While the Charlotte Checkers’ first season as Carolina’s top affiliate fell short of a berth in the Calder Cup finals, the 2010-11 season ushered in hope for the future in both the new AHL market and in Raleigh. After knocking off two-time defending Calder Cup champion Hershey in the first round, the Checkers ousted top seed Wilkes-Barre before falling to Binghamton.
Nicolas Blanchard, LW, 24
Four seasons into his professional career, Blanchard has established himself as a big, gritty forward who is willing to do anything to help his team win. The 2010-11 season was no different. Blanchard ranked third on the Checkers in penalty minutes with 101, including 11 fights. His 18 points were his lowest total of his career, but is on par with the 21 points he averaged heading in to the campaign. Blanchard has one year remaining on a two-year deal he signed prior to last season.
Drayson Bowman, LW, 22
Bowman has not yet exhibited the goal-scoring touch that made him such a threat in the WHL, but that doesn’t mean the Hurricanes are down on the second-year pro. Bowman managed just 12 goals and 18 assists in 51 games with the Checkers, a slight drop off from last season, but his two-way play earned him 23 games in Raleigh. Again, his scoring output was disappointing (just one assist), but Bowman’s all-around play and hustle showed that if the offensive floodgates eventually open, the Hurricanes will have a huge two-way asset in Bowman. The 22-year-old forward is entering the final season of his entry-level contract.
Zach Boychuk, C, 21
Boychuk led the Checkers in regular season scoring despite playing just 60 games in Charlotte. Boychuk’s 22 goals were supplemented by a team-high 43 assists, nearly doubling the 36 points he had in 52 games in the AHL last season. Like Bowman, Boychuk played 23 games with Carolina in 2010-11 and had four goals and three assists while playing mostly a bottom six role. Boychuk’s 2010 training camp was disappointing, leading to his demotion to Charlotte to start the year. He will again be battling for a roster spot this fall and will need to have a better camp to beat out several other prospects vying for a top-nine role with Carolina. Next season will be the final year of Boychuk’s entry-level contract.
Zac Dalpe, C, 21
More than any other Hurricanes’ minor leaguer, Dalpe emerged as a potential future star. After an impressive sneak peek in the final nine games of the 2009-10 regular season and Calder Cup playoffs, Dalpe was among the AHL’s top rookies this season. His 57 points (23 goals, 34 assists) ranked third in the league in rookie scoring, and Dalpe’s 15-game stint with the Hurricanes showed off the skating, shot, and smarts that make him the most likely prospect to earn a spot on Carolina’s roster next season. The question is whether Dalpe will continue at center or move to the wing once he makes the full-time jump to the NHL.
Nick Dodge, C, 25
Dodge’s offensive number dipped dramatically in his third pro season, falling to just 13 points in 57 games after registering 75 total points the previous two campaigns. But Dodge’s contributions go well beyond the score sheet. He was coach Jeff Daniels’ top defensive forward throughout the season and also contributed at both ends of the ice in the postseason. He scored back-to-back game-winning goals in Games 4 and 5 vs. Hershey and finished the playoffs with four goals and two assists in 16 games. Dodge is a restricted free agent this offseason.
Jonathan Matsumoto, C, 24
Matsumoto came to Carolina as a proven AHL scorer, having totaled 79 goals the past three seasons in the Flyers system. With the Hurricanes he finally got his chance to play in the NHL, earning 13 games in Raleigh and scoring his first two NHL goals in just his second game with the Canes. Those were the only points he registered during his call up, but he scored 20 goals in 65 games with the Checkers and finished with 48 points. Matsumoto has one year remaining on the two-year contract he signed prior to the 2010-11 season.
Cedric McNicoll, C, 22
McNicoll’s season got off to a rough start when he was injured with the Florida Everblades, Carolina’s ECHL affiliate, in late October. In all, McNicoll split time between Florida and Charlotte in 2010-11. McNicoll has proved a capable point producer, registering 14 points in 15 games with Charlotte and 24 points in 29 games with the Everblades, but will need to overcome questions about his lack of size if he is to earn a full-time job in Charlotte. McNicoll is entering the final year of his entry-level deal.
Riley Nash, C, 22
Nash’s professional career got off to a slow start, but the former Oilers first round pick progressed as his first year wore on. In the end, Nash finished with 32 points (14 goals, 18 assists) in 79 games. With Carolina looking to find room for a few young forwards in their lineup next year, Nash should earn a bigger role in Charlotte in preparation for his eventual ascension to the NHL.
Oskar Osala, LW, 23
Osala’s first full season in the Carolina organization got off to a fast start. The Finnish forward had 40 points in 49 games through January, but injuries slowed him and he played just 10 more regular season games and had just two points. He then had five points in 15 playoff games. But perhaps the biggest storyline of Osala’s season was the rumor that he was planning to sign with a KHL team following the season. Osala twice the denied the rumors via Twitter, but following the Checkers’ elimination from the Calder Cup playoffs he did tweet that, as an RFA, he would be joining Neftekhimik of the KHL. Carolina will retain Osala’s rights since he is still a restricted free agent.
Matthew Pistilli, RW, 22
For the second straight season, Pistilli split his season between the ECHL and AHL. But Pistilli, an undrafted free agent, continues to progress and seems a likely candidate for a full-time roll with the Checkers next season. In 2010-11, Pistilli had 19 points, including eight goals, in 50 games with Charlotte, plus 31 points in 27 games with the Everblades. He also played five playoff games with the Checkers, notching one assist. Pistilli has one year left on his three-year entry-level deal.
