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In the System: Checkers Coping with Recalls

by Michael Smith / Carolina Hurricanes
As an American Hockey League team, the Charlotte Checkers know that losing key players is inevitable when the parent club is in need.

Michael Smith
But replacing a leading scorer isn't easy, especially when the team loses two other forwards who provide depth down the middle.

Before arriving in Raleigh on Dec. 17, Zach Boychuk led the Checkers and was tied for second in the AHL in scoring with 32 points (10g, 22a). After being reassigned at the end of October, Zac Dalpe compiled 23 points (12g, 11a) in as many games in Charlotte, and Jon Matsumoto was also among the top producers.

“It’s good in one sense because they are getting opportunities that are well-deserved and earned,” said Jason Karmanos, vice president and assistant general manager of the Carolina Hurricanes. “But obviously it impacts Charlotte, and they’ve gone through a relatively difficult stretch compared to the month or two prior.”

The Checkers (22-13-5, 49 points), however, have been able to withstand this roster juggle, as they currently find themselves in sole possession of second place in the Eastern Division.

Part of their success is due to the consistent play of Jerome Samson, who was on Tuesday named to the 2011 AHL All-Star Classic for the first time in his career. Samson leads the Checkers in scoring with 39 points and is tied for the league lead in goals with 20.

“He has picked up where he left off last year,” Karmanos said. “He’s a big-time goal scorer and producer at the AHL level, and we notice that.”

Karmanos added that, sometime this season, he hopes to see Samson get a chance to show what he can do at the NHL level, something that hasn’t worked out position-wise so far this year.

“He does a great job in being professional and working hard night-in and night-out regardless of whether he’s gotten his chance yet,” he said.

Captain Bryan Rodney was also tapped to represent the Eastern Conference in Hershey, Pa., at the end of January, his second All-Star Classic appearance. The 25-year-old defenseman, who has seen two brief stints in Raleigh this year, leads Checkers defenseman in assists (15) and points (20).

“He is a leader at that level,” Karmanos said. “He’s someone that takes his career very seriously. He’s very professional and very businesslike, and I think that has a good effect on the young guys coming in.”

Boychuk and Dalpe are emergency call-ups, meaning that they would be returned to Charlotte once Jiri Tlusty and Ryan Carter are healthy. However, because of their play, they could lose the emergency status and stay in Raleigh.

“I think they can bring a lot of confidence back to Charlotte should they be sent back down,” Karmanos said. “They’ve both come up and made an impact. They’ve scored some goals and been a part of some big plays that have helped us win games. That can only be a positive thing for them.”

The Checkers continue to play a strong game away from Time Warner Cable Arena, going 11-2 in their last 13 road games. That record is bolstered not only by Boychuk, Dalpe and Matsumoto prior to their call-ups, but also by goaltender Justin Pogge, who has won his last nine starts on the road dating back to late October.

On Tuesday night in Norfolk, Pogge made 33 saves in the Checkers’ 2-1 win over the Admirals. He preceded that with 37 saves in a 4-2 win at Albany on Jan. 7.

“As of late he’s helped the team win some games, some nights by himself,” Karmanos said. “If and when we should need to call up a goalie, he would be the guy.”

Looking ahead, the Checkers begin a five-game home stand beginning on Thursday, as they host Manchester on back-to-back nights, Norfolk and Springfield twice.

“They are in a very tough division, and each night is a battle to stay in that group, so there is certainly a lot of reason to listen to the coaching staff and correct those problems, like tightening up defensively,” Karmanos said. “The team would like to get into the playoffs and hopefully make a statement.”

Player Spotlight – Justin Shugg

Justin Shugg is a 19-year-old forward from Niagara Falls, Ontario, who currently plays for the Mississauga St. Michaels Majors in the Ontario Hockey League (OHL).

Drafted by the Hurricanes in the fourth round (105th overall) in the 2010 NHL Entry Draft, Shugg has been a steady offensive force in the OHL. Last season with the Windsor Spitfires, Shugg registered 79 points (39g, 40a), second only on the team to first-overall pick Taylor Hall.

Through 38 games this season, Shugg’s fourth in the league, he has totaled 48 points (21g, 27a), good for first on the team in assists and points. In early November, the 5-foot-11, 194-pound forward was named OHL player of the week after he compiled 8 points (5g, 3a) in just three games.

“He’s a winger, but he’s been playing center a lot lately. We like that because it shows some versatility to his game,” Karmanos said. “You have to be a pretty smart player to be a multi-position player like that.”

Shugg participated with other Canes’ prospects at the 2010 Traverse City Prospects Tournament. In the four games, he had 2 points (1g, 1a).

“When he came to rookie camp, he got a taste of the next level and the things he’ll need to work on in order to make a bigger impact next fall,” Karmanos said. “I’m sure he was disappointed not to get to the big camp after rookie camp, but he’s turned that into a positive with a real strong year so far.”

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