RALEIGH — Eighteen-year-old Martin Necas came to Raleigh last week a newly minted first-round pick. Fellow Czech Robert Kron — the Carolina Hurricanes’ head European scout who surely encouraged the team to select his fellow countryman — was in town to see the team’s prospects, but otherwise Necas was in a foreign place, surrounded by new faces.
But Necas and the 28 other players — some blue-chip prospects, others late draft picks, and a handful of camp invitees looking to make an impression — in town for Carolina’s prospect development camp were all there for the same reason.
“It’s a dream. The National Hockey League is my dream,” Necas said. “I’m here and, like I said, I’m really glad.”
For someone who has spent just a year learning English in preparation to come to North America, Necas acquitted himself well. As for the rest of the prospects in Raleigh for the week, there were wide-eyed first-timers and veterans like Warren Foegele, the 2014 third-round pick who was at his fourth development camp and will turn pro this fall.
“His maturity is outstanding,” assistant general manager and incoming coach of the Charlotte Checkers Mike Vellucci said. “Every camp we noticed it more and more. He’s gotten more physical as far as his strength, he’s done really well in his training.”
At the camp-closing Summerfest scrimmage Saturday, Foegele took an attempt in the end-of-game shootout on goaltender Jeremy Helvig, his teammate two seasons ago in the Ontario Hockey League.
“I played with Foegele in Kinston and we did a couple shootouts in practice, so I knew what he was going to do,” Helvig said with a smile.
Before them, Julien Gauthier and Callum Booth — who were traded last season from their respective QMJHL teams to the Saint John Sea Dogs — went head to head. Looking on was Spencer Smallman, the captain of the Sea Dogs who teamed up with Booth and Gauthier to lead Saint John to the league title.
“I first met them here at camp [last year], and we became good friends at camp, we hung out,” Smallman said. “I kind of mentioned that to our GM in Saint John and see if we could maybe work out a deal to get them in Saint John, and fortunately it worked out. We had a great team and ultimately we got the championship.”
Across the locker room was Nicolas Roy, whose Chicoutimi Sagueneens handed Saint John their only two losses in the QMJHL playoffs during the year.
“Nic’s a great guy and is a great player,” Booth said. “So it was a pretty good challenge throughout the year. I’m pretty sure he got a couple on me, so he’s got a little bragging rights.”
But Booth, along with Gauthier and Smallman, did take time throughout the week to remind Roy who won their series.
“For sure now we talk about it, but it’s fun to be with them now,” Roy said.
Goaltender Jack LaFontaine, one of the wide-eyed prospects from last year, returned to Raleigh bigger, stronger and clearly more confident.
“I felt much more prepared,” LaFontaine said of coming back. “But like last year, this is a ton of fun. Obviously [there’s] some new faces and some familiar faces, too.”
One is Luke Martin, who also was a freshman at the University of Michigan last year and played defense in front of LaFontaine.
“I room with Jack. I see too much of him at some times,” joked Martin, the 6-foot-2, 221-pound defenseman Carolina picked in the second round two weekends ago. “But it’s good coming down here with one of my best buddies from school. It just makes it easier, the whole transition, having someone with you.”
LaFontaine and Martin were captained last season on the Wolverines by senior Nolan De Jong, and the duo met their captain’s family earlier in the spring at graduation. That included his younger brother Brandon, who was a sixth-round pick of the Hurricanes and plays for the Western Hockey League’s Portland Winterhawks.
“It’s funny, he’s a lot like his brother — really smooth-skating, sees the ice well,” LaFontaine said of Brandon. “And just off the ice, too. His attitude, he’s very laid-back.”
De Jong, who went undrafted last year, was among the eight new draft picks who were at their first Hurricanes development camp. The week was an eye-opener for some of the newcomers, but at least De Jong had his brother’s teammates alongside him.
“It’s good to have a couple familiar faces here,” he said.
For 29 kids coming from four countries, six states and seven provinces, it was a week to learn what it takes to be an NHLer. Surely it helps to have someone you know skating beside you.