Carolina Hurricanes minor-league affiliate heavy on NHL ready talent

By Cory Lavalette
Photo: Zach Boychuk is one of several Carolina prospects who have already seen some time at the NHL level this season. (Photo courtesy of Holly Gunning/HF)

The Charlotte Checkers are 31 games into its inaugural AHL season as the top affiliate of the Carolina Hurricanes. Checkers general manager and coach Jeff Daniels has guided Charlotte to a 17-10-1-3 record, using a balanced scoring attack led by several prospects to lead the team into the thick of the AHL‘s Eastern Conference playoff hunt.

Nicolas Blanchard, LW, 23

Blanchard, one of Carolina’s biggest forward prospects at 6’3, 206 pounds, continues to be one of Charlotte’s role players. Through 24 games, he has just three points but already has 59 penalty minutes – including seven fights, which ties him for the team lead.

Blanchard has missed all of Charlotte’s December games with a broken jaw, which was suffered in practice.

Drayson Bowman, LW, 21

Bowman won a spot on the Carolina roster coming out of training camp, but he averaged just 8:32 minutes and registered no points in eight NHL games before being reassigned to Charlotte. Since his reassignment, Bowman has put up points (13 in 16 games) but has just three goals.

"Unfortunately he’s kind of snakebit right now," Daniels said of Bowman in early December. "If you watch the game closely, he’s probably had more quality chances than Zac [Dalpe], he’s just snakebit right now and can’t find the back of the net. He’s working and it’s just a matter of time before he breaks out, given his skill level."

Bowman hasn’t had the chance to break through yet, having suffered a knee injury that has kept him out of the lineup since Dec. 6th.

Zach Boychuk, C, 21

The first round pick emerged as one of the AHL‘s top point producers, registering 32 points (10 goals, 22 assists) through 28 games, before earning an emergency recall to Carolina Dec. 17.

"You look at Boychuk and even a guy like Chris Terry, now they’re second-year pros," Daniels said. "They went through their learning curve last year [and learned] what it takes to be a pro. Stuff that they got away with in junior doesn’t work at the pro level. They learned a lot last year and now they have a year under their belt, and they know what to expect. They’re playing offensive roles and playing on the power play. They’re guys we count on to produce for us."

Boychuk is still tied for fourth in AHL scoring despite playing the past two games with the Hurricanes, where he has no points in just under eight minutes of ice time a night.

Zac Dalpe, C, 21

Dalpe has been one of the AHL‘s hottest scorers, getting 12 goals in just 21 Checkers games, since he was reassigned to Charlotte after winning a spot in the opening night lineup in Carolina.

"Zac came down, and he’s got that speed in the middle of ice that he creates a lot of offense … and with his shot, so he’s scoring some goals," Daniels said.

Dalpe had one assist in seven games with Carolina, but like Bowman was getting just fourth line minutes (6:41 a night) and was better served playing a major role in the AHL. His 20 points have him tied for eighth in AHL rookie scoring despite playing about 10 games less than the rest of the top 10.

Nick Dodge, C, 24

Dodge’s scoring is down from last season (four goals, four assists in 31 games), but he’s still one of Daniels’ most reliable forwards. He can play in any situation – on a scoring line, checking the opposition’s top players, and special teams – and Daniels has said he is one of his most coachable players and he can rely on him to do his job each night.

Jonathan Matsumoto, C, 24

Matsumoto was recalled when Dalpe and Bowman were reassigned, then returned to Charlotte Nov. 25. Matsumoto was Charlotte’s top scorer when he was recalled to Carolina and has 18 points in 19 games with the Checkers.

"It’s his fourth year in the league," Daniels said of Matsumoto. "He’s a proven point producer in this league. He gives us more depth at center and gives us a veteran centerman."

Matsumoto got his first NHL goal during his promotion to Carolina, scoring twice against the Islanders Nov. 3, for his only points in 10 games with the Canes.

Riley Nash, C, 21

During training camp, Nash seemed a step behind adjusting to the pace of the pro game. That carried over to the start of the regular season, where Nash went nine games before getting his first professional point. But the first year player has since scored 17 points in 22 games with the Checkers. He is tied for 16th in AHL rookie scoring.

Oskar Osala, LW, 22

Osala, who was acquired from Washington at last season’s trade deadline, has a pedigree as a scorer who uses his big frame to make space for himself and his linemates. But in 2010-11 Osala has been piling up assists, collecting a career-high 19 to go with seven goals through 31 games this season.

"He has good size and he’s got a great shot, but he also has the hands to make plays, and I think that’s showing now," Daniels said. "He’s just not a one-dimensional player who is big and strong and shoots the puck, he does those things- he has good hands and can make plays. He’s making those plays and guys are putting them in the net and that’s how he’s getting those assists."

Matthew Pistilli, RW ,22

The undrafted right wing has twice been recalled from the ECHL‘s Everblades and has four points (one goal, three assists) in five games with the Checkers. Pistilli was reassigned to Florida, where he ranks third in scoring with 14 goals and 14 assists in 24 games, on Dec. 20.

