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Can Martin Necas Play His Way onto Hurricanes’ Opening Night Lineup?

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A great month of September has given Czech center Martin Necas a real chance of making the Hurricanes roster in the eyes of head coach Bill Peters.

Jamie Kellner

A supposedly weak 2017 draft class might still provide the Carolina Hurricanes with an early impact player in the form of first-round pick Martin Necas.

The 12th-overall selection in June has done nothing but impress both Carolina’s coaching staff and front office since the start of mid-September’s Traverse City prospect tournament, in which he looked like a man among boys as the reasons why this team drafted him became very clear.

Despite possessing a slender frame at 6’1”, 179 pounds, he didn’t shy away from contact but instead thrived in it in select situations, but the real reason why he stuck out was his skating ability.

He has everything in this regard, showing off Skinner-like edgework, great acceleration and top-end speed, and the ability to stop on a dime on the rush to create passing lanes. When he does these things, he has the skill to then make plays.

Martin Necas (#88) assist vs. Wild - Traverse City 2017
Brett Finger
Martin Necas’ (#88) acceleration and agility sends defender flying, creates scoring chance vs. Wild. - Traverse City 2017
Brett Finger

Dominating a prospect tournament largely comprised of players who may never crack an NHL roster is one thing. Performing at a high level against players with experience at the top level is another, and Necas has continued to make an impact in the two preseason games that he has skated in.

While he didn’t find the scoresheet in Carolina’s preseason opener on Monday in Buffalo, the 18-year-old received positive reviews from scouts and media members in attendance.

His second exhibition game was not only his first in front of his future home fans, be it this year or in the years to come, but it was also his first opportunity to display his game to a larger group of fans as the game was streamed online by the Hurricanes.

The first impressions? Very good.

He and Elias Lindholm connected with Lucas Wallmark via tic-tac-toe passing for a first-period powerplay goal on Wednesday.

Side note: the new jerseys look really good, folks.

Necas added a hit and a blocked shot to his boxscore by the end of Carolina’s 4-3 loss to the Bolts.

Postgame, head coach Bill Peters didn’t have a lot of bad things to say about his young center, saying he was “dangerous” during stretches throughout the game. When asked if there were areas in which Necas has been struggling, Peters was complimentary but said there’s still work for him to do outside of his offensive game.

“I don’t see him struggling a whole bunch,” Peters said. “His challenges are going to be defensively. With his skill set, skating and vision with the puck, there’s going to be no issue whatsoever offensively. Just faceoffs and the details of the game at the pro level are going to be higher than he’s ever played.”

Necas won just two of his seven faceoffs on Wednesday and there were times when his line was unorganized in their own end, but as Peters alluded to, that’s what happens when several young, inexperienced players are on the same line. Much of his even strength ice time was shared with Phil Di Giuseppe and Patrick Brown, neither of whom have been able to carve out long-term roles with the NHL club through a number of opportunities over the past few seasons.

Despite his very normal shortcomings as a young, dynamic player playing his first stretch of pro hockey in North America, Necas’ ability to create offense has caught the eyes of fans and coaches alike, only adding more fuel to the fire that Peters, in part, started last week when he said that the center has a real chance of making the team out of training camp.

On the surface, him saying that a player who dropped to the 12th-overall pick has a feasible chance to make the team out of camp is a bit surprising given that honor is usually reserved for select top-five picks, but diving deeper brings more legitimacy to the coach’s claims.

During 99.9 The Fan’s Aftermath following Carolina’s win in Buffalo, Hurricanes play-by-play man John Forslund said that Necas was not the 12th-best player in the draft in the eyes of Carolina’s front office and many other teams across the league.

General manager Ron Francis told Forslund after the Caniac Carnival last weekend that Necas was the fourth-highest player on Carolina’s draft board and other teams had him just as high, if not higher.

There was a legitimate buzz around this player entering the draft and we are seeing, in a small sample size, why this was the case. Francis could have moved the pick for immediate NHL help, but when you think you have a future top-end centerman available to you in the middle of the first round, it’s hard to even think about making that kind of move, which surprised and angered many fans at the time, but that scrutiny has nearly vanished entirely.

