Roy took center stage in the Checkers’ two season-opening victories against Rochester, logging two goals and an assist each night while factoring into Charlotte’s strong special teams showing.
“I was very impressed with Nic this weekend,” said head coach Mike Vellucci. “I think that’s the first time I’ve ever seen a five-on-three shorthanded goal. He was great in front of the net on the power play.”
That offensive outburst was more than enough to earn Roy the AHL’s Player of the Week award, an honor the young forward was quick to credit the strong play of those around him for, especially his linemates Janne Kuokkanen and Julien Gauthier.
“I think my line had really good confidence and chemistry,” said Roy. “We played together last year so we know each other and we made good plays.”
A fourth-round selection in 2015, Roy was an elite-level scorer in junior, leading the QMJHL in goals in 2015-16. As a rookie with the Checkers Roy was an impact player and his 38 points were nothing to scoff at, but there was a sense he could produce more. His hot start shows that may be the case.
“I know Nic is a scorer, I know he’s a playmaker,” said Vellucci. “Sometimes he puts too much pressure on himself. I talked to him about that last year. This year I think he’s more relaxed and comfortable with his teammates and his surroundings. That year under his belt is big.”
Roy’s strong offensive start mirrors that of Warren Foegele from a year ago, when the rookie forward similarly captured the league’s first Player of the Week award of the season. That sparked what would become a historically productive campaign for Foegele, who would go on to set the franchise record for most goals by a rookie. Now, with the Checkers missing several key pieces up front from a year ago, Roy could very well be on the same path.
“It was really important to set the tone with those first two games,” said Roy. “I’ve proven in the past that I can put up points and be offensive. I take this as an opportunity.”
If Roy can keep those points rolling in, it’s only a matter of time before people start taking notice.
“You want to do your best and make sure that you’re the name that gets called up when something happens in Carolina and they call me and want to know who’s playing the best,” said Vellucci.
LINE OF ROOKIESWhile many teams across the AHL have an excess of youth on their rosters, not many make the decision to trot out an entire forward line of rookies. But that’s what the Checkers went with to open the season, putting Morgan Geekie between wingers Spencer Smallman and Cliff Pu on the fourth line for both contests against Rochester.
“Usually I like to spread the young guys out amongst other lines,” said Vellucci. “But I have such confidence in them, in their ability and the way they play defensively and how they understand the game that I can play them together.”
Despite their deficiency in experience, the line earned positive reviews for their play against the Amerks.
“We just did video this morning and they did a lot of really good things,” said Vellucci. “There are some things that they need to improve on but overall they played a really good 200-foot game and I was really happy with their weekend.”
Knowing the coaching staff has trust in them as a group was certainly a boost to the line heading into game one.
“Like Vellucci said, we’re just going to go through it together and contribute to the team where we can,” said Geekie. “We all get along and have good chemistry.”
Geekie, a third-round pick in 2017, finished the weekend with a pair of points – including a snipe in Saturday’s tilt for his first pro goal – and held his own as the Checkers’ fourth center.
“I know Geeks is ready,” said Vellucci. “He’s physically ready. He’s a big kid already and he’s getting stronger. He’s a very smart hockey player, he’s got great hands and he’s just got a knack for making good plays. He’s going to be a really good player for a really long time.”
Smallman stands as the elder statesman of the line, technically. The forward is in his second year as a pro but was sidelined for almost all of last season with an injury. After a brief cameo in the ECHL playoffs, Smallman is ready to give his pro career a proper start, notching a pair of helpers in Friday’s win.
“He’s just a warrior,” said Vellucci of Smallman. “He was captain of his junior team, he competes hard every day, he does all the little things. Unfortunately he got hurt last year but he’s making the most of it this year. It’s no different than Clark Bishop, he went down the year before for a bit then came up and was one of our top players last year. I expect Smally to do the same.”
Rounding out the line is the newest addition to the organization, as Pu joined Carolina as part of the return for Jeff Skinner. While the rookie didn’t find the scoresheet over the opening weekend, he showed flashes and was a key part of the line’s successful outings.
“It’s a little different because coming in he doesn’t know everybody,” said Vellucci. “I know Cliff from watching him from my days in the OHL and scouting him in his midget-minor year, so I know him very well. But he hasn’t been to any of the development camps and things like that so from that standpoint maybe he’s behind the eight-ball a bit, but he’s fit in really well. He’s a great kid, he wants to get better and he’s got tremendous skill.”
The pro season is a beast that tends to grind down young players experiencing it for the first time, but Charlotte’s three rookie forwards showed plenty of reason to believe they’ll be key contributors at this level. As far as adjusting to the pro game as a whole, they have plenty of help in their corner.
“It’s an awesome group of guys, they’re showing us the ropes,” said Geekie. “We’ve got a good leadership group and even the guys without a letter are stepping in and helping us young guys out. The camaraderie in the room is awesome.”
SPECIAL TEAMS SOARCharlotte’s power play was a big catalyst toward the team’s success last season, but the question heading into this year was whether they could replicate it, especially without the aid of now-NHLers Lucas Wallmark and Valentin Zykov.
After scoring four times on seven chances through the first two contests, it would appear that that won’t be an issue.
“We lost Wally and Z off that unit so we put Kuokkanen and Roy in there,” said Vellucci. “They were both on the other unit last year so now they just set up in those roles and they know exactly what they’re doing.”
Kuokkanen (1g,1a) and Roy (2g, 1a) both thrived on the man advantage, as did Andrew Poturalski (1g, 2a) and Trevor Carrick (1g, 1a). With plenty of talent in the pipeline, the Checkers hope to once again establish an elite-level power play across the league.
“We practice the power play a lot so it’s all repetition and understanding where each other are on the ice,” said Vellucci. “Everyone has filled in nicely.”
On the flip side, the penalty kill was a thorn in the Checkers’ side a season ago and something that Vellucci has vowed to fix. Through two games against the Amerks, it seems the team has taken that to heart, though a tough test lies ahead.
“Special teams has been really key,” said Vellucci. “We killed off eight of nine over the weekend. But for this coming weekend Utica has a really good power play so we need to make sure we stay out of the box.”