A Solid Start
The Charlotte Checkers entered the 2016-2017 season with high hopes of making the playoffs, after failing to qualify for the AHL postseason the previous year by just a few percentage points.
The team would bring in some exciting young talent and fresh faces with Haydn Fleury, Roland McKeown, Lucas Wallmark, Alex Nedeljkovic, and Valentin Zykov. The Checkers would also return key players from the season prior including; Derek Ryan, Brock McGinn, Sergey Tolchinsky, and Trevor Carrick. The start of the 2016-2017 season also saw the Checkers bring in their third head coach in three seasons in Ulf Samuelsson.
The first nine to ten games of the season were the only games that the opening day roster would play together for the entire year. During those ten games the Checkers played solid hockey, going 7-3-0 and finding themselves as one of the top team’s in the Western Conference. Team Captain at the time, Derek Ryan, would score 13 points in his first nine games played looking even more dominant than the year before and displaying great offensive awareness on the ice. Brock McGinn posted a seven-game point streak early in the season and looked about as good as he ever had looked in a Checkers’ uniform. McGinn did a terrific job of playing both sides of the puck while down in Charlotte and bringing a physical aspect to his game which is something he was known for in junior hockey. Andrew Poturalski established himself as one of the top rookies in the AHL this season scoring four goals in the first three games of the year. He was displayed confidence on offense that he had not shown in the 16 games he played with the Checkers the previous season. Top defensemen at the time Matt Tennyson also tallied seven points in his first nine games as a Checker, which included his first professional hat trick in the final game he played with Charlotte.
A Rough Stretch
After the Checkers solid start to the season, the team would lose three of their top players in a two day stretch due to NHL callup in Derek Ryan, Brock McGinn, and Matt Tennyson. None of those three players would return to Charlotte for the rest of the year. Because of this exodus of some of their key players, the Checkers hit a rough stretch. In the next 25 games, Charlotte went only 6-17-2 and fell all the way to the bottom of the Western Conference standings by early January. This hard stretch of games for the Checkers saw their best defensemen from the previous season in Trevor Carrick, go down with an injury that caused him to miss 18 straight games. Hurricanes goalie prospect; Alex Nedeljkovic would struggle to get in any rhythm during this time and was 2-9-0 as a result. Nedeljkovic had trouble adjusting to the pro game in his first season. Most notably, he struggled with corralling rebounds and would let out juicy shots to opposing teams for terrific second chance opportunities. That is the biggest aspect of his game for offseason improvement. Phil Di Giuseppe was one of the Checkers few bright spots after he was sent back down to Charlotte from the Hurricanes roster. Di Giuseppe stepped up and made the best of the situation in front of him, improving on the offensive aspects of his game and becoming more comfortable as a go to guy when a team needs an offensive spark. Lucas Wallmark also started to emerge as an offensive force on the Checkers roster. The 21-year old from Sweden came into the season known for his passing and playmaking ability on offense, but it was his goal scoring that started to catch everyone’s attention as the season progressed. Wallmark became more aggressive on offense and would not pass up open shots for an extra pass to a teammate. The result was that Wallmark became the team leader in goals by the end of the regular season. But even with Di Giuseppe and Wallmark starting to emerge as offensive forces on the Checkers roster, the team as a whole was not playing well and they almost needed a miracle to make into the postseason.
Turning the Season Around
Coach Ulf Samuelsson was not going to let this Checkers team fade without a fight. After falling to the Chicago Wolves 5-2 on Saturday, January 7, Charlotte fell to a meager 13-20-2. But something amazing happened from that point forward. The Checkers finished the season on a 26-9-6 run, and made it into the postseason on the last day of the regular season. There were a few reasons for the amazing turnaround, but three big reasons stood above everything else.
The first reason was the almost out of nowhere emergence of Andrew Miller. Miller was acquired by the Hurricanes organization during the 2015-2016 season at the AHL trade deadline in exchange for former Canes first round pick, Zach Boychuk. Miller battled through injuries during the end of the 2015-16 season and through the first half of the 2016-17 season, but once he became fully healthy he was a monster. He brings a Ray Whitney like calming presence to the ice for an AHL team and he does an excellent job of finding his teammates in open areas of the ice for terrific scoring opportunities. He registered 32 points in his final 33 games of the regular season.
The second reason the Checkers finished the season on such a high note was the acquisition of goalie Tom McCollum on loan from the Stockton Heat. McCollum wentgo 11-2-4 in the 17 games that he played with Charlotte and he brought a calming presence in net that Checkers had not had since the beginning of the season with Michael Leighton.
The third main reason for the Checkers big turnaround was the fact that the Checkers became almost fully healthy again towards the end of the season. Trevor Carrick and Andrew Miller returned from injuries, and the team also gained other role players like Brendan Woods back from injury as well. It was big for the Checkers to play together as a unit for a long period and gain chemistry playing with each other which is not something they were able to do earlier in the season with injuries and NHL call ups.
The second half of the season push also saw Haydn Fleury gain more and more confidence, and he probably became the team’s best defensemen by the end of the season. He did an excellent job of moving the puck on offense and the breakout. He also became stronger on the puck as the year went on, not letting opposing players take much away from him. Aleksi Saarela came in and played eight games at the end of the season and tallied five goals in his first five games of North American professional hockey. If Saarela can avoid injuries during his career, he could be a formidable player on the Canes offense for years to come.
In the playoffs, the Checkers found themselves playing the winners of their division, the Chicago Wolves in the first round of the AHL playoffs. During the regular season the Checkers did not have much success against the Wolves, going 2-5-0 against them. But the playoffs are a different animal entirely, and regular season story lines cease to matter when it comes to the postseason.
The Checkers outplayed the Wolves for the first two games of the series in Charlotte. The Checkers won game one by a score of 4-0, but came up short in game two despite outplaying the Wolves. The Checkers gave up a late go-ahead goal and lost that game 3-2 tying the series at one game apiece. The Checkers won a crucial back and forth game three off a Connor Brickley overtime goal. The win pulled the Checkers to within just one win of advancing to the second round of the playoffs, something that was not even fathomable in early January.
Unfortunately that is as close as the Checkers would get to advancing as the Wolves would dominate in game four 5-1 and then mount an early 3-0 lead in game 5 on their way to the series win in five games.
Overall it was a successful season considering how much the Checkers had to overcome and how much energy they exerted just to get themselves into the playoffs. Haydn Fleury, Lucas Wallmark, Valentin Zykov, and Roland McKeown made big steps in their overall development, and it will be interesting to see how that translates into next season in the Hurricanes organization.