Matt’s comments: I am absolutely thrilled to have Jordan Futrell returning to Canes and Coffee for his third season covering the Charlotte Checkers. His regular updates with a ‘from the rink’ viewpoint from tracking the Checkers as closely as I track the Hurricanes are incredibly valuable. Last season, Jordan was really high on Haydn Fleury BEFORE the masses made their way to considering him a likely NHLer in 2017-18. Here is hoping that Jordan can similarly find the next player ready to impact the Hurricanes roster during the 2017-18 season and give us an early heads up.
(Re) introduction for Jordan Futrell
My name is Jordan Futrell, and I am currently a junior that is majoring in Communication and minoring in Journalism at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. This will be my third season on the Canes and Coffee writing staff, and I am looking forward to another exciting year covering the Checkers for fans of the website. After playing and enjoying youth hockey for many years, I realized around the 7th grade that I probably would not ever make it to any professional level of hockey. Even though I knew the NHL was not a likely career destination for me, I made the decision that I wanted to work with the game in sports media because what I loved most in life was sports, especially hockey. I knew even at that early age that I wanted to work in the sports industry for the rest of my life and that feeling has still not changed to this day. My love for the Canes dates back all the way to 2004 when I first started following hockey. Initially, I still had a love for basketball and football over hockey, but the magical 2005-2006 season impacted me and my entire family in a way that cannot be overstated. That season turned us into lifelong hockey fans over everything else, and since then my love for the Hurricanes and the game of hockey has not faded in the slightest.
Charlotte Checkers 2017-18 season preview
Recent Checkers most expected to make an impact at the NHL level in 2017-18
Haydn Fleury: After a strong finish in the second half of last season, Haydn Fleury is ready to make his long-awaited debut for the Carolina Hurricanes. As his 2016-17 season progressed in the AHL, Fleury made big improvements to his defensive game and he became more confident, jumping into the offense rush more. Based on his development during the 2016-17, he looks ready for his role on the third defensive pairing, playing alongside newly acquired defender, Trevor Van Riemsdyk. Of the players on the Checkers roster from last year, Fleury will be the one to make the biggest impact this season in the NHL. I expect that he will transition well and will stick with the Canes the whole year.
In terms of my expectations for Haydn Fleury at the NHL level based on watching him for the entirety of 2016-17 in Charlotte…First off I will start by saying that he is probably not going to ‘wow’ everyone right off the bat. I expect him to have much of the same type of season that he did last year in Charlotte – maybe a little shaky to start the year off, with some flashes and hints of what he could potentially be capable of as he becomes more comfortable. Then once perhaps at about the halfway point of the season, I expect his consistency and production to begin to increase. I would expect him to finish off the season strong. I do think Fleury is NHL ready at this point. He is very capable of moving the puck on the offensive breakout, and he has become very good at using his body to shield off opposing offenders that are breaking into the zone and trying to cut to the net. When he is able to get up to speed, he can skate with almost anyone and he has the ability to take the puck coast to coast. He will need to continue to improve his acceleration. While he can be fast, he gets caught flat-footed at times and smaller craftier players can get around him on the break. Fleury will also need to work more on his offense as he still is timid sometimes to jump into the rush or blast a shot from the point when he has an open opportunity. I do not see Fleury playing on the power very much in his first year. While I do not expect Fleury to be lights out spectacular in his rookie season, I do expect the season to be a solid one from Haydn Fleury.
Aleksi Saarela: Joining the Checkers at the very end of last season, Aleksi Saarela took the team by storm. The 20-year old from Helsinki Finland, tallied 10 points in only 9 games before getting injured at the end of the regular season. If he gets off to another hot start in Charlotte this season, then look for him to be one of the Hurricanes first call ups if anyone is injured or if the organization feels the team needs an offensive spark. Saarela has tremendous offensive talent. It is difficult to see the Hurricanes being able to keep him stashed away for another full year with the potential skill level that he possesses.
Lucas Wallmark: I really wanted to put Phil Di Giuseppe here, but I cannot shake the feeling that Lucas Wallmark is going to have even better of a year then he did last year. He is another player that has loads of offensive talent, but can also play big minutes on the penalty kill if you need him to. He gained confidence in his goal scoring ability during the second half of the year, and the result was a team-high 24 goals which led the team. If he plays most of the season in the AHL, I see him putting up an upwards of 60 points. But there is a good chance he could get long stints with the Canes this season if an injury creates an opening.
Key Returning Checkers
The Checkers return their top seven scorers from last season’s team that made the playoffs. Andrew Poturalski, Lucas Wallmark, Andrew Miller, Valentin Zykov, Jake Chelios, Phil Di Giuseppe, and Connor Brown all return for the upcoming season. On top of that, Aleksi Saarela, Trevor Carrick, and Roland McKeown will also be back from last years Checkers squad. Poturalski started hot last year, but his offensive contribution lessened in pace as the year progresse. Poturalski is a player who has great playmaking ability but still needs to work more on his finishing ability and strength if he is going to make the NHL level. Andrew Miller finished the season hotter than any other player on the team, tallying 32 points in the final 33 games of the season. Valentin Zykov was one of the Checkers top offensive performers the entire season. As a rookie last year, he scored 34 points in 66 games and he showed a great knack for knowing how to use his body to his advantage on the ice.
