Just over halfway through the season, Lucas Wallmark has already made a dent on the franchise record books, and he could be on his way to more.
Thanks to a seven-goal outburst, Wallmark was named the AHL’s Rookie of the Month for January, becoming the first player in Checkers history to earn the honor.
“It was a really fun moment to get that prize,” said Wallmark. “It shows that I was doing something good out there. Hopefully I can keep going now and get better every day.”
Despite sitting tied for fifth among all league rookies in goals, the 21-year-old has remained a bit under the radar for most people outside of Charlotte. His award-winning month should change that.
“It’s a report card that shows that he is an elite prospect,” said head coach Ulf Samuelsson. “He’s in some tough competition, so to get that award solidifies his name. It’s nothing new for us, but maybe around the league they see now that he’s competing for a spot with Carolina eventually.”
Drafted in the fourth round of the 2014 Draft, Wallmark honed his game back in his home country of Sweden, spending three seasons in the Swedish Hockey League, one of the top leagues in the world, before joining Charlotte.
“That’s a really good league that we got back there in Sweden,” said Wallmark. “Of course there’s some differences, but I think playing there has helped me.”
While playing against elite talent as a teenager gave Wallmark a significant boost when it came to joining the AHL, key differences between the two leagues make the adjustment a little more complicated.
“In my opinion, the biggest thing is the size of the ice,” said Samuelsson. “Everything happens quicker here and you don’t have a lot of bail out areas where you can disappear with the puck. With the smaller ice surface you’re forced to make plays quicker.”
For Wallmark, getting more comfortable with the transition from Sweden to North America has directly impacted his ability to be a game-changer for Charlotte.
“He’s been shooting more,” said Samuelsson. “He’s getting away from that Swedish ‘pass first’ mentality and now he’s looking to see if he has any opportunity to get the puck to the net.”
As is the case with the majority of rookies, Wallmark’s first pro season in North America has seen him steadily ramp up his production as he becomes more and more acclimated. Through the first 22 games of the season, the Swede lit the lamp just three times, while the following 24 games have seen him pile up 12 goals. That’s no coincidence.
“He started out, I don’t want to say slow, but he started out as a normal rookie,” said Checkers video coach Myles Fee. “But now he’s really been able to find his spot. By that I mean he’s been smarter about where he’s putting himself on the ice and when to skate hard and when to slow down. He’s finding the depth in his game.”
While adjusting his style on the ice has been a catalyst for Wallmark’s increasingly solid play, gaining familiarity off the ice has played a role as well. Making the jump to North America can be an overwhelming process for a young player, but lucky for Wallmark, he had some help waiting for him.
“Me and Lucas have been friends for probably six years since we played on the national team together,” said second-year pro Erik Karlsson. “From the start it was finding an apartment, getting all the papers, getting a bank account and all that stuff. The guys helped me last year so I kind of know that deal now so I could help him. If there are games where I’m not feeling good or he’s not feeling good, we push each other through it. It’s been great to have one of your best buddies on the team.”
“It’s helped me very much,” said Wallmark of having Karlsson on the team. “It takes a couple weeks to get used to everything, but when you have Karlsson, he helped me with everything off the ice like my apartment and everything. It was good for me to have another Swede here. We’re good friends from many years back in Sweden so we know each other and we’ve talked about it.”
On the ice, every player is different, but it often takes some time for a European player to begin to fully acclimate themselves with the North American game. With Wallmark continuing to reach new highs, things are looking good for the young Swede.
“A high-skilled guy like himself, I’d say he’s ahead of the curve,” said Fee. “Usually you’d see progression [for a European player] start to come now after Christmas. He was a little bit before that."
Wallmark’s emergence as a lethal scoring threat for the Checkers will be something to watch for during the second half of the season as the team looks to pull themselves into a playoff position and the rookie looks to keep trending in the right direction.
“Since we lost Derek Ryan, Lucas has established himself as our top two-way center,” said Samuelsson. “To be able to sustain that for an entire season would be something he should be happy with. But we talked about his point production and getting the puck to the net more, so if he sticks with that, he’ll be good.”
With 30 games remaining in the regular season and some hardware in his corner, Wallmark has another spot in the record book within eyesight: Zac Dalpe’s 23 goals as a rookie. Given the momentum currently carrying the young forward, we could be adding to his list of accolades by the end of the year.
“When you start scoring and you feel good out there, you get more confidence and you try to do more things out there,” said Wallmark. “Hopefully I can keep shooting and taking the puck to the net. That’s how I’ve been scoring.”