While Canes fans have been most busy enjoying the great start in Raleigh, the season is off to a great start for the Charlotte Checkers too. This article by Brandon Stanley covers the first weekend (Matt’s fault for the delay getting it posted) of Checkers hockey.
As we saw in training camp and the preseason, this Hurricanes roster is a lot deeper and more talented than we have seen in quite some time. With the strengthened farm system and highly regarded prospects graduating to the professional ranks, this year’s Charlotte Checkers were always going to be a talented, dangerous team. There were multiple players with strong performances that in recent years likely would have made the team, at least on a trial basis, that are starting the year in Charlotte. And boy, it’s been a nice start. I wanted to give a little background on some of the notable players and preview a few who will likely see the big club when injuries and ineffectiveness inevitably strike. So, this is just a quick recap of the first two games of the year, and some insights into some guys you’ve probably heard about plenty of times over the years (and some you may not be as familiar with) as a little refresher course.
The Checkers open the season with three consecutive Friday-Saturday back-to-backs, and began the year in New York to face the affiliate of the Buffalo Sabres, the Rochester Americans. The Checkers would sweep their opening series, winning by scores of 6-2 and 4-2. It was an impressive start to the year on the road against a lineup with a nice mix of AHL veterans and NHL prospects that went 37-22-17 (jeez, that’s a lot of OT/SOLs) last year. Here are some of the standouts as well as some other guys to keep an eye on as the season progresses.
No brainer to start with the guy that won the ACC/CCM Player of the Week. Roy carried the team through the opening weekend, scoring twice and adding an assist in each game, giving him the early AHL points lead at six (tied with Zac Dalpe, who has played an additional game). These include a shorthanded, bar-down snipe on a breakaway and two powerplay goals. He also had nine shots on goal in the opener (14 total). I have been a rather large fanboy of Roy since we drafted him, and he has progressed really nicely since then, especially with his skating. He has always been known for playing a steady, advanced two-way game for his age. If the offensive game takes the step forward I think it can, we will have a massive fourth-round steal on our hands. After dominating the QMJHL for two years after being selected in the 2015 Entry Draft, he had a solid 38-point rookie campaign last year. I already had a brief discussion in the comments section of another article about Necas, Di Giuseppe, and others concerning the optimal current roster. Now, I am not ready to throw in the towel on Necas staying at the NHL level after four games with bottom-six type line mates. That said, if he does not pick his game up substantially and Roy stays scorching hot that decision will essentially make itself. Either way, he’s surely on the short-list for first call-up of 2018-19.
If Roy isn’t the first forward called up when the time comes, it’s probably because Kuokkanen earned it over him. Early this preseason I thought he set himself up to make the opening night roster, starting with a bang and scoring three points against Tampa Bay. Then he went a little quiet the rest of the way while other guys solidified their spots. He didn’t let it affect him long, though. Like in his Canes preseason debut, his season debut was electric, pitching in on four of the Checkers’ six goals with two helpers and two finishes of his own. He was kept off the score sheet in the second game, but after a 40-point (in just 60 games) AHL debut last season, Kuokkanen is getting close to ready for another shot with the big club.
One of our two third-round WHL picks in 2017 (along with Stelio Mattheos) that look like really solid NHL prospects, Geekie has raised his stock immensely the last 12 months. The Canes could have sent him back to Tri-City for an overage year, but was deemed ready to start his professional career and given a contract. In the second game he scored his first AHL goal on a rip from the slot. He also added an assist. After netting a ridiculous, league-leading 17 goals in just 14 games in last spring’s WHL playoffs, he’s really grabbed my attention. My early reads on him are that he’s a smart forward with a lot of skill, but as was the case with Nicolas Roy, I’m not sure how well he matches up in the pros in terms of speed. I think there are quite a few guys ahead of him when it comes to getting a call-up, and I expect him to spend all of this season in the minors unless he has a huge season and earns a look late in the season, but Geekie is definitely a guy to monitor the next couple years.
This is mostly based off secondhand information, as Smallman is a player I have wanted to see play for some time, but have not had the chance to do so. I was interested to see his transition to the pro game last season, but he was hurt much of it. He played just 14 games late in the year with the Everblades in the ECHL and posted 2 goals, 13 points and a plus-9 rating. After seeing that he managed two assists in his AHL debut, I’m quite intrigued again and wanted to at least give him a mention in this space. Smallman served as captain of the Saint John Sea Dogs, where he was a teammate of Julien Gauthier and Callum Booth. He posted some good numbers in the QMJHL, but is certainly projected to be more of a bottom-six forward. He isn’t the most talented guy, but he’s another of those hard-work, great teammate, guy-you-want-on-your-team types. I plan on seeing a few Charlotte games this year, so I will get a better read on his skill level and style of play and give a better evaluation and projection at that time.
Ned got the nod in both ends of the back-to-back and was rock solid each night. There are some GIFs from the games on the Checkers Twitter feed, including one capturing a great lateral save on a backdoor chance with the Checkers holding a one-goal lead. In the first game he faced just 24 shots, but was worked much harder in the second, making 34 saves. With the two goals allowed each game, that comes out to a very tidy .933 save percentage. I thought it was interesting that Callum Booth (or Jeremy Helvig) did not get into a game in the back-to-back, so the goalie usage moving forward will be interesting to monitor. Being that they only played twice in a week it makes some sense, but this weekend seemed to make a statement that Ned is certainly the guy. If he continues to play like he did these first two games he might earn a shot in Raleigh this year as well, depending on how things go in Raleigh.
- By all accounts, Czech free agent-signee Michal Cajkovsky was a steady presence on the back end, not registering on the scoresheet but managing a team-high +4 rating. Also, did you know he’s listed at 6’4, 239 pounds? Beast.
- AHL veteran Trevor Carrick was, somewhat surprisingly to me, not claimed on waivers. I’ve always been a fan of the mix of physicality and offense he brings from the blue line. Coming off an 11 -goal, 44-point season, with seasons of 9-33-42 and 7-25-32, and having scored 22 goals in his last year in the OHL, I think he deserves a chance at the NHL level. He is obviously a bit down the pecking order here though, so I am not sure that opportunity ever comes here. I almost wish he had gotten picked up somewhere with a lighter blue line that could give him ice time. He had three assists in the two games.
- Andrew Poturalski had five points (two goals), and he is only 24 years old, so he could presumably take a step forward from his two-game stint last season (which was not good). However, considering his lack of ice time in preseason, I think he is pretty much at this point the MLB-equivalent of an org guy: important to have on the team as a player enough to thrive at a specific level, but unlikely to ever make an impact for the parent club.
- As I mentioned earlier, this team has a ton of talent. With Roy, Kuokkanen, and Poturalski carrying the weight this past weekend, a lot of guys did not really need to do much for the team to be successful. Surely these guys will have their days later in the year. Among the players that are significant prospects not mentioned above, Julien Gauthier and Aleksi Saarela both at least got on the scoresheet with assists and combined for ten shots on goal, and Roland McKeown scored a goal along with seven shots on net from the back end. Jake Bean, Clark Bishop, and Cliff Pu were all held scoreless. All six of these guys are in very important seasons as they try to establish themselves as NHL options. As with basically all the players here, I’m quite eager to actually get to a game and get eyes on all of them. This team has the potential to be quite good, and it should be fascinating to see which players separate themselves among the group.