A common theme for the Checkers this past season was the staggeringly young lineup trotted out each night. Head coach Mike Vellucci often pointed to his team as one of the youngest in the league, an aspect that fell on both the positive and negative ends of the spectrum.
One line in particular showcased Charlotte’s exceptional young talent up front. The all-rookie unit of Nicolas Roy centering Julien Gauthier and Janne Kuokkanen went through its share of ups and downs, but all three posted memorable first pro years.
“They all improved, which is great,” said Vellucci of the line. “That’s what we’re here for. But each one was different.”
In terms of scoring punch, Kuokkanen led with way by becoming one of just six rookies in franchise history to hit the 40-point mark.
“I can be happy after this year,” said Kuokkanen. “The points were there but I can also be happy with how I worked this year. I learned lots of things during my first year as a pro.”
Having just celebrated his 20th birthday last week, Kuokkanen spent the entirety of his rookie campaign as a teenager, a rare and challenging feat that the Finn took in stride.
“Kuoks was the youngest, he could have been playing juniors but he’s playing with us,” said Vellucci. “So his confidence was kind of up and down at times but by the end he was playing his best hockey.”
Roy finished the year with 38 points but perhaps more impressively evolved in all facets of the game.
“Nicky Roy was probably our most consistent out of the three as far as playing a 200-foot game,” said Vellucci. “He played more ice time than any of the forwards because he played in all situations, power play, penalty kill and five-on-five. Consistently he was good.”
The other piece of the trio was Gauthier, who led the trio with 16 goals on the year.
“Goat struggled early on,” said Vellucci. “But he improved his game immensely through the end of the season.”
“It was an experience this year,” said Gauthier. “I think I improved a lot. It was tough at the start. You try to do as much as you can with what you get. It was a big improvement year for me. I’m a better player now. I just need to keep it going that way.”
For Gauthier, his progression came hand in hand with tweaking his style to fit the pro model.
“It’s hard when you have a different type of game and you come in to the pros and you’re not playing in your type of game, that’s hard to adjust,” he said. “But I think I did a good job, especially by the end, of adjusting to it and playing more to my strengths.”
While developing a chemistry between them throughout the season (“It was cool because if Roy wasn’t there I wouldn’t have anyone to speak French with,” said Gauthier), the three were able to impress in their own personal fashion.
“They all had different years, but they’re all very good prospects,” said Vellucci.
When it comes to the next step, that differs as well.
Moving out of their teenage years often signifies a big jump for prospects, so that coupled with a full pro season under his belt could spell big things for Kuokkanen heading into next year.
“Coach taught us young players and that helped me a lot this year,” he said. “So I’m going to work on some small details like getting stronger and things like that. I want to get bigger and stronger to play in the show next year or in the future.”
At six-foot-four, Roy showed he can physically fit in at this level, so his offseason focus is shifted more towards the skills side.
“I just want to keep working on my skating,” said Roy. “It’s fast out there. I’ve improved that a lot in the last couple of years but I’m going to keep working on that.”
For Gauthier, a prolific scorer in junior, the idea of making an impact when the puck is bouncing your way has been key.
“You’re not going to score every game, that’s normal,” he said. “But you can contribute by giving a good hit or being good defensively or backchecking. So I want to work on my strength and my game and having the mindset that nobody can stop me.”
That’s not to say he’s put lighting the lamp on the backburner.
“I think I can still be a scorer here,” he said. “I only just turned 20.”
Given the impact all three were able to make in their first pro years, Kuokkanen, Roy and Gauthier could all be forces to reckon with come next season.
“As a young guy you just want to improve and be a better player at the end of the year than at the start,” said Roy. “With Mike and the coaches and the vets, all the rookies were able to do that.”