The question now arises if the potential reward of playing Necas at the NHL level this year is worth the risk. In addition, who would he supplant from their spot in the top-nine? Playing Necas in a bottom-of-the-lineup role would be detrimental to the team and the development of the player.

The first and most obvious candidate would be Derek Ryan, but as of now, there’s as close to no chance of that happening as there could possibly be as Ryan and elite winger Jeff Skinner produced the bulk of Carolina’s offense down the stretch last season with the 29-year-old rookie playing a crucial role in Skinner’s excellent finish. The potential next team captain finished sixth in NHL goal scoring with a career-high of 37 and was the league’s hottest player in the final 20 contests.

Ryan is off to a fast start again with three goals and four points in his first two preseason outings. Say what you want about him, but he’s smart and talented enough to man a top-nine center position and be a difference maker with the right pieces around him.

Marcus Kruger was an offseason acquisition whose two-way game cannot be replicated by Necas at this point in his career. Kruger will be leaned on for tough defensive assignments and killing penalties, a role in which the young Czech would have a very difficult time being successful given what we’ve seen from him so far.

The other two centers are Victor Rask and Jordan Staal, but Necas would have to pile up 70 points and have a 45-save shutout in net through the final four preseason games in order to displace one of those established top-six centers.

They could move Necas to the wing, where his speed and dynamic offensive ability could thrive, but the player projects as a long-term top-six, if not first-line, center and moving him away from that position could be detrimental to his development looking at the long-term scheme of things. Moving him to the wing right now would mean forgetting about the overall plan and instead focusing on a short-term situation that is not in need of addressing given Carolina’s depth on the wings.

If this was the Hurricanes of old, the situation would be different. A player like Tim Brent or Riley Nash would get the boot and Necas would play top-nine minutes whether he was entirely ready or not, but this team now has an array of options down the middle with opening night locks Staal, Rask, Ryan, and Kruger. Beyond the obvious mainstays, promising 21-year-old Swede Lucas Wallmark is fresh off of a marvelous rookie season in Charlotte and in the midst of a very impressive preseason and training camp, and though his preseason was derailed by a concussion, center Nicolas Roy has made a big impression on the team and is bound to see some call-ups after he likely joins the Charlotte Checkers within the next week. Additionally, Lindholm, Sebastian Aho, and Josh Jooris can all play center in spurts.

It’s also an obvious risk that rushing Necas to the league could hurt his growth as a player. Elias Lindholm and Noah Hanifin both played immediately following their drafts, likely a year before they were truly ready to do so. Thankfully for the Hurricanes, Lindholm has worked out of early struggles and turned into a key playmaker and two-way player as he has transitioned to the wing and Hanifin showed major promise and confidence down the stretch last season, finally playing consistent top-four minutes after Ron Hainsey was traded to Pittsburgh at the deadline.

While it would be exciting to see number 88 flying around the PNC Arena ice on October 7, there seems to be too much working against him, and while most of that is out of his control, the time just isn’t right for him to make the jump.

He is expected to return to Brno in the Czech league and play substantial minutes as a center against grown men. He’ll gain valuable experience, get bigger, and likely see his offensive numbers jump after posting 15 points in 41 games as a 17-year-old rookie in that league last season. Barring injury, his season will undoubtedly include an appearance in the World Junior Championships for the Czech Republic.

Another possibility is that Necas makes the jump to North America but plays in the AHL with the Checkers, giving him more games throughout the year and allowing Canes management, namely assistant general manager and Checkers head coach Mike Vellucci who has a direct line of contact with Francis, to keep a close eye on him and his development. He has surely proven that he can handle playing the North American game and he could get a head start on getting acclimated with the team’s systems over the course of the season. If he impresses at that level, they have the option of calling him up to the big team. The downside here is, if he plays north of nine games in the NHL, they would then be burning a year of his entry-level contract and a year of team control down the line.

Despite his seemingly inevitable reassignment, what he has shown so far should provide a huge amount of optimism for the organization and its fanbase. The fact that he has even played himself into the conversation is remarkable.

The Hurricanes have been looking for a true number one center for a long time as they haven’t had one since the prime days of Eric Staal’s stint with the organization. With what Necas has shown thus far, there’s plenty of reason to believe that he can one day be that guy, and I don’t think we will have to wait long until he is doing some breathtaking things in the NHL.