I was able to talk to four Hurricanes prospects that are currently playing for the Charlotte Checkers in the AHL. Two players are AHL All-Stars, one is on pace for a career year in goals, and the other is shattering career highs and having a breakout season at just the right time! Thank you to Nick Niedzielski and the players for the interviews!
Ned, have there been any big lessons that you’ve taken away from the first half of the season?
You can’t worry about what happened the night before, you have to worry about today. We were really back and forth and played great one night and poorly one night. In the sports world, it’s not what you did for me yesterday it’s what you did today and so we had to take it one game at a time and focus on improving. Now we’re on a hot streak and we want to continue playing well.
As one of the veterans in the locker room, do you feel some added responsibility to give encouragement when rookies like Priskie or Luostarinen have a tough game?
There’s a little bit of added responsibility. Like you said, it’s my fourth year, and I’ve been through it a little bit. We had a good run last year and have a lot of new faces this year. At the beginning of the year I had to show guys the area, how we want to play, and the culture we want to build. We want to help to push everyone in the right direction, and you want to be a great mentor but a better friend for them. You want to build relationships with these guys because they’ll be with you all year.
What was one area of your game that you worked on improving this off-season?
I tried to get a little better with my edge work and skating. When you get to the next level you want to be able to get to the next position a lot quicker because the game is happening a lot quicker. It’s helped out a lot down in Charlotte as well. You want to get better and better as the year progresses, and I feel like that’s happening.
Are you still on that Fortnite and Apex Legends grind or have you moved on to a different game?
I’m still playing Fortnite but haven’t been streaming nearly as much lately. I went into Call of Duty a little bit, but it didn’t last too long.
If you could play against one NHL player in a one on one matchup in any video game, who would you play against and what game would you play?
I’ve played a lot of Fortnite lately, and I don’t know if I’d play any other games against anyone. I don’t know a ton of guys that play, but I’d play against one of either Pesce, Aho, or Teravainen.
The Checkers’ defense has been on fire lately, with every one of you guys contributing on a nightly basis. What would you say has been the biggest factor behind that success?
I think Warsy (Ryan Warsofsky, coach of the Checkers) is doing a good job of implementing us into the offense. He wants us to get up in the play, and we have the green light to go. Our forwards are doing a great job of finishing as well, so that helps a lot.
Transitioning from junior hockey to the pros is always tough. Now that you’re in your second season with the Checkers, what are some pointers that you’d give yourself when you were about to start your rookie season?
I don’t think I’d go back and change anything. I’ve been given the right amount of opportunities at the right times so far, and I think it’s better that you figure it out as you go. I’ve been lucky enough that my coaches haven’t rushed me and given me more opportunities than I could handle.
If you could rank your play style on a scale of 1-10, with 1 being stay at home defenseman and 10 being a strictly offensive defenseman, where would you rank yourself?
I’m about a six or a seven. I can contribute offensively as well as anyone but I can play defense as well. I can play when the goalie is pulled or on the PK.
Being named an AHL All Star in your second season is a big deal. What are you most looking forward to in California?
It’ll be a great experience to have under my belt. I know a couple guys from other teams on the west coast, and since I don’t get to see them often, it’ll be fun. My dad is also coming down and so it’ll be a great time!
You’ve mentioned that you enjoy golf a lot. Is that what you would try and pursue as a career if you weren’t a hockey player?
For sure. If there were any other sport that I’d play, it’d be golf.
Which road arena do you play the best in?
My best games are in Lehigh Valley. I always seem to have good games there. Part of it is timing because we always seem to play there right when I’m getting my confidence back.
What’s your biggest pet Peeve?
One of my pet peeves is when people chew with their mouths open. I can’t throw anyone on the team under the bus, though.
Favorite part of Charlotte?
There’s a lot to do here. I can golf, eat good food, and there’s a lot to do here when friends come down. The city is pretty, clean, and the weather is great.
You’ve shattered your career highs in every category this season. Obviously, an increase in ice time will help, but what are some other factors in the way you’re playing that have led to a career year?
