"I thought it was fantastic…We did a lot of good things on the ice, but I thought the transition was great."
So says Charlotte Checkers GM/head coach Jeff Daniels on the team’s first season in North Carolina, a move that saw the parent club Carolina Hurricanes help usher AHL hockey into the state and more closely link the NHL franchise with its top affiliate.
Both on and off the ice, the Checkers were a success in 2010-11. Daniels, now entering his fourth season as the guiding force behind the Canes’ AHL squad, led Charlotte to the Eastern Conference Finals last season. And with many of his core players returning for the 2011-12 campaign, the expectation should be that the team will again compete for a Calder Cup title.
Daniels will open the season with four of his top-six scoring forwards from last season in the lineup, including top point-getter Zach Boychuk, up-and-coming winger Chris Terry, and veteran AHL scorers Jerome Samson and Jon Matsumoto.
For the second straight year, Boychuk fell short in training camp and failed to earn a spot with the Hurricanes, a place that was instead filled by second-year pro Zac Dalpe in Carolina. But Daniels still thinks Boychuk has what it takes to make the jump to the NHL.
"He’s become a better player away from the puck," Daniels said of Boychuk. "It’s just a matter of doing it consistently. He’s a guy that I feel is at his best when he’s very involved in the game, being physical and trying to do stuff with the puck and playing with energy. That’s the game he needs to play."
While Boychuk, who had 65 points in 60 games with the Checkers last season, is the former first round pick looking to cash in on his promise, Terry has slowly climbed the pecking order and become one of Daniels’ most relied upon players. Not only has he proven he can put the puck in the net (team-high 34 goals last season), but his overall game has grown since turning pro two seasons ago.
"[Terry] is a guy that is going to play a lot of minutes for us," Daniels said. "I trust that he can play both with and without the puck. He’s one of the two guys that I have on the team that will play power play, kill penalties, and also play five-on-five. He’s going to have to earn that ice time, but he’s a guy we project can do all that stuff for us."
Also returning up front are new captain Brett Sutter, second-year center Riley Nash, and left wing Drayson Bowman. Following a midseason trade to the Carolina franchise, Sutter quickly established himself as a dedicated, committed player. It’s the main reason Daniels chose him to replace the departed Bryan Rodney as the team’s captain.
"For me, he’s very professional," Daniels said. "I like the way he handles himself on and off the ice. He’s the perfect example for everyone in our locker room, the way he pushes every day. Every day in practice, in games – it’s always a total effort. He can be vocal and back it up on the ice because he’s always willing to work hard and always be team-first."
Nash had a solid-if-unspectacular 32 points in 79 games last season, but was perhaps the biggest surprise of the preseason, outlasting all but Dalpe at Hurricanes camp with his strong showing.
"From where he was last year to this year, he’s made some huge strides," Daniels said of Nash. "He’s come in this year with a lot of confidence after having a good camp in Carolina. He’ll play a bigger role for this team this year. He’ll be expected to be on the top lines with us, be put in a lot of offensive situations. It’ll be up to him what he does with it."
Bowman, like Boychuk, has played parts of two seasons with the Canes but has been unable to carve himself a full-time spot at the NHL level. While he has proven defensively responsible, the offensive production that made stand out in junior has not yet translated to the pro game. He has just 29 goals in 107 AHL games the past two seasons, compared to the back-to-back 40-plus goal years he had his final two seasons in the WHL with Spokane.
"A lot of this game is mental," Daniels said. "If you get a couple goals early, you start feeling good about yourself and feeling good about your game, you can go off that quite a bit. Bowman is in that situation where he just needs to feel good about himself. He needs to believe he’s a great player and score goals. It’s just a matter of doing it…He’s very determined to get back to Carolina but knows he has to get the job done here first before he gets back up top."
AHL veteran Chris Durno and long-time Canes farmhand Nicolas Blanchard are the two alternates for Daniels and will provide consistent play among the forwards. ECHL graduates Matthew Pistilli and Jared Staal beat out first-year pro Justin Shugg and Mike McKenzie for the final spots in Charlotte to open the season. Pistilli’s improvement over the course of the 2010-11 season played a big part in him being ready to start this year in Charlotte.
"He’s a guy that proved in his junior career and proved last year in the East Coast level that he can produce, and now this is the big year, the third year," Daniels said. "It’s a big year for Pistilli. He needs to show he can play at this level, and he’s very confident he can help produce at this level."
As for Staal, the fourth of four in the Staal line has worked hard to make his way onto the Checkers roster.
"To his credit, last year was an eye-opener for him, just learning the pro game," Daniels said. "As a first year player, a lot of them realize early that this is a really tough league. He made a commitment this summer to get in better shape and he’s continued to push himself every day in practice to prove that he wants to be on our team and help makes this team better. He deserves to be here right now."
Cedric McNicoll and newcomer Justin Soryal round out the Charlotte forwards.
