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Hurricanes rookies impress in shortened season

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With the salary cap staying unchanged from the 2019-2020 season, players on entry-level contracts were relied upon even more than usual. Carolina’s rookies contributed towards the team’s success in a major way this season.

Tampa Bay Lightning v Carolina Hurricanes - Game Five Photo by Gregg Forwerck/NHLI via Getty Images

In a season unlike any other, it would almost make too much sense to have a 25-year-old rookie goaltender emerge as the Carolina Hurricanes’ starting goalie. It would also make perfect sense that the player cleared waivers just a couple months prior to taking over as the starting goaltender, wouldn’t it? Alex Nedeljkovic did just that, finally becoming the player that the Hurricanes had hoped he would become when he was selected 37th overall back in 2014. Nedeljkovic isn’t the only rookie to make an impact on the Hurricanes’ roster this season. In addition, we’ll be looking at Steven Lorentz, Morgan Geekie, and Jake Bean’s impacts on the Hurricanes’ roster.

Alex Nedeljkovic

It only makes sense to start with Nedeljkovic, who was named a finalist for the Calder Trophy on June 3. While it seems that Kirill Kaprizov is the favorite, it shouldn’t take away from the fact that Nedeljkovic was stellar for the Hurricanes this season. Nedeljkovic posted a 15-5-3 record along with a .932 save percentage and a 1.90 GAA in 23 appearances this season. Nedeljkovic’s save percentage and GAA numbers are good enough for first in the NHL among goalies with 20 or more appearances this season.

If he had appeared in more games at the start of the season, we could be talking about a Vezina-worthy season from a rookie goaltender. Nedeljkovic’s path to the NHL hasn’t been an easy one, and it has been longer than he likely imagined when he heard his name called at the draft back in 2014. This season was the culmination of seven years of hard work for Nedeljkovic. He had won a bronze medal at the World Junior Championships, won a Calder Cup in the AHL while being named the league’s best goaltender, and yet he still could not find a way to stay in the NHL. That opportunity came, and it wasn’t long before Nedeljkovic was stringing together one stellar performance after another.

Nedeljkovic’s opportunity arose when Petr Mrazek was injured in a game on Jan. 30. After a few shaky starts, Nedeljkovic found his groove and led the Carolina Hurricanes to a Discover Central Division Championship. It may be unfair to Mrazek to say that the Hurricanes’ season wouldn’t have been the same had he not gotten hurt, but it’s safe to say that Nedeljkovic would not have gotten this opportunity if Mrazek didn’t have to get surgery on his thumb. Early on, it felt as if the Hurricanes’ coaching staff was hesitant to give Nedeljkovic starts. In hindsight, it all seems silly. At the time, however, it was hard to blame the staff. After all, this is a team that is built to not only make the playoffs, but to make a deep run in the playoffs and contend for a Stanley Cup. Those teams don’t normally bank everything on a 25-year-old goalie with six career NHL appearances. Nevertheless, Nedeljkovic became the starter and got the nod in the playoffs as well.

After the season that Nedeljkovic had, it appears that the Hurricanes have found the starting goalie that they have been searching for. Nedeljkovic had a goals saved above average (GSAA) of 15.7, meaning that he saved close to 16 goals more than he should have this season given the average from the rest of the league’s goaltenders. Even with how good Mrazek has been for the past three years, he hasn’t come remotely close to Nedeljkovic’s numbers.

Part of what made Nedeljkovic so effective this season was his puck playing and athleticism. Nedeljkovic excelled at playing the puck and getting it to his defenders, limiting offense off of a dump in on multiple occasions throughout a game. His recovery and ability to make the push from post to post resulted in some spectacular saves and saves that the Hurricanes needed to stay in a game. Nedeljkovic may have fallen down to Earth a little bit during the playoffs, but he still put up a solid .920 save percentage in nine starts. He was also given a grand total of two goals in three games from the players in front of him, so I’d cool it on the “Ned was bad in the playoffs” takes.

Moving forward, I would expect Nedeljkovic to become the Hurricanes’ starter. It may not be reasonable to expect him to lead the league in save percentage and GAA, but I do believe that the Hurricanes can get a high percentage of quality starts out of Nedeljkovic. This is a player that has experienced success at every level, and it’s only a matter of time before we see Nedeljkovic experience more success at the NHL level.

Steven Lorentz

Lorentz quickly became a fan favorite due to his play on the Hurricanes’ fourth line, his positive attitude and his incredible interviews.

Lorentz was on the taxi squad to start the season, but after players got taken out of the lineup due to COVID, it was time for him to step up. You could see that Lorentz was able to fit in Rod Brind’Amour’s system perfectly due to his physical play and relentless forecheck. He was the type of player that Brind’Amour wanted: a hard worker that would never give up on a play. Lorentz took this opportunity and ran with it, playing on the fourth line and putting up eight points in 45 games.

He also had a CF of 52.5% at even strength while averaging 10:26 of ice time per game. Lorentz earned a full-time NHL job from that opportunity and will likely be the Hurricanes’ fourth line center heading into the 2021-2022 season. As someone who has watched Steven Lorentz play for years now, I can say that there’s more offense to his game. He struggled to finish chances this season, but now that he has a good chunk of games under his belt, I’d imagine that the goals will start to come.

Morgan Geekie

Geekie had unreasonably high expectations heading into this season after scoring three goals in his first two NHL games. While his production this season was a far cry from his two-game stint in 2020, there were some positives to take away from his performance this season. For starters, Geekie was able to make plays happen from behind the net and found some chemistry with Lorentz on the fourth line. Geekie also had a decent CF%, 53.4%, at even strength while seeing very little ice time on special teams. Geekie’s average ice time was under 10 minutes and it’s clear that he was unable to make an impact on the game with such limited minutes. It’s still likely that his ceiling is that of a two way third line center that is good for 30+ points, however. He just has to be given the ice time in order to do so.

Jake Bean

Bean was one of the most polarizing Hurricanes this season due to his performance towards the end of the regular season and in the playoffs. At the start of the season, however, it was hard to stop Bean. He was making phenomenal passes and setting up goals on the power play and at even strength. Teams picked up on Bean’s weaknesses pretty quickly, though, which led to his usage plummeting.

I saw flashes of what could be a promising NHL career this season, especially on the power play. Bean looked like the power play quarterback that the Hurricanes needed when he was on a tear this season. Brind’Amour’s lack of trust in Bean was apparent in the playoffs, and it resulted in an abysmal playoff performance for Bean. He still has a long way to go if he wants to become a full-time NHL defenseman, but I believe that the tools are there.

Bean showed that he could control play in the offensive zone at times and was able to lead defenders into missing assignments with how good of a skater he was. Teams were able to pick up on his lack of experience in the defensive zone, however, and it resulted in some bad plays in his own end. Once again, I believe in Jake Bean, but I also believe that it’ll take some time for him to get comfortable at the NHL level.

This was a weird season for the Hurricanes, but an underlying story in all of the craziness was that Hurricanes fans were able to see some of Ron Francis’ visions for the team came to life. Nedeljkovic became the starting goalie for the team, Lorentz and Geekie both emerged as solid fourth-line players for the Hurricanes, and Bean began to show promise as an offensive threat on the back end. The Hurricanes saw some major contributions from rookies this season, and they’ll need those players to step up next season on their quest for the Stanley Cup.