Charlotte Checkers 2010-11 preview

By Cory Lavalette

The Carolina Hurricanes figure to benefit greatly by having their AHL affiliate about 160 miles west of Raleigh. Not only will it make recalling players easier than years past, when the team had their top minor league club in Albany, N.Y., and Lowell, Mass., but the hope is it will grow hockey throughout North Carolina, giving fans in Charlotte a reason to look east to follow the Hurricanes.

So while the Charlotte Checkers will be a new AHL franchise in 2010-11, there are many familiar things about the team. Not only will the Hurricanes have several promising young players returning to the AHL this season, Charlotte will still have the Checkers. Since 1993, the team has operated as one of the ECHL’s most successful franchises and the Checkers name goes back to mid-1950s when the team was North Carolina’s first professional hockey team.

Forwards

A year after icing one of the NHL’s oldest teams, the Hurricanes have committed to a youth movement. Both Zac Dalpe and Drayson Bowman — who each spent time in Albany last season — made the Hurricanes out of training camp, but the Carolina brass has indicated that several of the young players could travel to and from Charlotte throughout the season.

Zach Boychuk is arguably the top prospect in Charlotte to start 2010-11. After splitting his first full professional season between the Hurricanes (nine points in 31 games) and the River Rats (36 points in 52 games), many expected Boychuk to win an NHL spot to start the year.

But the emergence of 2010 first round pick Jeff Skinner and play of Dalpe and Bowman in camp left Boychuk on the outside looking in. But Checkers coach Jeff Daniels, who is in his third season leading Carolina’s AHL affiliate, said Boychuk is still battling to make his way to the NHL.

“He’s come down with the right attitude,” Daniels said. “I know he’s disappointed, but he’s coming down to work hard and put himself in a position to get back up top. When you get sent down, you either go one of two ways: you either mope and feel sorry for yourself, or you come down and work hard and try to prove people wrong, and that’s what he’s doing.”

While Boychuk is probably the top talent in Charlotte, it’s hard to argue against Jerome Samson being the team’s best returning player. The 23-year-old undrafted winger was one of the AHL’s top players last season, registering team highs in goals (37), assists (41) and points (78) in his third pro season. Samson proved to be a dominant force in the minors, but managed just two assists in seven games in Carolina last year in limited minutes. With even more young players to climb over to get another NHL shot, Samson will have to replicate his 2009-10 campaign for the Checkers.

“There would be times when he didn’t get the call [last year], and he could’ve been disappointed with what’s going on, but he went out that night and it didn’t faze him,” Daniels said of Samson. “He was very professional about it, just waiting for his opportunity. That’s the message we give all the players: it might not happen this week or a month from now, but you have to prepared and keep pushing yourself because at any point they could call down and need a player, and they’re going to ask who’s playing best. It’s not about points, it’s about who’s playing to the best of their ability.”

One thing Daniels will have to work with is more size up front this season. Grinder Nicolas Blanchard is back, as is Oskar Osala, who was acquired at the trade deadline by Carolina last year. Offseason trade acquisitions Riley Nash, a former first-round pick, and Jared Staal, youngest brother of Hurricanes captain Eric, are both big bodies that give Daniels more options.

“Osala, he’s another 225-pound guy who is strong on the puck,” Daniels said. “Staal is a good size. Matt Kennedy is a solid kid. We’re bigger up front, which is good to win those battles along the boards and pay the price in front of the net. We have some size to go along with our skill players that can hopefully lead the way for us.”

Daniels said that size could translate to an improved power play, especially with someone like Osala who combines size and skill.

“The power play has some options,” Daniels said. “To have a big body in front of the net to hopefully tie up a defenseman or screen the goalie. So it’s good to have size. A guy like Osala has good size, but he has good hands. He’s a guy that can score goals for us.”

The Checkers will also get back Stefan Chaput, Nick Dodge and Chris Terry from last year’s team. Daniels has leaned on Dodge to be his do-everything center the past two seasons, and expects more of the same in 2010-11.

“For the last two years he’s been our Mr. Everything,” Daniels said of Dodge. “He’s very low-maintenance, very professional. Kind of just put him wherever and he goes out and does his job. … Whether it’s playing on the top line or playing on a checking line or killing penalties or maybe a little power play time, he just goes out and does his job. He’s one of those guys you enjoy to coach, just the way his mindset is and the way he handles himself every day.”

As for Terry, Daniels took it upon himself to make the big-time junior scorer — 195 points in his final two seasons with the OHL’s Plymouth Whalers — into a more rounded forward in his first pro season.

“Last year we put him in more of a defensive role, trying to make him become a complete player because he had the offensive skill and all that,” Daniels said of Terry. “So we put him on a checking line last year and he performed real well on it. This year, we’ll expand his role, put him in more of an offensive role, but at the same time he’s proven to us he’s a very responsible two-way player now. So we’ll hold to him to that, but we’ll put him in a more offensive role this year and try to use those offensive capabilities.”

Jonathan Matsumoto was also acquired this offseason, adding more scoring depth to the Checkers’ front line. He joins Brad Herauf and Jacob Micflickier on Charlotte’s season-opening roster. With Sergei Samsonov injured during Carolina’s first two games, which were held in Finland, Daniels could get one more forward back from the Hurricanes by mid-October.

Defense

The Checkers defense is a mix of established talent and new faces. Jamie McBain, who led the River Rats in scoring from the blue line last season, looks like he will be a full-time NHLer in 2010-11. But Daniels does get back some players he is comfortable with.

