With Alex Nedeljkovic returning for his sophomore season and veteran Jeremy Smith joining the organizational fold, the Hurricanes made one more move during the offseason to shore up the Checkers’ crease: hiring Paul Schonfelder as the minor-league goalie consultant.
Schonfelder, who has worked as a goalie coach for Hockey Canada throughout his career, joined the club after spending three seasons with the OHL’s Ottawa 67’s. The 36-year-old has been on the ice for nearly all of Charlotte’s practices so far this season, getting to know his tandem in net.
“A lot of just the basic stuff,” said Schonfelder of what his focus has been thus far. “Because I’m new, I want to get a feel for these guys. I tried to watch a little bit of video over the summer. Ned I knew in junior, Smitty too since they both played in the Ontario Hockey League and that’s where I came from. Early in the season here just a lot of the basic stuff, technical stuff and then progress from there.”
Charlotte’s two netminders seem to occupy different ends of the spectrum on paper as a budding and an established vet, but both sides of the duo have shown Schonfelder flashes of who they are in their limited game action.
“They’re a little bit different in terms of style,” he said. “But they both compete hard, they’re good guys, they’re focused. It’s still early so you want to get a feel for these guys and see what makes them tick, but so far I like what I’ve seen. They both had a successful weekend.”
Despite their inherent similarities, Schonfelder is taking two different paths in helping each netminder’s game.
For Nedeljkovic, the key is balancing using last season, in which the then-rookie went through his fair share of struggles, as something to build off of and something to throw away.
“Last year was last year,” said Schonfelder. “It was his first year in the league and there’s a little bit of a transition when you go from junior to pro hockey, so sometimes you have to learn to play a different way. Sometimes the things that worked in junior hockey, you’re not going to find success with in the pro game. But a lot of it is mental, learning how to deal with certain things. If you don’t have a good game or you’re going through a rough patch, how to bounce back and find your way”
For Smith, a veteran of over 300 games, Schonfelder knows there’s no need to make foundational fixes.
“Smitty has been in the American Hockey League a long time, so he’s had success doing what he’s doing,” he said. “I’m not going to come in here and change that. With a guy like that who’s played for a long time and has had long-term success and played in the NHL, he’s doing something right. So for me to come in here and give him a complete overhaul, that’s not my approach. We’ll tweak here and there and see how the games play out. If he needs to work on or tweak something we’ll do that, but otherwise just let him do his thing and keep doing what he’s doing.”
That belief doesn’t just pertain to Smith either.
“I want these guys to feel that I’m not trying to fit them in a certain box where they have to play their game a certain way,” said Schonfelder. “I want them to have their own flavor on things.”
It may be early, but Schonfelder has liked what he’s seen from his duo, with each netminder picking up a tough road win to kick off the season last weekend and build confidence along the way.
“Ned had that first game and we got down early but he showed some compete and battle and ended up getting the win,” he said. “Smitty played the second game and was solid in there. So far everything has been good. They’ve been off to a good start.”
Given the coaching staff’s initial plan for the crease, you can expect to see both netminders this weekend for the Checkers’ home opening weekend. While not having a clear-cut starter may seem strange, Schonfelder looks at it as a positive, and under his watch the hope is that Charlotte’s goalie tandem could become one of the strongest in the league.
“If you can have two guys going and playing well, that’s a huge asset,” said Schonfelder. “I think it’s important early on since we have two capable guys who can play, to split the games and let them get their games in and see where it takes us.”