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Photo: Earl Bradshaw

Youth movement paying off for Checkers

by Nicholas Niedzielski AHL On The Beat

Year in and year out, one of the defining characteristics of the AHL is the youth. The nature of the league is one of developing young talent to grow into the NHL stars of the future.

This season, the Charlotte Checkers have taken that youth movement to the extreme.

Among their group of forwards, the Checkers have consistently sported six rookies this season – Julien Gauthier, Nicolas Roy, Warren Foegele, Janne Kuokkanen, Nick Schilkey and Mike Ferrantino – as well as the 21-year-old Aleksi Saarela, who is in his first year as a pro in North America after three full seasons in Finland’s top league.

Having an abundance of young skaters is nothing new for the Checkers, but having nearly half of the forwards at any given time in your lineup be first-year pros is a unique position.

On the plus side, it’s formed a strong bond between a group of similarly aged players figuring out the pro game.

“It makes it more fun,” said Foegele of having so many rookies up front. “We’re all in the same position and we can feed off each other or ask questions. It makes the adjustment easier.”

Then there’s the flip side – the difficulties of jumping into the pro game can be amplified by seven across the Charlotte lineup, with the growing pains associated with that hitting the team even harder.

“The speed, the size, the maturity, the hockey sense of all the older guys, that’s the difference,” said head coach Mike Vellucci. “In junior you’re a 19-year-old and you’re playing against some 16 and 17-year-olds who aren’t physically mature yet and now you’re 20 and going against 28 or 29-year-olds who are full grown. Then there’s playing more games in a shorter amount of time with the travel and living on your own for the first time. Those are all little things but they add up to a big challenge in your first year.”

Vellucci, who is in his first year with the Checkers, has an extensive background behind the bench as a junior coach in the Ontario Hockey League, giving him a unique perspective on how to handle players making the jump to the pros. His oft-repeated mantra this season has been that he doesn’t want his rookies to just fit in, he wants them to stand out.

“Even though you’re a first-year player, don’t take a back seat to the veterans,” said Vellucci. “Be great, not just good. I want to encourage them and give them confidence and let them know that I have confidence in their ability.”

That idea of standing out seems easier said than done, but that’s what this group has been able to do. Led by Foegele, who has established himself as one of the league’s top offensive weapons overall, Charlotte’s rookies have had a critical hand in propelling the team to the top of the league’s offensive rankings where they have resided nearly all season.

With this group’s make-up consisting of highly-touted talent and impressive pedigrees, Vellucci was able to tap into something with his young skaters to push them beyond how rookies usually fare.

“I don’t think it was hard to get them to buy into it,” he said. “Everybody wants to be the best player on the team. That’s how they got here, they were the best player on their team at whatever level before this. Each one always strives for that. My job is to encourage them to continue to strive for that.”

Part of getting those strong performances out of his rookies has been Vellucci’s usage of them. While the safe play is to shield them in their ice time, Charlotte’s coaching staff has had no qualms setting the young forwards loose in all scenarios throughout the game, all with an eye toward their development.

“We put them in those situations so they understand what they have to do,” said Vellucci. “That’s the only way they’re going to learn. I always hate that excuse, ‘Well he doesn’t have any experience.’ Well that’s because you’re not giving him any experience. So that’s on me. They have to understand that there’s little things you have to do.”

That trust hasn’t gone unnoticed from the rookies.

“Coming to the pros, it’s a good learning experience for us to be put into those positions and for him to believe in us,” said Foegele, whose extensive use on the penalty kill has already led to a franchise-record shorthanded goal total of four. “I think it’s only going to make us better players in the future if we’re learning how to do it right now.”

“It’s good to have that confidence from the coach and to see that he believes in us,” said Roy, who has been a mainstay on one of the two power-play units. “Plus it helps us show what we can do in those situations.”

The coaching staff deserves a lot of credit for their handling of the young forwards, but their aid can only go so far. That’s where the leaders in the locker room have stepped in.

While the Checkers don’t necessarily boast a plethora of traditional veterans, established presences like Andrew Miller, Trevor Carrick and Jake Chelios have helped guide the younger players on the team.

“They’re very good veterans,” said Roy. “What they’ve done so far in their careers has worked so we need to follow their lead.”

“They’re veteran players and since the day we got here they’ve been very welcoming,” said Foegele. “Patrick [Brown] or Millsy [Miller], if you’ve got questions they’ll answer them. They’re leaders in our dressing room. If we’re down a goal and there’s something that needs to be said they’re the ones saying it and trying to help us out. That’s big for a group of so many rookies.”

In his second season with the “C” on his chest, Brown continues to impress with his leadership amongst such a young corps of forwards.

“Brownie is the perfect captain because he leads by example,” said Vellucci. “He does everything right on the ice and he does everything right off the ice. He takes care of himself, he gets proper rest, he works out extremely hard and he’s just a great role model. And then on top of that he communicates with the guys. He’s always talking to them. He grabs his linemates and talks to them about what they’re going to do. He’s the ultimate pro and the ultimate captain. I respect him a lot for what he does for our team.”

Now, as we move beyond the All-Star break and closer to the home stretch of the season, the real challenge emerges for the young group. The grind of a full AHL campaign is alien to the most of the rookies, and now is the time that the fatigue really starts to set in.

With the Checkers in a battle for a playoff spot, getting that high production for the rookies will be a key determinant in whether the team makes it to the postseason for the second straight year.

“It’s just the mentality, you have to stay focused,” said Brown. “Make sure that excitement that you had at the beginning of the year and at training camp is still there. We have the best job in the world and we need to bring that every day.”