By Andy Kent
Copyright © 2005 Naples Daily News
SUNRISE, Fla. – Everything about Chad LaRose looked pretty much the same as it did two years ago in Estero during the Carolina Hurricanes’ pre-game skate Thursday morning at the BankAtlantic Center.
Those big, blue eyes that grew even wider whenever the puck came in his direction were easy to spot from just about anywhere inside the 19,250-seat NHL arena. Florida Everblades fans grew accustomed to them and with LaRose’s incomparable speed and playmaking ability during his rookie season in 2003-04, when he helped Carolina’s ECHL affiliate reach its first ever Kelly Cup Finals.
“It was definitely beneficial going to the Finals that year, and as much ice time as I was getting, it definitely helped me out for my future,” said LaRose, who played on the fourth line in the Hurricanes’ 2-1 exhibition win in a shootout Thursday night over the Florida Panthers. “So it’s looking up for me, and I owe a lot to the Everblades and Gerry Fleming for the experiences they gave me and the playing time and everything they gave me.”
Now the 23-year-old is on the cusp of making Carolina’s opening-night roster — and he looks right at home, not only in an NHL uniform, but on the ice and inside the locker room.
There, amidst the company of well-traveled veterans like Rod Brind’Amour, Bret Hedican and Glen Wesley, LaRose carried himself no different than he did inside the Germain Arena dressing room with Florida after practice, and he intends on doing the same on and off the ice as long as he is with the big club.
“I’ve been pretty excited so far,” LaRose said. “I’m just trying to work hard on my game, just trying to skate and get pucks here and hopefully stick around all year. We’ll see what happens. If not, I’ll be up and down I’m sure.”
Confidence, or lack thereof, has never been a problem for LaRose, and he has more than earned the confidence of the entire Carolina organization, from his teammates all the way up to head coach Peter Laviolette, assistant general manager Jason Karmanos and general manager Jim Rutherford.
After the game with the Panthers, LaRose was a little less optimistic about his chances of making the team, but tried to keep his head up.
“I don’t think I’m going to be here, but it was a good experience so far,” LaRose said after only seeing about three minutes of ice time. “We’ll see what happens, but there’s a lot of numbers right now and I’ll probably have to start out in the minors. I didn’t play much tonight, and when you’re getting the ice time you feel better.”
Karmanos’ father is Hurricanes owner Peter Karmanos, and LaRose played for his junior team in the Ontario Hockey League, the Plymouth Whalers out of Plymouth, Mich. LaRose is a Michigan native, born in the town of Fraser, and he signed with Carolina as a free agent as a rookie. His performance with the Everblades drew enough attention to warrant him 36 AHL games that season in Lowell, Mass.
Last year, LaRose helped the Lock Monsters reach the playoffs in a league full of higher caliber players than usual as a result of the NHL lockout. He scored 42 points (20 goals, 22 assists) and added another eight points (3 goals, 5 assists) in 11 playoff games, catching the eye of Laviolette in the process, who identified as LaRose’s two biggest assets his speed and scoring ability.
“I saw him play 10 to 12 times with Lowell, and every time I saw him play he was a noticeable player because of those two reasons,” Laviolette said. “But that was in the old world where you still could clamp down, so he had to fight through a lot. Now if he gets a step on somebody, you either haul him down, which (Tampa Bay) did for a penalty shot the other night in Carolina, or you get a scoring chance. So right now he’s a valuable asset to our organization, he’s played very well.”
In the five preseason games leading up to Thursday’s date with the Panthers, LaRose had scored two goals and assisted on three others. Laviolette sent him out with a number of different players, including fourth-year stalwart Erik Cole, and saw an ability to work well with anybody.
Cole, who teamed up with Brind’Amour and Bates Battaglia to form Carolina’s most potent scoring line during the team’s run to the 2002 Stanley Cup Finals, feels very comfortable on the ice with LaRose and likes the energy he brings.
“He fits in well with our system, with our style,” said Cole of LaRose. “I’ve played with him a little bit and I’ve enjoyed it. I think he’s a smart player, he has good skill, and he certainly works hard. He’s always around the puck and he’s been a pleasure for me to play with.
“Right away you like the kid. I mean he comes in, he works hard. Everyday he’s there and he’s always in a good mood, he’s always bringing energy. Even if you’re tired, just being around this guy just kind of rubs off on you, and I’ve been impressed with him. All the way through I think he’s done a terrific job of making a case for himself of making this team.”
Laviolette and Jason Karmanos both point to the new rules changes this year in the NHL as being beneficial to a player like LaRose because it will allow him to utilize his speed and skill even more. The play that led to his penalty shot against Tampa Bay was the perfect example.
LaRose, who has been whistled for two penalty thus far in the preseason, one for holding and one for tripping, is looking forward to showcasing even more of his skills with the game setting up so he can skate unimpeded more often with or without the puck.
“Definitely the rules changes are great, not just for me but for everybody,” he said. “The game’s better now, and it definitely helps me not get pulled as much and clutched and grabbed as much, it helps me free-wheel a little more, so hopefully it all works in my favor. I was never really much of a hooker, slasher kind of guy, so I kind of stayed the same. It’s other guys that are adjusting a little and it’s going to take a little time I’m sure for some teams.”
Forward Niklas Nordgren of Sweden looks to be the one man standing in LaRose’s way, and his contract status just might prove to be the deciding factor. If Nordgren doesn’t make the final roster he cannot be sent down to Carolina’s American Hockey League affiliate, the Lowell Lock Monsters, and would go back to his team in the Swedish Elite League.
If it were up to Cole, he’d like to see LaRose stay up with the Hurricanes, saying, “I think he’s a great kid, a great player and I think having him on our team I think would help. He has the energy and he just comes in there and does it. You can’t not like him and you can’t not notice him.”
Karmanos couldn’t say which way the organization was leaning, only confirming that the final roster will be set shortly after the conclusion of tonight’s game with the Lightning in Tampa, and that it will have to do with how many players the team decides to keep overall. The maximum the league allows is 23 healthy players, but Carolina could decide to carry 21 or 22 to start the season.
“(LaRose) is going to play in the league,” Karmanos said. “He’s shown that through this training camp and preseason so far, it’s just a matter of when, not if, and that’s accomplishing something for sure. So he’s made huge strides in just a couple of years.”
And he hasn’t changed a bit.