One was a highly-touted first-round pick navigating his first pro season in a new country while trying to climb his way to the NHL. One was a high-end talent coming off a near career-ending injury and looking to reinvigorate his career.
Together, Martin Necas and Tomas Jurco may have helped each other reach those goals.
Selected 12th overall in 2017, Necas had a ton of hype surrounding his jump to North America. The young forward even made the Hurricanes out of training camp and began the season in their lineup, logging seven games and picking up his first NHL goal and assist along the way. But by mid-October, the decision was made to send the then 19-year-old to the AHL, where he would spend the rest of his rookie season in a Checkers sweater.
“Of course I was disappointed,” said Necas. “My expectation before the season was to play in the NHL. I tried to play my best to get into the NHL but I didn’t get another chance to get back there.”
Going to the AHL is often initially a tough pill for young prospects to swallow, especially after beginning the year in the NHL, but that’s not necessarily a bad characteristic to have.
“It’s always a disappointment, but honestly that’s what you want, you don’t want someone who settles,” said head coach Mike Vellucci. “He knows he wants to play in the NHL, that’s his goal.”
Necas’ talent was readily apparent in the AHL, but he wasn’t immune to the challenges that come with any teenager joining the grind of this league.
It was nothing that could sway Necas’ positive disposition, though.
“He had his ups and downs, he went to World Juniors and that team didn’t do as well as he had hoped so another little letdown there, but he always had a smile on his face,” said Vellucci. “He always wanted to get better. He was very coachable. We did a lot of video together and talked a lot about good things and bad things.”
His relationship with Vellucci proved to help ease some of the pressures that come with being a high draft pick, and Necas’ production ramped up as the traits that made him such a valuable prospect moved to the forefront, as did his growing maturity on the ice.
“Later on I left him alone just to have fun and play hockey and be a kid,” said Vellucci. “I think he appreciated that. He had learned so much and showed so much growth, when you’re at that age you can figure it out whether you’re making mistakes or not. Sometimes he’d come to the bench and he’d look at me and I’d look at him and he’d just nod his head, I’d nod my head and I knew that he knows what he did and he won’t do it again.”
Necas quickly developed a strong chemistry both on and off the ice with Janne Kuokkanen, with the two helping to fuel each other’s offense.
“Janne was one of my best friends here,” said Necas. “He’s a great guy and a great player.”
Kuokkanen suffered a season-ending injury midway through the campaign, however, leaving a sizeable hole in Charlotte’s corps of forwards that ultimately played a part in the team’s acquisition of Jurco.
After undergoing another back surgery – one that he wasn’t sure his career would survive (https://twitter.com/pwilliamsNHL/status/1137574295687827456) – Jurco inked an AHL deal with the Springfield Thunderbirds in January. The forward logged 10 points in 14 games for the struggling squad before he was acquired by the Checkers on a loan, with the team hoping his veteran experience and offensive firepower would help aid a deep playoff run and the player hoping the move would give him a better chance at kickstarting his comeback.
“I wanted to show that I’m a player that can work hard, score goals and make plays and that I’m healthy again,” said Jurco. “This was a really important step for me to get back to the NHL.”
It would be easy to picture a player of Jurco’s stature in his situation coming in to a team so late in the season and only looking out for his personal future, but that couldn’t be further from the case. From day one Jurco was visibly invested in the team’s success, and his passion to win proved to be contagious.
“I did expect him to buy in,” said Vellucci. “I had done my homework, I called a lot of guys who had him and a lot of them said that he loves to win and a big reason Grand Rapids won the Cup that year was because of him.”
“I always try to be a good teammate,” said Jurco. “These guys made it easy for me.”
Jurco bonded in particular with Necas. Hailing from the neighboring countries of Slovakia and the Czech Republic, respectively, the two immediately showed a connection.
“When Jurcs came here we spoke the same language and that always helps,” said Necas. “It was a pleasure to play with him.”
Off the ice, Jurco’s pedigree as a high-end prospect proved helpful as Necas continued down the grind of his first year.
“They speak the same language and Jurcs has been through it,” said Vellucci. “He was a high draft pick, junior star, elite talent when he came in the league, been through the ups and downs and matured. He can communicate that with Marty when things aren’t going well. Guys are sometimes disappointed when they’re not in the NHL or when they’re not called up. He was a great sounding board for Marty off the ice.”
On the ice the two became mainstays on a line together and helped bolster Charlotte’s shockingly strong depth scoring. In fact, the duo became two of the Checkers’ most dangerous offensive weapons for those 19 games down the stretch, with Jurco netting 17 points and Necas chipping in 21.
“Their skill complemented each other so well,” said Vellucci. “They had a great sense of where the other was going to be on the ice.”
“It was fun to play with him and I think he would say the same thing,” said Jurco. “We enjoyed our time together and hopefully he learned some things from me. He’s going to be a really good player.”
While neither player envisioned this is where they would be finishing this season, both are undoubtedly closer to their goals then they were just a few short months ago.
For Necas, the hope is that this introduction to the North American game has gotten the young talent ready to take a spot on Carolina’s opening night roster – and keep it.
“We had a great season in Charlotte” said Necas. “Hopefully I played good enough here to show that I can play there next year. This summer I’m going to work hard, try to get quicker on the ice and stronger in the gym and be ready for next season.”
For Jurco, the hope is that this dominant stretch on a championship team is enough to catch the eyes of an NHL team and nab the forward a crack at making it back to the show. If nothing else, he’s cemented himself as a two-time Calder Cup winner and earned a glowing recommendation for whoever comes knocking.
“I think he’s an NHL player,” said Vellucci. “I’m his biggest supporter and if anybody asks me I will tell them he is an NHL player and he can play any role they want him to play.”
“Mike brought me here and helped me,” said Jurco. “This could be the season I turn things around and he’s a huge part of that. I’m really thankful for him.”