Given the glut of talented defensive prospects in Charlotte, it’s easy to forget that a rookie was the only one to make the NHL squad out of training camp.
A second-round pick by the Kings acquired two years ago in the Andrej Sekera trade, Roland McKeown kicked off his first pro season by scoring himself an extended stay at Hurricanes training camp. Though he didn’t end up making his debut before being the final player assigned to Charlotte, that look did wonders for the young blue liner’s confidence.
“It was great out of camp,” said McKeown. “Winning the prospect tournament and then making the team out of camp was a really positive step for me. They gave me the opportunity that I felt I earned.”
Upon joining the Checkers the 21-year-old was thrown right into the action, taking on a heavy load of minutes while adjusting to the pro style of play.
“I thought I came down here and had a good first year,” said McKeown. “It was a trying season statistically at times, but I thought that my play was actually pretty good throughout most of the year. In the middle part of the season it was a bit of a roller coaster ride, one of those rookie things where you have those ups and downs.”
“It’s tough to come in and play regular shifts with a lot of minutes like he did,” said head coach Ulf Samuelsson.
McKeown, who had a strong offensive edge while staring for the Ontario Hockey League’s Kingston Frontenacs, wasn’t necessarily able to replicate that in Charlotte, finishing with 11 points. But even so, he understands that it was never going to come easy.
“It doesn’t always translate,” said McKeown. “In junior you’re playing in all situations and probably playing five or six more minutes a night. It’s more challenging here.”
But while the points were hard to come by, McKeown continued to ramp up the defensive side of his game as the season progressed. His minus-10 rating for the year sticks out, but that can be attributed to a rocky start, as the rookie was even across the final 40 games of the year, settling into a reliable piece on the back end.
“I think defensively I became more stable as the experience wore on,” said McKeown. “I think in that first stretch of the season we had that California road trip where we went 0-6 and we were decimated, so that never helps. But it’s always nice to have a stable partner and Robo [Dennis Robertson] was just that. With the even minutes and rolling six D, it’s a perfect amount of ice time where you’re both fresh and into the game. That was a huge key for me.”
Making the NHL out of camp and then never returning for the rest of the year can be a tough pill to swallow for young prospects, but McKeown seems to be even more determined to do it all again next year.
“Only one defenseman got recalled throughout the whole season so in terms of that it was just one of those things where both rosters stayed healthy,” he said. “Sometimes that’s the way it goes. I’ll just have to go into camp and do the exact same thing. I thought I had a good mindset going in there last year.”
Among the strides he took throughout his rookie campaign, McKeown wants his biggest focus during this summer to be fine-tuning his offensive game in hopes of translating it to the pros.
“I’m going to watch a lot of video over the summer and work with some skills coaches to get my shot better,” said McKeown. “I think I had a lot of chances to score and I just wasn’t burying them. It wasn’t for a lack of chances, it’s a lack of burying the puck, so I want to look at that and how I can create more offense from the blue line or joining in the rush.
“It’s a lot of building and working with the right people. I’m going to go back to [former NHLer] Gary Roberts and work out with him because I think if you want to be the best you have to be around the best and there’s a lot of good pros there.”
If all goes according to plan, be on the lookout for McKeown’s sophomore jump.
“I’m well-rounded right now and good in a lot of areas of the game,” he said. “But I want to get great.”
“McKeown is a solid player who is good at everything,” said Samuelsson. “He had a really good year. It wouldn’t surprise me if he takes another step early next year to become a great player.”