Key New Players
On top of all of the fire power returning from last season, the Checkers have some exciting new offensive weapons coming into the fold for the 2017-18 season. Nicolas Roy, Julien Gauthier, Warren Foegele, Nick Schilkey, Jeremy Smith, and Brenden Kichton are among some of the noteworthy newcomers to the Checkers for 2017-18. Roy was drafted 96th overall in the 2015 draft by the Canes. He is big man who has high offensive potential at 6 feet 4 inches tall. Roy is moving up from the QMJHL where he played the past four seasons for the Chicoutimi Saguenéens, where he put up 80 points in 53 games in 2016-17. Gauthier is another power forward prospect with high offensive potential, most specifically goal scoring. He also stands 6 feet 4 inches tall and is moving up from the QMJHL where he played for the past four seasons, most recently with the Saint John Sea Dogs. In his draft year, Gauthier scored 57 points in 54 games with 41 of those 57 points being goals. Look for Gauthier to help the Checkers immensely on the power play where they finished dead last in the AHL for 2016-17. Brenden Kichton is a newly acquired defenseman who last year played with the Manitoba Moose. He had only 23 points last season, but Kichton is a defenseman that has proven that he can score on the AHL level, posting above 40 point years for 2 out of the 4 years. Jeremy Smith will probably be the Checkers new go-to goalie for 2017-18. Last year he played with the AHL’s last place team, the San Antonio Rampage, and he also saw his first action in the NHL playing 10 games with the Colorado Avalanche.
Also new over the offseason for the Charlotte Checkers is the fact that the team will have its fourth head coach in four seasons. Mike Vellucci will take over for Ulf Samuelsson who is now an assistant coach with the Chicago Blackhawks. Vellucci has experience coaching younger players and prospects as he held the head coach position for the Plymouth Whalers for 14 years before he took the assistant general manager job with the Hurricanes in 2014. It should be a seamless transition for the Checkers and their new head coach coming into this upcoming season. Vellucci should help the team’s power play out quite a bit, as Ulf Samuelsson seemed to refrain from making many special teams adjustments even when things were not going all too well.
As for how this Checkers team will perform for this upcoming season, expect them to be even better than they were in 2016-17. With the return of so much of last seasons offensive talent and with the solid new additions the team should not struggle to find the back of the net when the season starts. The blue line should be just as solid as it was the previous year, with the only real big loss being Haydn Fleury. And hopefully for the Checkers with the acquisition of Jeremy Smith, the goaltending situation will be more consistent than it was for last season’s team. The Checkers started a total of six goalies last year and only Michael Leighton and Tom McCollum provided solid minutes in net for Charlotte. Expect Smith to give the Checkers their most stable goalie situation in the past 2-3 years. With that being said I expect the Checkers to be one of the 10 best teams in the AHL this season.
Carolina Hurricanes Outlook
Well this is very exciting for me because I have primarily focused on the Charlotte Checkers over the past couple of years at Canes and Coffee. But no better time than the present, and the Hurricanes have maybe their best team since the 2008-2009 season. Yes that is the last time we as Canes fans got to experience the sweet taste of playoff hockey. But I believe that this will be the year that the Carolina Hurricanes break their eight season long playoff drought. I mean, this year’s team is oozing with potential. First and foremost, the Canes are only behind Calgary and maybe Nashville with their defensive core. With already established all-star Justin Faulk, two top ten draft picks in Noah Hanifin and Haydn Fleury, the emergence of Jaccob Slavin and Brett Pesce, and with former Chicago Blackhawk Trevor Van Riemsdyk, this is without a doubt one of the most talented defenses in the NHL. The team also addressed some of their offensive questions with the signing of Conn Smythe Trophy winner; Justin Williams and acquisition of Marcus Kruger as depth forward who can play on the fourth line.
Player analyst Gus Katsaros also said on the Steve Dangle podcast that he has Teuvo Teravainen pinned down as his breakout player and that he expects to see a big improvement in his offensive output this season. Sebastian Aho should also take the next step in his development and maybe become the Hurricanes top scorer. But most important of all the Hurricanes look like they may have solved their goaltending problem. Cam Ward and Eddie Lack did not have great seasons last year so the Canes added Blackhawks backup Scott Darling. He posted an 18-5-5 record with a .924 save percentage and 2.38 goals against average with Chicago last year, and he looks poised to become a starting goal in the NHL. You can never be to sure with backup goalies because there is just not a big enough sample size to really tell how good they are, but Darling doesn’t have to be all world for the Hurricanes. He just needs to be league and that is it. If the Canes do get at least average goaltending from Darling and Cam Ward, and if there are no major long term injuries to key players, then this Hurricanes team should absolutely make the playoffs this year. They are too good of a team not to if they play to their potential.
The 2017-18 hockey season is shaping up to be a fun one in North Carolina, and I look forward to covering the Charlotte Checkers part and also watching the Carolina Hurricanes part!