It’s trade deadline season in the NHL, a stretch of time where a lot of change can very quickly.
Joey Keane experienced that firsthand this week.
“I was practicing with Hartford yesterday and now I’m here practicing in Charlotte,” said Keane. “It was a fast 24 hours but I’m excited to be here.”
The 20-year-old joined his new club Wednesday morning, hitting the ice for practice and getting those first impressions set between himself and the coaching staff.
“They expect a lot, which I like,” Keane said. “They hold you accountable, which is good. I think it’s a good culture here and I’m excited about it.”
“Today was a tough day to jump into everything, but we like what we’ve seen,” said head coach Ryan Warsofksy. “He’s a really good puck mover. He’s got a bright future, the sky’s the limit. He knows when to move pucks and keep it simple and he knows when to be creative.”
That’s not to say the coaches weren’t familiar with Keane. The rookie has been a standout for the division-rival Hartford Wolf Pack, including torching the Checkers for five points (2g, 3a) in six meetings this season.
“Obviously we’ve seen him quite a bit,” said Warsofsky. “He’s a smart player.”
Warsofsky did his homework beyond that as well, getting a feel for what exactly was being brought into his squad.
“We’ve watched his detail from back when he was in junior to when he was in Hartford this year,” he said. “We’ve got a good feel for what he can do and what his strengths are and what he needs to work on.”
Keane, a third-round pick by the Rangers in 2018, posted 30 points through his first 49 pro games with Hartford this season, putting him in a tie for 12th among all AHL defensemen.
“I’m a puck-moving defenseman,” said Keane. “I try to get up the ice as much as I can and help the team win.”
Keane’s offense-leaning skill set puts him in good company on the Charlotte blue line. The Checkers now boast three defensemen with at least 30 points and four with at least seven goals. Keane checks both of those boxes.
“There’s a lot of skill here,” said Keane. “I just need to give them the puck and support them whenever I can. I want to do whatever I can to contribute. I’ll do my best.”
With the addition of Keane, Charlotte’s blue line is as stacked as any team in the league. There’s only six slots open in the lineup, though, so the abundance of talent will lead to some battles over the next few games.
“It’s competitive right now, we have eight defensemen who can all play,” said Warsofsky, not including Derek Sheppard, who has been playing forward for this last stretch of games. “It’s going to be competitive from here on out until it sorts itself out. I think everyone complements each other pretty well. The way the game is trending you need puck moving defensemen and the Carolina Hurricanes are in a good spot with these guys.”
Keane won’t have to wait long to show what he can bring to the lineup.
“We’re going to throw him right into the fire,” said Warsofsky. “Let’s see how he is. He’s going to make mistakes, he’s learning a new system. It is a big difference from Hartford and New York. So it’s going to take him some time but he’ll figure it out.”
For the young blue liner, these first couple practices are all about adapting to his new home.
“I just want to learn whatever I can,” said Keane. “Then I’ll keep it simple in that first game, don’t try to over complicate it. It’s a new system so it’ll take a couple games to get used to.”
The other part of the Keane trade saw a mainstay of Charlotte’s offense depart, as Julien Gauthier headed for the Rangers.
“Goat is a special player,” said Warsofsky. “I loved working with him. He was coachable and I thought he got better from the beginning of last year to now. But that’s the business we’re in, guys move on. We have to move forward.”
Part of moving forward includes finding a way to make up for the substantial offensive boon Gauthier brought to the table.
“It’s hard,” said Warsofsky. “You’re not going to replace Julien Gauthier. He’s a 6-foot-4, 225 power forward who can skate. But we have Stelio [Mattheos] who’s coming along, [Spencer] Smallman is coming along, all these guys are getting better.”
A key aspect of good teams is the ability to keep rolling even if you remove key pieces. The Checkers are hoping that the overall strength of their squad outweighs the loss of one offensive weapon.
“Someone needs to step up and fill that hole,” said Warsofsky. “Is that going to happen in that first game in Binghamton? Probably not. But we think we have a total team that can continue to win.”
As the Checkers adjust to their new look, it’s important to note that the NHL trade deadline doesn’t officially come until Monday, with the AHL’s deadline for loans coming after that. Given how quickly things shifted for Charlotte over the last 24 hours, there’s no telling what else could be in store.
But that uncertainty isn’t affecting Warsofsky’s squad.
“We just control what we can control,” said Warsofsky. “If there’s moves and we get picked apart or we get some additions, I understand that it’s the nature of the job. Every team is going through similar situations where the NHL team makes trades and there’s a trickle-down effect. You have to take it in stride and live for today. We’re just going to focus on having a really good day like we did today and we’ll focus on tomorrow tomorrow.”