I think after winning the championship last year I wanted to step up and take on a bigger role this season. The nature of the business is that when guys leave, other guys have the chance to step up. I had that opportunity to blossom and grow this season. I came into camp with a chip on my shoulder and was going into the third year of my deal, so that was a lot of my motivation. I’m grateful for Coach Warsofsky for giving me this opportunity and thankful that I’ve gelled so well with Kuokkanen and Gust. I’m hoping to work on getting an NHL call up in the future, and I think that I’ve grown a lot this season.
The Checkers are one of the hottest teams in the league right now after a few bumps along the way. What have been some of the reasons behind the team’s success these past few months?
I think we’ve had a lot of new guys this season and a lot of guys hadn’t played with each other before. It’s tough to throw everyone together and expect results right away, and we didn’t get going until December. We started clicking and getting more comfortable with playing in different situations. We didn’t know how the break would affect us, but luckily, we came back with the same mentality and haven’t taken our foot off the gas. Going into games knowing that you’re comfortable and having that confidence is a dangerous weapon for a team to have. Chemsitry and confidence are a huge reason why we’ve won. The guys have bought into Warsy’s system and nothing is a mystery now. We know that we can play our game and win on most nights.
Could you describe your style of play for the Canes fans that may not know a whole lot about the Checkers?
I think early on when I got drafted, I was trying to find a role and find my identity as a player. I always wanted to be versatile and play in different situations. The more tools you have in your bag, the more trusted you are by your coach. I’ve always worked on my strength and getting stronger on the puck. This year, in talking to the coaches and management, they like that I can get in on the forecheck and disrupt plays. I’m not afraid to use my size and crash the net. I model my game after Nick Foligno or Adam Lowry. They don’t do a ton to stand out in terms of flashiness, but they win a lot of battles and have carved out a role for themselves.
Which road arena do you think that you play the best in?
It’s fun to play in Hershey because they have a good crowd, but it’s a very tough environment because they get loud. I like playing in Lehigh Valley. I wasn’t a full time Checker in my first two years but my first AHL game was there and I won’t forget that. I enjoy playing there because the fans aren’t the nicest and it always makes you want to play a little harder.
Biggest pet peeve?
Not too many things bother me to where I’m absolutely shook, but I don’t like when I’m driving, and someone cuts me off when the lane is about to end. I don’t want to say that I have road rage but that gets me fired up.
Why did you choose your goal song?
Champions by Kanye was great because I chose one originally, but they played the other one by him and I just kind of went with it.
Could you tell us why you chose “It’s Raining Men” as your goal song?
Because Stortini didn’t like the song. I didn’t want to piss him off, but I wanted to have fun a little bit with him. We’re good buddies, still, so that’s good!
Could you describe your feelings when you got called up? What about after your first NHL game?
It was great. I wasn’t expecting the call that early in the year, so it was special. I kept it to myself for a while and then told my friends and family that I was playing in the NHL. It was fun and felt amazing taking my first few strides on the ice in the NHL. I won’t forget it.
Have you changed anything about the way you play after seeing what the NHL is like?
You always have to improve and every day I strive to get a little better. The execution in the NHL is faster and you have to pay attention to every little detail. That’s been something that I’ve focused on a lot lately.
You obviously score a lot of goals, but in your opinion, which of your teammates is the likeliest to get an assist on a lot of your goals?
I have to give credit to Luostarinen and Kuokkanen. I don’t always play with him, but watching Kuokkanen play is amazing and he’s a great passer. McCormick and Luostarinen have been great linemates and giving me great passes, so I don’t have to complain! That’s been my line for the past two months or so and I think we have great chemistry.
Do you think that you’ll hit 40 goals this season?
I’m pretty confident that I’ll hit 30 or 35. 40 is going to be tough, but at this rate it’s possible. Hopefully I’ll get called up before then, though.
Thank you to all four players for answering my questions! Canes Fans, let me know if there are any other players that you’d like me to interview!