Steve Lorentz’s winding path to the NHL starts tonight with debut

The 2015 seventh-round pick worked his way through the ranks to play for the Hurricanes

Hurricanes forward Steven Lorentz will make his NHL debut Thursday against the Lightning. (Karl B. DeBlaker / AP Photo)

Most players find out the day of or night before that they’re going to make their NHL debut. Steven Lorentz has known for days. The good news is, he’s used to waiting.

“I like to think that I’m not one to overthink things too much,” Lorentz said Wednesday, a day before he was set to make his NHL debut, “but I don’t know what I’m gonna be like before I go to bed tonight. … I’ve got some stuff to keep me busy. Minute by minute, hour by hour, I guess time might tick by slowly and the nerves might creep up on me a little. But that’s just the way it’s going to be, and I’m just more excited than anything.”

A COVID-19 outbreak that shut down the team for more than a week has left Carolina without five players — Jesper Fast, Warren Foegele, Jordan Martinook, Jaccob Slavin and Teuvo Teravainen — for its return to the ice, meaning Lorentz is in line to play Thursday in the Hurricanes’ home opener against the defending Stanley Cup champion Lightning.

His chance comes 5½ years after he was drafted in the 7th round, 186th overall, of the 2015 NHL Draft. The 24-year-old from Waterloo, Ontario, was passed over in his first year of draft eligibility in 2014 but more than doubled his goal seven goals and 18 points in 2013-14 to 16 and 37 in 2014-15 with the Peterborough Petes. His 6-foot-3 frame, high-energy play and improved scoring were enough for Carolina to take a flier on him.

“An opportunity is an opportunity,” Lorentz said, “so I didn’t really look at it as being a seventh-round pick and being on the outside looking in. I just tried to enjoy.”

While it’s not uncommon for early-round picks to sign an NHL deal before their skates even touch the ice in their new team’s rink, late-round selections have an uphill climb to even earn an NHL deal. Lorentz played two more seasons in juniors before finally earning an entry-level contract from the Hurricanes.

From there, it was on to ECHL Florida, where Lorentz had 35 points in 62 games and another five goals and five assists in 19 playoffs games as the Everblades reached the 2018 Kelly Cup Final.

“I think going to the East Coast League in my first year pro is maybe the best thing that happened,” Lorentz said. “I got to play with some really good hockey players who had NHL experience, and those guys kind of took me under their wing.”

Team success followed Lorentz as he climbed through the ranks.

He split time between the Everblades and AHL Charlotte in 2018-19, this time winning a title as a role player on the Checkers’ Calder Cup-winning team in 2019.

Then last season, he made the jump from role player to leading man, topping Checkers forwards in points (46 in 61 games of the abbreviated season) while scoring 23 goals — the most he had since his final year of junior.

“(AHL coach Ryan Warsofsky) called me right before last season,” Lorentz said. “He basically told me, ‘I’m going to give you every opportunity because I really believe in your game.’ … He really did believe in me and he stayed true to his word. He put me in all types of situations that I’ve never really seen before at the American League level, and I developed some confidence and took off a little bit.”

It was enough to convince the Hurricanes to include him when they decided which players they’d take with them to the Toronto bubble for last summer’s postseason, and the team then re-signed him to a two-year extension in October.

On Thursday, he’ll line up at left wing flanking captain Jordan Staal and Ryan Dzingel on Carolina’s third line. He might even see some time on special teams since all five players missing Thursday’s game usually play on the Hurricanes’ penalty kill.

If that isn’t enough evidence of Lorentz’s well-rounded game, he’s already received the best compliment he can from Hurricanes coach Rod Brind’Amour.

“He’s a Cane,” said Brind’Amour, who uses the label to describe players whose work ethic meets his lofty standards. “You know, he gets it as a person. He’s on the rise. He’s definitely worked his way up through the ranks, and we’re really happy to have him get that opportunity. That’s what happens when these type of things arise, there’s opportunities for somebody. Hopefully, he grabs it and does well with it.”

Then there’s Lorentz’s infectious smile and good demeanor. It’s not uncommon to see that from any player who is on the cusp of reaching his dream of playing in the NHL, but it’s just another day for Lorentz.

“He’s just happy to be here and he wants to contribute,” Brind’Amour said. “He doesn’t just want to check the list off that he played a game in the NHL. He wants to do something special, and you root for guys like that.”

Even the fact he’ll make his NHL debut without fans — or his family — in the stands isn’t enough to wipe the smile off Lorentz’s face.

“I think I just like coming to the rink with a happy, positive mindset,” Lorentz said. “I think we’re just fortunate to be able to do the best job in the world, and anytime you can go and do something you love every single day, it’s not really a job.”