What a difference a year can make. Just ask Roland McKeown.
As a rookie in 2016-17, McKeown was a serviceable everyday player, finishing the year with 11 points that ranked seventh among team blue liners.
Then, with a full pro campaign and offseason under his belt, a switch flipped for the young defenseman in his sophomore campaign.
“You get used to the game and things start to slow down in your brain in your second year,” said McKeown. “You start to see the game better, you start to see plays develop in the O zone. Playing defense in your own zone you’re not hurrying around as much, you’re with your man and you see what’s going on around you. All those things combined make your game better.”
That added familiarity was abundantly obvious in McKeown’s 2017-18 campaign, as the 22-year-old became one of head coach Mike Vellucci’s most dependable options on a very strong blue line.
“He showed great growth,” said Vellucci. “He had a super year and got better as it went along and that’s the job.”
Part of McKeown’s leap forward was a substantial uptick in offensive production. The defenseman set career highs across the board with seven goals, 16 helpers and 23 points, more than doubling his output as a rookie.
A key part of that scoring surge was McKeown’s timely decisions to pinch in and join the rush, with his keen senses being lauded throughout the season by the coaching staff.
“We talked all year about getting that fourth man in on the rush and I thought our forwards did a great job finding us in the slot,” said McKeown. “That’s an important layer in the rush.”
McKeown has a natural scoring ability, twice hitting the 40-point mark in junior, but both the coaching staff and the blue liner himself point somewhere else for the source of his scoring as a pro.
“He wasn’t forcing the offense, it just came,” said Vellucci. “He concentrated on his defense first and then the offense came. That’s part of what we try to teach everybody, you don’t have to force your offense, it’ll come if you play good in your own end.”
“At some point you have to get the puck into your forwards’ hands and if you’re not doing that you’re not doing your job,” said McKeown. “As a corps we took that responsibility. We don’t need to be handling the puck all over the ice, we don’t need to be stuck in our zone, we need to get the puck and move it to the forwards. This is a really impressive forward group in my opinion so that makes my job way easier.”
On the other side of the ice, McKeown was a part of one of the most dominant defensive pairings across the league. Lining up alongside Philip Samuelsson for the majority of the season, the duo developed a strong chemistry and turned in two of the AHL’s top three plus-minus ratings during the regular season.
“Sammy was great,” said McKeown. “We worked really well D to D. We moved the puck to each other real well and created separation for each other to get up the ice. In our own zone, defense is certainly not simple but when you look at it in a simpler way, take your man and once he transfers to the other side of the ice you switch off. If there’s not so many breakdowns you’re going to be ok and I thought me and Sammy did a good job of that. All that lets our plus-minus rise.”
McKeown’s well-rounded performance didn’t go unnoticed as he became the go-to call up for Carolina’s blue line, logging 10 NHL contests and picking up three helpers along the way.
“Getting 10 games in this year was really nice,” said McKeown. “I know I can play there. It gives you a boost of confidence. When you come down here you see the game a lot better, you have better wits about you with the puck.”
The jump from McKeown’s first to second pro seasons was staggering, but he’s not content. Now, with another summer ahead of him, the young blue liner has a clear plan to keep that upward trajectory going.
“My goal next year is to make the NHL,” he said. “The message from the Canes was box outs and tying up sticks and things like that. To be in the NHL I need to work on that. Up there you can be boxing a guy out but his stick is still available and they’re so skilled that it’ll end up in the back of your net if you’re not doing that. And then from my perspective I still want to work on my shot. I had seven goals but I want to see that rise, especially with the number of chances that I was getting. I definitely think that total can rise.”