Head coach Mark Morris’ first year with the Carolina Hurricanes AHL affiliate likely doesn’t look as he expected when he took the job last July. When the season opened, the Checkers had defenseman Brett Pesce and Jaccob Slavin—both first-year pros, but highly regarded prospects—penciled into the blueline, with the possibility that 2015 fifth overall pick Noah Hanifin could need some seasoning in Charlotte.
Instead, all three are mainstays in Carolina, and forward Phil Di Giuseppe—the second-leading scorer among returning forwards—has logged more games in the NHL than the AHL this season. Such is the nature of coaching an AHL team: if players perform well and take advantage of their opportunities, they’re not long for the minors.
Morris has still guided the Checkers to a solid record in his first campaign behind the Charlotte bench, leading them to a 26-21-3-3 heading into the final weekend in February.
Daniel Altshuller, G, 21
Altshuller has been a pleasant surprise. Originally assigned to the ECHL’s Florida Everblades for a second consecutive season, Altshuller shined with a stat line of 10-4-0, 1.76 goals-against, and .934 save percentage on the season, and earned a promotion to Charlotte. The beat rolled on there, with Altshuller winning nine of his first 11 AHL starts, and he was recalled twice to the Hurricanes (where he dressed and backed up for the Hurricanes, but did not play).
Altshuller and the Checkers had a tough stretch from late January through February, with the second-year goalie going winless in eight appearances (0-5-3) heading into the final weekend of the month. But despite that bump in the road, Altshuller has positioned himself at or near the top of Carolina’s goalie pipeline—something that seemed unlikely even four months ago.
Danny Biega, D, 24
One of the veterans of the Charlotte blue line, Biega has had his 2015-16 campaign derailed by injury. Biega has been out of the lineup since early January but had eight points (three goals, five assists) in 27 games prior to getting hurt. Biega played 10 games with the Hurricanes last season, but the emergence of other young defenders, along with his injury, have him skidding down the depth chart.
Patrick Brown, C/W, 23
The second-year pro continues to improve as a bottom-six energy player. After managing just 10 points, including only two goals, in 60 games with the Checkers last year, Brown has already hit double digits with 10 tallies and added six assists. His 10 goals are tied for third on the team as of Feb. 25, and he has made up one-third of Morris’ most established trio, joining Brody Sutter and Brandon Woods on the third line.
Trevor Carrick, D, 21
Carrick gets somewhat lost among Carolina’s young defensemen because of the early success of Hanifin, Pesce and Slavin, and the pedigree of former first-rounders Haydn Fleury and Ryan Murphy. Still, the second-year pro has built on a fantastic rookie campaign with an even better sophomore showing. Through 50 games, Carrick has bested the numbers he put up in a record-breaking rookie year by scoring nine goals and adding 25 assists for the Checkers. As of Feb. 25 he was tied for the team lead in assists (25) and his 34 points were second only to forward (and team captain) Derek Ryan.
Carracks ranks sixth in scoring among defensemen and is a physical force in the back end (though his fight totals are down this year, having tussled just twice so far compared to eight times last season). Carrick could be a candidate for a late-season promotion if the Hurricanes have space on their defense.
Tyler Ganly, D, 20
The rookie defenseman has split time between the AHL and ECHL, playing 15 games in each league through Feb. 25. A sixth round pick in 2013, Ganly has totaled three assists this season (one in the ECHL, two in the AHL) and played in nine games with the Checkers since he was recalled from the ECHL on Jan. 19.
Erik Karlsson, LW, 21
Karlsson, in his first year playing in North America, is still adjusting to North America’s smaller rinks and rowdier style. He’s logged 34 games for the Checkers in a bottom-six role, but has been a frequent healthy scratch for Morris’ club. Karlsson has one goal and five assists in his rookie campaign.
Keegan Lowe, D, 22
Lowe is in the final season of his entry level contract with the Hurricanes and continues to be a reliable defensive defenseman for the Checkers. Lowe earned a two-game recall to Carolina last season (which included a two-fight night in his NHL debut against Vincent Lecavalier) but has so far spent all of 2015-16 in the AHL. Lowe has two goals and six assists in his first 44 games, numbers that are on par with what he produced during his first two pro seasons. He was suspended one game in January for a postgame incident Jan. 17 with Manitoba’s Darren Kramer, who also received a one-game suspension for his role.
Brock McGinn, LW, 22
McGinn is on the cusp of being a full-time NHLer, and Hurricanes coach Bill Peters has said as much. The second-year pro is tied for the Checkers lead in goals (14) despite having played just 36 games in Charlotte, and his 27 points through Feb. 25 match the output he had last season in more than twice as many games (73). McGinn made a quick impression in his first NHL game, scoring on his first shift Oct. 16. He has three goals and an assist in 19 games with the Hurricanes this season. His most recent recall to Carolina came on Jan. 3, shortly after he was named the AHL’s Player of the Week in mid-December.
Rasmus Rissanen, D, 24
In his fifth season with the Checkers, Rissanen continues to be a reliable stay-at-home defenseman for Carolina’s top affiliate. Rissanen has put together his best offensive season in 2015-16 despite missing nine games to injury earlier in the campaign, setting a career high in points with 13 in just 43 games. Rissanen signed a one-year extension last July, so the team and player will revisit his place in the organization following this season.
