Hot on the heels of a check in after the first weekend if Charlotte Checkers hockey, Brandon Stanley provides another update on the Charlotte Checkers and the Canes prospects in Charlotte.
Charlotte Checkers weekend recap
The Checkers continued their red-hot start to the season this past weekend, once again winning both legs of their second consecutive back-to-back set. The 4-0-0 start has them atop the AHL’s Atlantic Division early and off to the best start in franchise history. The first game was in Utica where the Checkers would overcome an early 2-0 deficit to down the Comets by a score of 4-3. Saku Maenalanen scored his first AHL goal with a shorthanded marker to cut the lead in half, then noted offensive wiz (said with much sarcasm) Dennis Robertson would tie the score with his first of two markers on the night. Morgan Geekie would score another to put the Checkers up one, then after conceding that lead Robertson would punch in his second of the game to close out the scoring. Alex Nedeljkovic picked up another win, stopping 22 of 25 shots.
The next night in Syracuse, the Checkers came out swinging and never looked back. Julien Gauthier, off to a solid start this season, broke the scoreless tie early in the opening frame to hand the Checkers a lead they would never relinquish. A mixture of great special teams play and an outstanding Nedeljkovic outing (once again starting both games of the weekend) would be more than enough. Janne Kuokkanen would score on the powerplay to double the lead late in the first, then Clark Bishop would add his own midway through the second. Captain Patrick Brown extended the lead to 4-0 through two periods with another shorthanded goal, the team’s third of the season already. The powerplay would finish the night 2-for-4 and the kill a perfect 6-for-6, plus the shorthanded goal scored. The Crunch would finally solve Nedeljkovic and break the shutout early in the third, but that would be all for the home team. Ned made 34 saves. With that, the Checkers closed out an early four game road trip and turn their attention to the home opener against the 0-5 Hershey Bears on Friday night.
Charlotte Checkers notables
Bishop had a fantastic training camp and stayed in Raleigh a lot longer than most probably could have expected. His organizational standing likely took a significant step forward, and in my eyes looked like a guy that could definitely earn a bottom-six look down the line. After being held off the score sheet opening weekend, he had a very nice two games scoring three points (1 G, 2 A). The 2014 fifth rounder is not a big offensive producer, and never really has been at any level. He scored just 7 goals and 28 points last season, and never had more than 19 goals or 39 points in the QMJHL with Cape Breton (though that sounds worse than it was due to injury issues, as he had 74 points in 88 games his final two seasons). However, he plays almost a Foegele-lite type of game, fast on the forecheck and responsible in both ends. He’s also shown the propensity to play with an edge, but he may need to tone that back a bit as he has registered 8 PIMs in 4 games. Bishop is a good, under-the-radar player, and we could very well be witnessing a breakout year from the 22-year-old.
Matt’s added note: This was well-timed…Brandon actually wrote this right before his call up. Check out also Thursday’s Daily Cup of Joe that included Clark Bishop’s call up.
As mentioned above, Gauthier scored his first of the year by using his big frame to crash the net and bang in a shot from right at the top of the paint. He also has two assists and is second on the team with 14 shots. One thing people do not talk much about when speaking of Gauthier’s 2017-18 ‘struggles’, as a 2016 draft pick he was actually entering professional hockey earlier than most of his classmates. Usually, after being drafted at 18, players have two more years of juniors before turning pro. He was still 20 so it wasn’t really an age disadvantage, but he was a pretty raw talent and likely could have used another year in the Q. Not that a 16-goal rookie season really is all that bad to begin with, but I still saw a lot of complaints about his year. Either way, expect the big man to play a more prominent role than the bottom-six duties he was given most of last season, and with that have an offensive output more befitting of a first-round pick. My personal outlook really hasn’t changed with Gauthier, as he still has a big, strong frame, great shot, and powerful skating stride – especially for a man his size. The question with him has always been how well he thinks the game and play without the puck. While those questions still remain, as he’s still pretty raw, but I do not understand why so many people have soured on a kid that literally turned 21 yesterday and has the skill set he does.
Much like Gauthier, there is quite a wide range of responses when you bring up Bean’s name. Scouts and fans alike will give you a wide range of answers if you ask what they think the future holds for the kid, anywhere from Ryan Murphy 2.0 to a top-four defenseman and elite powerplay quarterback. The answer probably lies somewhere in the middle, but I think he is in the perfect organization that isn’t going to rush him because of the defensive depth at the NHL level (and beyond). Bean definitely has work to do physically and defensively, but as I said after watching him at Prospects Camp, could probably effectively run a powerplay and contribute offensively right now with how well he skates, moves the puck, and thinks the game. He’s still looking for his first AHL point, but by all accounts is settling in nicely in Charlotte and has not been an issue defensively through four games. Some growing pains will surely come along as he adjusts to the pro game, but he, too, has a nice template to work from as a new-wave puck-moving defenseman.
Maenalanen was key in the comeback against Utica, as his shorthanded goal jump-started the offense and allowed them to climb out of their early hole. He would add two more assists on the weekend (one in each game) and seemed to get a little comfortable after a quiet first two games. Alongside Clark Bishop, he has been fantastic on the penalty kill. The team has been penalized too many times early in the year, over 5 times per game. However, the duo is a big reason they haven’t been hurt by it much, as the Checkers have killed off 20-of-22 (89.5%) powerplays against so far.
Poor Callum Booth. I mean, I expected we would see him at least once considering the way the schedule shook out. Being that the back-to-backs were the only games of the week, though, Nedeljkovic was clearly deemed fresh enough to get them all. It would appear that Mike Vellucci was right in making that choice. Ned has the exact same peripherals as last weekend, with a .933 save percentage with a 2.01 GAA. He is the only AHL goalie with four wins. He’s off to a fantastic start. As I said in part one, he could throw an intriguing wrench into the goaltending plans in Raleigh if he keeps up this scorching start.
- Both special teams units have been outstanding. I already spoke a bit about the solid penalty killing. Not to be outdone, the powerplay has converted 6-of-15 chances, a 40% clip. Small sample size, and neither of the early rates are probably sustainable, but this is another key reason the Checkers are off to such a great start.
- As mentioned in part 1, this team is incredibly deep and has many different players that can beat you. Last weekend, Nicolas Roy was the leader of the pack. He didn’t even register a point this weekend, and the team still won both games. He did have four PIMs and four shots on goal, and leads the team with 18 SOG for the year. The only player to record a point in every game so far is Andrew Poturalski, with 7 points (2 G, 5 A).
- Although he has yet to score yet, Aleksi Saarela is a player I expect to get going here relatively soon. He does have two assists and is tied for third on the team with ten shots (Kuokkanen and Bean have matched that number). A great skater with a wicked release, Saarela had 31 goals in his first 78 AHL games, which is very impressive for a kid who will not turn 22 until January. Gregg McKegg, who played a huge role after being acquired from Wilkes Barre with 23 points in 19 games, is also off to a bit of a slow start. These two are unlikely to be held down for long.
- Cliff Pu got his first professional point with an assist against Utica. Hopefully he will score next game so I can make a joke about him matching Skinner through five games. Dan Renouf and Michal Cajkovsky both registered their first points with the organization with assists.