In a season that has seen a bulge in the talent level of the American Hockey League, the Charlotte Checkers are among the pace-setters.
On Sunday, hockey-starved fans will get a chance to witness the Hurricanes’ top affiliate in person, as the first-ever AHL game in Raleigh pits the Checkers (19-11-2-3, 43 points) against the Norfolk Admirals (14-16-1-0, 29 points) at PNC Arena.
Sunday’s matinee (1:30 p.m. puck drop) will be the second of eight meetings between the old East Division rivals this season. The Checkers, who occupy first place in the Western Conference’s South Division, took the first match-up by a score of 5-2 in Norfolk on Nov. 21.
Before that victory, Charlotte was off to an AHL-best start at 11-3-0-2, a statistic that becomes more impressive considering 12 of the team’s first 16 games were played on the road with grueling travel.
After topping Norfolk on the day prior to Thanksgiving, the Checkers have cooled off, going 7-8-2-1 in a period that has featured such peaks and valleys as a five-game losing streak, a four-game winless streak, a four-game winning streak and a seven-game point streak.
“I think their track record, at this point, is not unlike any team in any season. There are ups and downs,” said Jason Karmanos, executive vice president and assistant general manager of the Hurricanes. “It was very good for them to get off to such a strong start.”
A key cog in the Checkers quick burst out of the gates was the play of goaltender Dan Ellis. Signed to a professional tryout contract on Sept. 24, Ellis recorded three wins, a 1.07 goals-against average and a .967 save percentage in his first four games. The 32-year-old earned CCM/AHL Player of the Week honors in late October.
Ellis, an NHL veteran who has seen time with Dallas, Nashville, Tampa Bay and Anaheim, had his tryout contract extended for an additional 25 games on Dec. 13 and has effectively played his way into the goaltending conversation for the Hurricanes in the event of a shortened season.
“He is very much auditioning for our back-up spot here should we play,” Karmanos said.
Ellis isn’t the only one auditioning. Should a shortened NHL season begin in two weeks, the Canes’ training camp will be small and more focused on getting the team into game-shape rather than evaluation. For many Checkers players, this season has been their training camp, under closer-than-normal scrutiny from the Hurricanes, including head coach Kirk Muller.
“This season, Kirk has had the opportunity to really get to know the players in our system, and that benefits everybody,” Karmanos said.
In the off-season, Muller worked with Checkers head coach Jeff Daniels to install a system that closely mirrors the one the Hurricanes run in an effort to help ease the transition for players moving between Charlotte and Raleigh.
“At the end of the year, when the organization didn’t make the playoffs both here and there, you want to look at ways to get better. I think all of us were feeling that way, and we felt like we had a lot of young guys in Charlotte that were knocking on the door,” Muller said in a November interview. “So we sat down, we went over our system here and Jeff was open to it. Being a coach in the minors too, I know that you want to have your flexibility and creativity, but he bought into it.”
“The goal is to get [Charlotte] playing the same style and system that we play here, and I think we’ve taken some big steps in that direction. That’s because of the very good communication between Kirk and Jeff, especially,” Karmanos said. “Kirk makes it a priority to keep those communication lines open.”
Some players have benefited from the more up-tempo, aggressive nature of the system, and others continue to grow into NHL-ready prospects.
Defenseman Bobby Sanguinetti, who was poised to contend for a slot on the Hurricanes defense before the work stoppage, has only bolstered his chances to do so. Building off a strong, healthy finish to the 2010-11 season that saw Sanguinetti record career highs in goals (10), assists (40) and points (50), the Trenton, N.J., native has played in all but one of Charlotte’s games this season, logging 19 points (5g, 14a).
“He’s been probably the most consistent defenseman from start to finish in Charlotte,” Karmanos said. “He seems to be skating so much better, and he’s clearly confident in all three zones. He’s just an effective defenseman that, most nights when you watch him, looks like an NHL defenseman.”