Gone are the aforementioned Rodney, tough guy Zack Fitzgerald and former Canes pick Casey Borer, but Daniels’ biggest loss on the blue line may come in the form of Justin Faulk. With just 13 AHL playoff games under his belt as a pro, Faulk opened eyes at the Traverse City prospect tournament and Canes camp, earning a spot on the Hurricanes roster and the proclamation from Carolina GM Jim Rutherford that he was among the team’s top four defensemen heading in to the season.
"First off, we’re excited for him," Daniels said. "That’s what his goal is, to play up in the National Hockey League with the Hurricanes, and to his credit he worked hard all summer. He made a great impression [at Traverse City] and that carried on to the big camp. He’s just a good kid that knows how to play the game. He’s a strong kid. He skates well and he can shoot the puck and he plays offensively and defensively. We had a piece of him last year throughout the playoffs and knew right away that this kid had a bright future."
That leaves the defense in the hands of several players worthy of more ice time. Rugged Brett Bellemore should again team up with second-year pro Michal Jordan to serve as the team’s top shutdown pairing. Bellemore enters his third full season in the AHL and has continued to grow.
"He’s getting better every year," Daniels said of Bellemore. "He’s worked on his weaknesses. He’s more confident with the puck. He has to move the puck quicker and do things quicker, no different than any player at this level, but he’s come a long way. He’s a guy that we’ll rely on quite a bit to play big minutes, important minutes for us."
Jordan started last season as a spare part and worked his way up the depth chart before settling in with Bellemore.
"He obviously had a great year last year," Daniels said. "He started the year as our seventh defenseman and all of a sudden by the end of the year he’s playing in our top four and playing with ‘Belly’ and playing against top lines…He’ll get a little power play time for us. He’s got a good shot and can move the puck well."
Further helping the defensive transition was the signing of journeyman Mathieu Roy, a nine-year pro who has filled in at the NHL level throughout his career.
"Mathieu Roy brings a lot of experience for us on the back end," Daniels said. "I think with [Faulk] making the big club up top, having a guy like Roy gives us more balance on the back end."
Former Rangers first-rounder Bobby Sanguinetti is also experienced and even started last fall on Carolina’s roster as the seventh defenseman for the team’s trip to Europe and season-opening set of games against Minnesota in Finland. But an injury and subsequent surgery derailed his first season with the franchise.
"Last year was a tough year [for Sanguinetti]," Daniels said. "He started out real well, had a good camp up top. And then had that hip issue and missed a good chunk of the season. To his credit he came back earlier than expected."
Sanguinetti had to play catch-up this preseason, but Faulk’s promotion to the NHL means more minutes for the 23-year-old rearguard.
"This year, especially with [Faulk] starting the year in Carolina, he’s a guy we’ll look upon him from the offensive side of the puck, lots of power play time and try to create some offense from the back end, and that’s one of his assets. But he has to bring that this year," Daniels said.
Finnish defenseman Rasmus Rissanen returns after joining the team at the end of last year and getting in one game with the Checkers. The other newcomer is former Cornell defenseman Justin Krueger, who returns to North America after a season in the Swiss League. Both will need to learn quickly to help fill out the defense.
"With Rissanen and Krueger you have two first year players at this level," Daniels said. "I know Krueger is a little bit older (25), but it’s going to be a new experience for him playing at the pro level in North America. … But he’s an older player so he’s more mature and he’s played in some big games at the World Championships.
Daniels returns his goaltending duo from two seasons ago as Justin Peters is back in the AHL, while Mike Murphy, last year’s starter, also returns to Charlotte. Both have successful AHL campaigns under their belts and they will compete for the top job this year.
"I think they both need to play. We’re very confident in either one," Daniels said.
"I think the competition will be healthy but at the same time, if someone is on a roll we’re going to play them for a bit. On the other hand, we’re not going to let a guy sit for a long period of time. They’re both here to play and we’re very confident in what we have in net."
Daniels starts his fourth season as the head coach and general manager of Carolina’s AHL affiliate, the first two coming in Albany and now with Charlotte. His teams have made the playoffs each of the last two years and after last season’s run to the league’s final four, the Checkers should be primed for a shot at the Calder Cup.
There is the possibility Daniels might not be with Charlotte all season, as Carolina head coach Paul Maurice is in the final year of a three-year contract and has been unable to lead the Hurricanes to the playoffs each of the last two seasons. If Maurice is dismissed midseason, Daniels is likely on the short list of candidates to be named the next head coach of the Hurricanes.
He is joined by assistant coach Geordie Kinnear, an AHL assistant for more than a decade who has been with the Canes organization since 2007.
Shugg, McKenzie and defenseman Kyle Lawson are among the most likely candidates to get recalled from the ECHL and earn playing time in Charlotte, while Dalpe, and Faulk – if unsuccessful in Raleigh – could be returned to the Checkers for more seasoning, if needed.
Several CHL and college players could join the team after their season’s are over in with their current team, including former second-round picks Brian Dumoulin (junior defenseman at Boston College) and Swedish-born Victor Rask (center for the WHL’s Calgary Hitmen). Defenseman Austin Levi and forward Brody Sutter are also candidates to make their way to Charlotte for the end of the 2011-12 season.