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AHL Prospects Waiting for Opportunity

by Paul Branecky / Carolina Hurricanes
With the Hurricanes and their top prospects in Charlotte of the American Hockey League, an apparent stroke of good luck can work both ways.

In what’s been a remarkable run in Raleigh (knock on wood), the Canes have lost just four total man games to injury – two to Sergei Samsonov, who did not make the trip to Helsinki for the European Premiere, and two more to Joni Pitkanen, who sat for two contests in early November.

Paul Branecky
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The opposite has been true in recent years, when player after player, many of them key to the team’s success, hit the training room with ailments both routine and bizarre. When two players miss significant time after being cut by opponents’ skates in the same season, as was the case with Joe Corvo and Cam Ward in 2009-10, one has to wonder if there’s an end in sight.

This year’s change of pace has been welcome one for General Manager Jim Rutherford and the Hurricanes, although at the same time, recent history suggested that they would have been able to get a better look at some of the top prospects at the NHL level by now.

“Normally their opportunity would come due to injuries, but it just hasn’t happened yet,” said Rutherford. “We’re looking forward to seeing them when it does.”

While the entire Checkers squad has been playing well of late, having won 10 of their last 13 games, a trio of offensive names stand out. They are Zach Boychuk and Jerome Samson, who have been with the Checkers all season and are currently in a five-way tie for third in league scoring, and Zac Dalpe, who has been red hot ever since his initial assignment back in October.

As the last player cut from the roster prior to the Hurricanes’ season-opening trip to Europe, Boychuk may have the inside track on a recall, particularly when one considers his pedigree as a first-round draft pick and 33 games of NHL experience. The 21-year-old was snakebitten to start the season, but now has 28 points (10g, 18a) in 26 games.

Samson, 23, is building on his breakout 2009-10 season with Albany by posting 14 goals and 14 assists thus far. The right wing, who saw his first seven games of NHL action last season, has led the AHL in shots on goal virtually from day one, having taken an average of 4.7 per game for a total of 123. As a tireless worker down low, the undrafted Samson may be a better fit on a grinding role than some of the Hurricanes’ other top prospects.

Dalpe, the 21-year-old center who was taken one round after Boychuk in 2008, has been on an absolute goal-scoring tear ever since he joined the Checkers following a seven-game stint to start the season with Carolina. Having played 10 fewer games than the likes of Boychuk and Samson, he can’t be found among the AHL’s scoring leaders but his pace certainly suggest that he belongs. He has 10 goals in 16 games with the Checkers this season to go along with five assists, with his two most notable strikes coming 11 seconds apart in the final minute of a 4-3 victory at Norfolk.

“They get closer as each week goes by,” said Rutherford of their ability to make it as NHL players. “The development process has been really good. Any time a guy gets sent down they’re disappointed, but they’ve been doing what they have to do.”

While those three seem to have come to the forefront, others such as Chris Terry (23 points), Oskar Osala (22 points) and Drayson Bowman (13 points in 16 games), have certainly made their case. If their parent club had even a little bit less luck with injuries, any one of them is capable of earning an NHL role right now.

Short of an injury creating an opening for any current AHL player, Rutherford said that he would consider making room on the NHL roster should his team falter through an important month of December.

“Our team seems to be (traditionally) strong in the second half, and we need to hold our own until after the holidays,” he said. “We don’t want to be in a position where we fall further back than we did a year ago.”

Of course, those in Charlotte will have to continue to play well enough to potentially win the jobs of those in Raleigh. Until they get their chance, their NHL-readiness will be hard to ascertain.

“They’re ready for the opportunity, is a better way to put it,” he said. “You don’t really know if a guy is ready until you see him try it at a higher level.”

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