Jerome Samson, RW, 23
Samson was again dominating the AHL when Carolina finally gave him an extended look at the NHL level. With 54 points in 53 games with Charlotte, Samson didn’t have much else to prove in the minor leagues. But while he was known as a dominant scorer in the AHL, Samson’s role as an NHLer is likely as a grinder. He had two assists in 23 games with Carolina, but exhibited the puck control and corner work that helped him dominate in the minors and will make him a valuable third or fourth liner with the Hurricanes. Samson has another year left on a two-year deal he signed before the 2010-11 season.
Brett Sutter, C, 24
The Hurricanes acquired Sutter, the cousin of center Brandon Sutter, from Calgary in mid-November in the deal that brought Ian White to Carolina for Anton Babchuk and Tom Kostopoulos. Sutter had 21 points in 70 games with Charlotte and Abbotsford, Calgary’s AHL affiliate, plus played a combined five games with the Flames and Hurricanes, registering one assist. But Sutter made his biggest impact in the postseason, leading the Checkers in playoff scoring with 14 points (four goals, 10 assists) in 16 games. He was also a team-best plus-four in the postseason. But Sutter’s future in the NHL is not as a scorer, but rather a defensive forward who can man the third or fourth line and kill penalties. Sutter is a restricted free agent.
Jared Staal, RW, 20
Carolina acquired the youngest of four Staal brothers during the offseason, trading a fifth-round pick for the 49th overall pick in the 2008 Entry Draft. Staal spent the majority of his time with the Everblades, posting 11 points in 33 games, and also had two points in 13 games with the Checkers. Staal already has an NHL body (the Hurricanes list him at 6’4, 210 pounds), but he has a long way to go before he can even be considered for an NHL job.
Chris Terry, LW, 22
Terry’s progress has him climbing the Carolina prospect ranks and has him looking more and more like a future NHLer. Most importantly, perhaps, is how much Terry has improved defensively since turning pro. He spent much of the 2009-10 season in a checking role, but Daniels – satisfied with Terry’s progress defensively – made the second-year pro a bigger part of his offense this past year. Terry responded, doubling his goal output from his first professional season by scoring 34 times in 80 games and finishing with 64 points, second to only Boychuk on the Checkers. He then added nine points, including six goals, in Charlotte’s 16-game run to the AHL Eastern Conference finals. Terry has one year remaining on his entry-level deal.
Brett Bellemore, D, 22
Bellemore will never be a point-producer, but he has quickly become one of Daniels’ most reliable stay-at-home defenders. By coupling size (6’4, 205) with consistently improving defense, Bellemore has gone from sixth round pick in 2007 to a potential bottom pairing NHL defenseman in the future. He had 10 points in 71 games with Charlotte this season, plus two more in all 16 of the Checkers’ postseason games. Bellemore is a restricted free agent.
Casey Borer, D, 25
Borer’s career has been riddled with injury and misfortune, but the 67 games he played in 2010-11 is the most games he played since his first professional season in 2007-08. The question is if Borer, who was impressive in an 11-game stint in Carolina that first season, can ever regain the confidence and skill that he was robbed of due to his unfortunate circumstances. He finished with two goals and 12 assists with Charlotte in 2010-11 and added three points in 15 playoff games. Borer is a restricted free agent.
Michal Jordan, D, 20
Jordan exceeded expectations in his first full professional season, managing 18 points in 67 games and boasting a plus-13, the best on Charlotte’s defense. A former teammate of Bellemore’s with the OHL‘s Plymouth Whalers, Jordan was initially in a lesser role but earned Daniels’ trust as the season wore on. A native of the Czech Republic, Jordan should have an even bigger role in Charlotte in his second pro season.
Kyle Lawson, D, 24
Lawson’s first professional season was spent mostly with the Everblades, though he did get into 18 games with the Checkers. Lawson – who spent four years at Notre Dame helping build up the Irish program before turning pro -went pointless with Charlotte, but had 12 assists in 51 games with Florida and played in four playoff games with the Everblades. Lawson is entering the final year of his two-year contract.
Bobby Sanguinetti, D, 21
When acquired by Carolina during last summer’s NHL Entry Draft, Sanguinetti hoped to battle for a spot with the Hurricanes this season. He did travel with Carolina to Finland for their season-opening set of games vs. the Wild, but was scratched for both games and eventually reassigned to Charlotte. Sanguinetti struggled to start the season, battling a hip injury that eventually led to what was believed to be season-ending surgery. But Sanguinetti returned in mid-March and played down the stretch and in the postseason for the Checkers. He finished with 15 points, including three goals, in 31 regular season games, plus two assists in 10 postseason games. Sanguinetti is a restricted free agent.
Mike Murphy, G, 22
He had to overcome injury and stiff competition, but Murphy earned Charlotte’s number one goaltending job come the postseason. After playing just 20 games last season, Murphy went 21-11-3 in 39 games in 2010-11 with a 2.53 goals-against average and .919 save percentage. He then went 7-7 with a 2.57 goals-against average and .919 save percentage in the postseason, helping lead the Checkers to the AHL’s Eastern Conference finals. With Carolina looking to upgrade their backup goaltending next season, this year’s No. 2, Justin Peters, will battle Murphy for playing time in Charlotte. Murphy has one year remaining in his entry-level contract.
Justin Pogge, G, 25
Pogge had more starts than Murphy this season, playing in 48 games and amassing a 22-18-4 record, but lost out to Murphy when it came time for the playoffs. With a 3.12 goals-against average and .907 save percentage, Pogge’s pedestrian numbers likely mean he will not be back in the Carolina organization, especially with Peters set to return to the AHL for more playing time.