Jerome Samson, RW, 23

Last season, the undrafted right wing was a one-man wrecking crew for Daniels’ team in Albany, scoring 37 goals and adding 41 assists en route to being named a first team AHL All Star. His 78 points with the River Rats were 31 more than his closest teammate, and he was the only Albany player with more than 20 goals. So far this season, Samson is on a similar tear, but he hasn’t had to do it all by himself.

don’t have to rely on one guy," Daniels said. "We’re very comfortable with the four lines we have right now. … It’s well balanced right now."

Still, Samson is having another big season. His 34 points (17 goals, 17 assists) have him third in AHL scoring, and he’s tied with Montreal prospect Max Pacioretty for the league lead in goals.

Jared Staal, RW, 20

Rookie Jared Staal has split his season between Charlotte and Florida. After starting the year with the Checkers, Staal was assigned to the ECHL to get more ice time.

"He just got caught in a numbers game," Daniels said of Staal, the youngest of the famed four hockey-playing brothers, in early December. "Now he’s playing and getting a chance to play a lot – I think he’s played nine games in two weeks. Here, he played nine games in the whole season here. He’s getting a chance to play and play in some situations that he might get the opportunity at this level at this time."

In 13 games with the Everblades, Staal has three goals and three assists. He was recalled to Charlotte for three games in mid-December, scoring his first AHL goal Dec. 18. That is his only point in 12 games with the Checkers this season.

Brett Sutter, C, 23

Daniels got reinforcements when Carolina acquired Sutter – cousin of Brandon – from Calgary early in the season. Sutter was assigned to Charlotte after the trade after having played four games with the Flames. Once he cleared waivers, he joined the Checkers and has started to acclimate himself with his new organization.

"He has very smart hockey sense and a very good understanding of the game, especially defensively," Daniels said. "He can play center, he can play the wing and he’s very competitive and hard to play against. He’s a guy who can chip in some goals for us hopefully. He’s been good for us. He’s gotten better over time. He’s been learning a new system, new teammates, a new city. Now he’s comfortable being here, being in the locker room and I think you’re starting to see him play his best hockey of the year so far."

He has two goals in 12 games with the Checkers this season.

Chris Terry, LW, 21

Terry, like Boychuk, has emerged as an AHL scoring threat. The 2007 fifth round pick has 13 goals – just four shy of the 17 he scored in 80 games during last year’s rookie campaign – and 13 assists in 31 games this season in a top-six role.

Brett Bellemore, D, 22

Bellemore, who played his junior hockey in Plymouth, missed the majority of November with an injury, but is back in the lineup as one of Daniels’ shutdown defensemen. The 6’4, 218-pound blueliner has two assists in 22 games with the Checkers and just 15 penalty minutes.

Casey Borer, D, 25

Borer has also been a mainstay on the Checkers back end, notching five points in 27 games. That may not seem like much, but Borer overcame a broken neck suffered in last year’s River Rats bus crash and has developed into a reliable – and healthy – option for Daniels.

Michal Jordan, D, 20

Jordan, another product of the Peter Karamanos-owned Plymouth Whalers, has had an impressive first full season as a professional. The Czech Republic native has earned Daniels’ trust with his play thus far and could get a bigger role down the road.

"He’s been great," Daniels said of Jordan. "He’s getting better and better every game. He’s probably playing his best hockey so far this year and playing with a lot of confidence. He’s big and strong, and makes a good first pass and he’s not afraid to join the rush at the right time. He plays with a little bit of an edge to his game. Hopefully throughout the year we’ll get him some power play time because he’s got a pretty heavy shot. For a first year pro, we’re very, very happy with him."

In 24 games, Jordan has four assists, 18 penalty minutes and is a plus-four.

Kyle Lawson, D, 23

The former Notre Dame defenseman has been back and forth between Charlotte and Florida.

"He played well for us," Daniels said of Lawson’s play during his time in Charlotte. "I think the message for him is he needs to play. In the first year, as much as you want to be here or Carolina, you have to play to develop. He understands that, but he’s a guy we can call up at any time and he’ll give us good minutes, and he’s done that when we’ve had some injuries."

Bobby Sanguinetti, D, 22

Sanguinetti – a former first round pick who was acquired at the draft for a second round pick – is out for the season with a hip injury. Sanguinetti’s numbers were clearly hindered by the nagging injury. The offensive defenseman had nine points (two goals, seven assists) in 19 games before being shut down for the season.

Mike Murphy, G, 21

Murphy served as Justin Peters‘ understudy last season and is trying to win the No. one job.

"Murphy’s very competitive and never quits on the puck," Daniels said. "He learned a lot last year as a first year pro. He had some things to work on and he’s done that this year and he’s been a lot more consistent in his play."

After winning just two of his first seven starts, Murphy has improved his record to 9-5-2. He has a 2.75 goals-against average and .915 save percentage on the season.

Justin Pogge, G, 24

Daniels has given both Pogge and Murphy equal time in goal so far this season.

"Our schedule has eased up a little bit, but we play a lot of games in a short period of time, so we’re able to use both of them and keep them both fresh and both playing," Daniels said. "So that’s why they’ve split so far."

Pogge, who is 8-6-1 with a 2.89 goals-against average and .913 save percentage, "has a little more experience and is a bigger guy and plays the puck better," Daniels said.

Daniels expects to rely more on one goalie as the season progresses, and right now the two are both making a strong case.

"At some point, we’ll probably lean on one guy – I haven’t decided who yet – but the competition is healthy between the two of them," he said. "They’ve had a lot of good games for us this year."