“Brian Rodney’s our leader back there,” Daniels said. “He’s been with us for a couple years and we expect a lot from him both offensively and defensively. Casey Borer’s a solid two-way player. And an older guy who gives us some experience back there is Zack Fitzgerald. He’ll give us some grit on the back end and keeps it real simple, but he’s very hard to play against.”

Daniels said another returning name has really made an impression.

“Another guy we’re really high on is Brett Bellemore,” Daniels said. “He’s definitely put on some weight this summer, and it was good weight. He had to get stronger and he did that this summer. … He’s not really going to stand out if you’re reading the stat sheet. Scoring goals, going end-to-end — you’re not going to see that much from him, but you appreciate the little things he does defensively.”

Also joining Charlotte after the Hurricanes trip to Finland are Brett Carson, who spent most of last season with Carolina, and Bobby Sanguinetti, a former first round pick who was acquired from the Rangers at June’s NHL Entry Draft. Both could play big roles in Charlotte or spend significant time in Raleigh.

Filling the other spots are two first-year pros, Michal Jordan and Kyle Lawson. Jordan joined the River Rats last year after his season with the Plymouth Whalers ended, but did not play a game with Albany. Lawson saw 10 games with the Rats after finishing his collegiate career at Notre Dame and signing his entry-level contract.

“They’re first-year players and they’re going to have to learn as they go, learn the pro game and just the pace of the game,” Daniels said of Jordan and Lawson. “They’re both good kids who are very coachable. They’re not kidding themselves, they know it’s going to be a tough adjustment, but they’re ready to put the work in.”

Goaltending

With Justin Peters earning the backup job in Carolina, second-year pro Mike Murphy will battle AHL journeyman Justin Pogge for starts in Charlotte. With Carolina playing with an expanded roster while overseas to open the season, Pogge was in Finland as the Canes’ number three goalie while Murphy was in Checkers camp trying to earn an upper hand on the starting job.

While Daniels said there will be a competition in net, it sounds like the organization is hoping Murphy, a former sixth round pick and two-time OHL goaltender of the year, can build on a decent rookie season.

“I’m going into the season very open and giving both guys an opportunity to perform,” Daniels said. “I think it’s a great opportunity for Mike Murphy to step up and take advantage of this opportunity knowing that he’s the guy right now [while Pogge is with the Hurricanes]. It’s something he’s worked this summer for and waited for this opportunity to hopefully run with it.”

Coaching

Daniels is in his third season as head coach and general manager of the Hurricanes’ top affiliate, and previously served as an assistant with Carolina. He led the River Rats to the postseason last year, sweeping Wilkes-Barre in the first round before losing in four straight to the eventual Calder Cup champion Hershey Bears in the second round. Geordie Kinnear returns as an assistant coach.

Prospects

No one had more buzz at training camp than seventh overall pick Jeff Skinner. Skinner’s play earned him a job in Carolina to start the season, where he can play nine games before the Canes decide whether or not to return him to his junior team in Kitchener.

Daniels, who coached Skinner at the Traverse City Prospect Tournament, said it was clear the 18-year-old is a special talent.

“He’s pretty impressive,” Daniels said. “Right from day one in Traverse City where he’s playing against players his age, he definitely stood out. He’s that good. Obviously he’s got the skill. And he’s a smart player. He knows what’s available and doesn’t try to force things. [He’s] very quiet, very professional. I definitely think he’s probably ready to make that jump and we’ll see how it all turns out.

While Daniels won’t be seeing Skinner in Charlotte due to his age, both Dalpe and Bowman could be returned to Charlotte if they can’t hold on to jobs in Raleigh. Dalpe joined the Rivers Rats for the final nine games of the regular season after leaving Ohio State at the end of his sophomore season and was impressive, scoring six goals and adding an assist in his brief pro debut.

“You like his size and he can skate,” Daniels said of Dalpe. “Right away he can adapt to the speed of the game because of his speed. He has a good hockey mind, an NHL-caliber shot that will create a lot of offense, whether he’s scoring or creating second or third opportunities from his shot. And he’s very coachable. He wants to play, he wants to make an impact. He has a good head on his shoulders, takes it day to day and has proven to Carolina he can play.”

As for Bowman, it was his commitment to conditioning that made the biggest difference this camp. Bowman said he lost 15 pounds by working with Hurricanes head trainer Pete Friesen during the offseason, and the improved speed and acceleration in his stride was evident on the ice.

“He knew he had the skill, he’s a goal scorer and he’ll score goals — just give him time and he’ll start scoring some goals,” Daniels said of Bowman. “But he made a commitment this summer to get in professional shape and for me it shows by looking at him, and it definitely shows when he’s on the ice. He looks a lot quicker out there. He’s strong throughout the game. He’s not where he starts out strong and he starts to fade.”

Bowman’s two-way play in camp and in preseason games was a big part of him making the team, but his hustle and effort was more noticeable compared to past training camps.

“You notice he made a point of finishing all his checks,” Daniels said, “He wasn’t running around and trying to make hits, but if the hit was there he was finishing his check. That was something the coaching staff of Carolina has been preaching, they want to be a hard team to play against, a quick team. His quickness and finishing his checks, I think that’s important when you’re not scoring right away, you just make sure the other parts of your game aren’t lacking an he’s definitely do all the little things that’ll keep him up there.