RALEIGH — The Carolina Hurricanes officially broke camp Tuesday, required by the NHL to submit a roster before the league’s 5 p.m. deadline. The No. 6 defenseman’s job was rookie Haydn Fleury’s to lose entering camp, and he held on. But not many expected two more rookies to still be on roster on Oct. 4.
Martin Necas, Carolina’s 12th overall pick in this summer’s NHL draft, will at least get a sniff of the NHL life thanks to a mysterious injury to veteran Lee Stempniak. Stempniak has been absent from camp with a vague ailment that coach Bill Peters says the team is still trying to figure out.
With Stempniak out at least 10 days to two weeks, according to Peters, the door opened for Necas and he stormed through, showing off his speed and hands — all while conveniently being a right-handed shot, the same as Stempniak.
“He’s probably from Day 1 to now been better than what we would have anticipated, but we gotta make sure we’re doing the right thing,” Peters said of Necas. The 18-year-old Czech is a natural center, but moving to the right wing eases the defensive pressure that comes with playing center.
“The right thing” is making sure Necas isn’t rushed or overwhelmed with the early opportunity. The team still forecasts him as a center, and he will need development time there to grow into that role.
Enter Kuokkanen, also a rookie but more polished than Necas with a season in the Ontario Hockey League playing on the North American-sized rinks under his belt. While Kuokkanen, also a center and projected there down the road, is a left-handed shot, Peters said the Finn prefers to play his off wing when not in the middle, making him a candidate for the spot vacated by Stempniak.
“Those guys have done a lot through the preseason and have played very well,” Peters said of his rookie forwards. “I think they’ve earned the respect of their teammates with their quality of play. Guys like playing with them because they’re intelligent players who make plays.”
Both players are eligible for reassignment to the AHL, though Necas could also report to the OHL’s Saginaw Spirit — who selected him in the league’s Import Draft — or be returned to the Czech professional league if Carolina chooses. If Necas plays 10 games in the NHL it would burn the first year of his three-year entry-level contract. He could, however, play up to nine and be assigned to Saginaw or returned to the Czech Republic and not accrue a year of service, essentially resetting him to first-year status.
Peters also said Tuesday that, barring catastrophe, newcomer Scott Darling would be his opening night starter in goal Saturday against the Wild. It will mark the first time since 2005 that Cam Ward, Carolina’s other goaltender, did not earn the Game 1 start. Ward, then a rookie, did play in that game against the Lightning on Oct. 5, 2005, relieving an injured Martin Gerber in a 5-2 loss.
“I’m real excited for Saturday,” Darling said 20 minutes before Peters announced his decision.