Peters said.
McKeown appeared in only one preseason game a year ago, a drubbing at the hands of the eventual Stanley Cup champions. The combination of that eye-opener and watching Slavin, Pesce and Hanifin thrive fueled him throughout the summer training with Gary Roberts and his cult of NHL stars.
McKeown isn’t the only training-camp surprise. Swedish winger Lucas Wallmark got a chance to play again Friday, while Foegele didn’t play but has forced the Hurricanes to decide whether to sign him to play in Charlotte or send him back to Kingston for an overage year.
But no one had more on the line Friday than McKeown, auditioning for a job on a defense that’s suddenly short of bodies. It’s out of his hands now.
“I thought I did my job, and now it’s a wait-and-see game for me,” McKeown said. “I thought I moved my feet well and made plays, and that’s what Carolina wants. Ultimately, when the team gets the win I think everyone looks good.”
This was McKeown’s moment. Hockey can be a fickle game. There are no guarantees. He realizes he may never have a better chance than this. He gave it his best shot.
Luke DeCock: 919-829-8947, firstname.lastname@example.org, @LukeDeCock