Justin Shugg, RW, 24
Shugg was the team’s leading scorer last year, finishing with 43 points in 65 games and playing three games with the Hurricanes for his first NHL action. The 2015-16 campaign has been a bit of a step back for Shugg, and he has just 23 points (including just eight goals) in 39 games through Feb. 25. A couple of injuries have cost him time in the lineup, but he’s still been a valuable contributor, even recording a Gordie Howe hat trick (a goal, an assist and a fight) Jan. 2 in Ontario. That was one of five two-point games he has had this season.
Brody Sutter, C, 24
Sutter has spent the majority of the season centering Charlotte’s third line with Patrick Brown and Brendan Woods, and his play has picked up since the calendar flipped to 2016. Eleven of Sutter’s 20 points (10 goals, 10 assists through 53 games) have come in January and February, including five of his goals in a 15-game stretch from Jan. 9 to Feb. 12. Sutter is also a shutdown center, capable of using his big frame (6’5, 203 pounds) to slow the opposition at both even-strength and on the penalty kill. He has one of Charlotte’s three shorthanded goals this season.
Sergey Tolchinsky, LW, 21
It’s been a transitional year for the rookie Tolchinsky. After dominating the OHL with the Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds the past three seasons, Tolchinsky has had to adapt to the bigger and faster pro game in the AHL. Tolchinsky found the back of the net just twice in his first 29 games in Charlotte, but his play has picked up starting with a two-point effort Dec. 30 at Saint Johns. Since then, the diminutive dynamo has had 13 of his 24 points in January and February, including five of his eight goals despite being a healthy scratch in a few games in January. Through Feb. 25 he has 24 points in 50 games, which is good for seventh in scoring on the Checkers.
Brendan Woods, LW, 23
Woods has taken a half step back after a bit of a breakout year in 2014-15. Through 44 games this season, he has seven goals and seven assists for the Checkers. Woods missed nearly all of December with an injury, and sandwiched around that nine-game absence was a 16-game streak without a point. Since he finally snapped that drought with a goal on Jan. 16, he has been much more productive, with 10 points (four goals, six assists) in 17 games through Feb. 25. Woods needs to continue to put up points and use his 6-foot-4, 210-pound frame to his advantage.
Carter Sandlak, LW, 22
Sandlack has split time between the Checkers and Everblades this season, logging 10 games in Charlotte (one assist) and 14 in Florida (two goals, five assists). The former Plymouth Whaler was reassigned to the ECHL on Feb. 16, a week after he was recalled (he didn’t dress for any of the three games he was in Charlotte). Sandlak last played for the Checkers Dec. 15, and has played in six games with the Everblades in February through the team’s 6-1 loss to South Carolina on Feb. 24.
Rasmus Tirronen, G, 25
Tirronen is in his first professional season after a four-year career at Merrimack College. He beat out Altshuller for the right to back up Drew MacIntyre at the start of the season, but is now with the Everblades, where he is 4-1 on the season despite putting up average numbers (2.89 goals-against average, .902 save percentage). The same was true for Tirronen during his stints in Charlotte: the rookie goalie boasts a 6-2-1 record, but he had a 3.09 goals-against average and .888 save percentage. Signed to just a one-year deal, Tirronen’s future with the organization is in doubt with Alex Nedeljkovic poised to turn pro as early as this spring when his season with Niagara (OHL) is over.
Non-Minor League Prospect Update
Nicolas Roy continues to prove those who passed on him in the draft wrong. The Chicoutimi center has had a monster year for the Sagueneens, leading the team in goals (38, tied for fourth in the QMJHL) and points (75, tied for 12th) through Feb. 25. Roy’s size (6’4, 202 pounds) makes him a handful all over the ice. He’s a solid defensive center and one of the QMJHL’s best faceoff men (60.7 percent, second best among players with more than 100 draws), and he has six game-winning goals in willing the Sagueneens into a playoff spot. The former first overall selection in the QMJHL draft might be realizing the potential scouts initially saw in him, and the Hurricanes figure to be beneficiary despite only using a fourth-round pick on him last summer.
Prospect of the Month: Sebastian Aho
No one made a better impression this winter than Sebastian Aho, who teamed up with top 2016 draft prospects Patrik Laine and Jesse Puljujarvi to lead Finland to a gold medal at the World Junior Championships. Aho, who played out of position at center for Finland, had a goal and an assist in the gold-medal game and finished the tournament with 14 points—second only to Puljujarvi (16) and ahead of Laine (13) as the Finns won on home ice with the WJC’s top three scorers.
Aho, a second-round pick last summer by Carolina, has catapulted up several prospect rankings since his performance in Helsinki, and has 35 points (16 goals, 19 assists) as the leading scorer for Karpat in the Liiga, and was also a force for them in the Champions Hockey League. There’s already talk that Aho could make the jump right to the NHL next season, with the biggest hurdle—outside of adjusting to the North American ice and lifestyle—being overcoming his slight frame (5’11, 172 pounds). Aho has proven he plays bigger than his measurements, and in the new NHL there’s always ice time for players who can pile up points.