Checkers pushing through slow start

by Paul Branecky || AHL On The Beat Archive


American Hockey League teams don’t necessarily go through rebuilding years the way their NHL parent clubs sometimes do, but it’s safe to say the Charlotte Checkers are navigating through a similar sort of transition.

At 1-4-0, early-season success hasn’t yet come for a young group handed the tall task of replacing some of the icons from the club’s first four seasons in the league – Zach Boychuk, Chris Terry, Brett Sutter, and Nicolas Blanchard, just to name a few. With league-low averages of 1.60 goals and 19.8 shots per contest, the Checkers of the first two weeks look like a team that has played the majority of that span without each of its top eight scorers from last season.

With that actually being the case, head coach Jeff Daniels has been willing to be patient with his team as it undergoes some not-entirely-unexpected growing pains on offense.

“It’s something that we’ve got to keep working at,” said Daniels. “I think some guys that were hoping to score goals are getting closer and we’ve just got to squeeze some guys harder to get a little more offense out of them.”

“As a team we need to get more time in the offensive zone, just getting pucks deep and keeping it simple,” said rookie forward Brock McGinn. “Just get more pucks to the net and more bodies in front and they’ll start to go in for us. It’s definitely a little discouraging, but it’s a long season and you know you’re going to have these droughts sometimes.”

Though the team clearly misses its former stars, there’s a general sense of excitement with those players taking the next steps in their careers. Terry, the Checkers’ all-time leader in most statistical categories that matter, is tied for the Hurricanes’ scoring lead with five points in five games. After not initially making the team out of training camp, Boychuk got another chance through injuries up top and immediately played a key role in his team earning one of its two points on the season with a goal and an assist against Buffalo. With the Staal brothers out, Carolina’s top two centers are recent Checkers Riley Nash and Victor Rask.

In their stead, the Checkers are left with 11 players entering their first full season with the team, including five rookies.

“It comes in cycles,” said Daniels. “You look in the past where guys sign three-year contracts, we had a lot of those guys for three years and now all of the sudden they’ve moved on and now it’s the new crop coming in.”

Despite the challenges he faces in trying to find success without those players, watching their early-season success at the NHL level has been more sweet than bittersweet for Daniels.

“We’ve worked with these guys for a few years now and we’ve seen how hard they work,” said Daniels. “Every guy in that locker room right now wants to get to the next level, so it’s nice to see their hard work pay off. When you’re watching the games, you’re pulling for them and you want them to do well.

“It’s tough to get your foot in the door and establish yourself as an NHL player, and right now a lot of those guys have their foot in the door and they’ve got to establish themselves and prove themselves every day. As you’re watching now you’re focusing a little more on those guys.”

As for the current team, success may not be far off once the offense begins to click. Thanks to a solid defensive corps headlined by longtime Checkers Michal Jordan and Rasmus Rissanen, and a promising goaltending tandem of Drew MacIntyre and John Muse, they’ve been tied or trailing by one entering the third period of all five games. Two of their losses were by 2-1 scores. Another goal scored would have made a world of difference each time.

To turn things around, the Checkers will need increased contributions from returning players, something they’ve already seen to some degree. Their top scorer is Brendan Woods, who has three assists, and their top goal scorer is Jared Staal, who has two. Both were depth players from last season’s team who have already met (Woods had three assists in 42 games last season) or are approaching (Staal has never scored more than four goals in any of his four previous AHL campaigns) their career highs.

They’ll also need promising young players to realize their potential, even though Daniels has been careful not to apply too much pressure too soon. The Hurricanes organization has high hopes for the likes of McGinn and Phil Di Giuseppe, their 2012 second-round picks, in particular. Each has shown flashes of being able to score points with regularity, though they’ve combined for just three points (1g-2a) through the first five.

For those players and others on the roster, veteran leadership will be important. In the first practice following their most recent loss, Daniels and assistant coach Geordie Kinnear pulled Jordan, their captain, and alternates Greg Nemisz and Ben Holmstrom aside for a private chat.

“First we asked them if there are any issues going on that we need to be aware of, but also we told them to keep doing what they’re doing because I think they’re leading by example with the way they’re competing in practice and in games,” said Daniels. “The quicker the younger guys figure out what it takes to play at this level and the next level, I think we’ll be better off as a group.”

That process continues this weekend as the Checkers play their first divisional games of the season on the road against the winless Iowa Wild. Fine-tuning their offense and staying out of the penalty box will major points of emphasis. Beyond that, the team feels it has a solid foundation on which to build.

“From day one I thought this group was going to be one of the hardest-working groups of any Checkers team,” said Jordan, now in his fifth season with the club. “We just have to make sure we do the little things right that are going to help us win the games.”

“We wanted to get everyone on the same page a little quicker than has happened, but if you look at the games, our compete level has been strong,” said Daniels. “Now if we can get our execution up to it, I think it’s a good combination.”