Also of NHL-caliber on defense is a 20-year-old who earned NHL All-Rookie Team honors in a stellar 66-game campaign with the Hurricanes last year: Justin Faulk. A recent facial laceration has forced Faulk to don a cumbersome full cage, but he still ranks first on the team in assists with 19 and second on the team in scoring with 24 points.
“I think there’s a bit of a mental roller coaster for all of these players, but especially a player that is so clearly on our roster. Obviously, he is making the most of it and playing hard. But [Charlotte] is not where he expected to be,” Karmanos said. “We expect a lot of him because he’s shown it already at the highest level. He’s got high expectations tied to him, and rightfully so.”
Karmanos also singled out the play of forwards Brett Sutter and Tim Wallace. Sutter, though he doesn’t see much time on the power play, ranks tied for third on the team in goals (10) and ranks tied for fifth in points (19). Despite Wallace not being a big contributor on the scoresheet, he brings an element to the game that Muller is looking to add the Canes’ lineup.
“There’s something to be said for consistency in a checking role – bringing the compete level and a physical presence. I think Kirk wants to try to bring some of that to the bottom six,” Karmanos said. “Those two players, in particular, have been pretty consistent about it.”
The Hurricanes signed Wallace as a free agent on July 19, and though he’s never put on a sweater for the big club, he’s showing why he was eyed by the front office.
“He doesn’t put up big numbers, but he consistently plays a physical, grinding, smart game that’s been noticed,” Karmanos said. “He would be a guy that has helped his standing in the organization. The head coach has noticed him.”
In terms of statistics, forward Zach Boychuk has seemed to reap the benefits of the new system, as he leads the Checkers in goals (15) and points (31). He’s well on pace to eclipse his point total from last season and could top his career high 65-point 2010-11 campaign.
“He’s is putting up good numbers so far this year, and I think his game, for the most part, has been better,” Karmanos said. “But he is a player, not unlike a lot of players on the team, who could benefit from more consistency. For him to be a surefire NHL player, he needs to be at the top of his game all the time. And while that may seem overwhelming for a lot of players, that is, in fact, what determines whether they will be effective NHL players over the long haul. But in general, we are happy that he has brought his game back to a level where he is closer to the NHL.”
Usually centering a forward line in Charlotte, Zac Dalpe is acclimating himself as a more permanent winger, a slot he often fills when called up to Carolina.
“Certain players are more suited to certain positions. After going back-and-forth on it for a little bit, I think we’re all on the same page now that his projection is as a winger,” Karmanos said. “We’re encouraged that he’s brought more speed back to his game this year. He’s playing a game that is more consistently effective because he’s using his speed.”
Forward Jeremy Welsh, still less than a removed from Union College, has steadily improved over the course of the season, according to Karmanos.
“I think he started really slow, to be completely honest. It’s a big adjustment coming from college and jumping into the American League, especially this year when the league is that much better,” he said. “The pace of his game as compared to the pace of the (AHL) game, especially early on in the season, was noticeably off. He’s worked on that, and we think he’s improved dramatically in that regard. He’s starting to get more production.”
While it’s still unknown what Welsh’s role could be with the Hurricanes, Karmanos is encouraged by his progress.
“It’s a big unknown for a player coming out of college and jumping into the pro ranks, especially one who maybe unfairly had such high expectations coming in,” he said. “But he’s a big body, and is a kid who understands how to play. We think he’s a smart player, and we think he has a bright future ahead of him.”
In addition to two points being up for grabs on Sunday, individually, the game is yet another audition for players looking to capture a roster spot in the event of a shortened season.
“They aren’t concerning themselves with whether they’re going to get called up or who got called up or why they didn’t get called up. The situation is very clear for them. They have one place to play, and they play,” Karmanos said. “For some players, I think that can help tremendously. These players have had a real opportunity to show what they can do to our entire staff, because we’re all watching. Nothing goes unnoticed, positive or negative.”