By: Brandon Stanley
Welcome back, friends!
A bit of a disclaimer before we get into it; this series can, at times, be tough to do the way I want to do it. I don’t want to give you guys some half-hearted box score report that tells you who scored and barely anything else. But, life as a college student who works weekends doesn’t always allow for a ton of time to watch each game in its entirety and tell you every detail of every game that happened – though I sure as heck tried last year a time or two, and if any of you actually got all the way through some of my earliest “Checking-In” posts then you are very much a trooper. The problem is when I get behind, this turns into MORE games to cover, and it just gets worse, so… I’m sure you can see the dilemma I run into when my schedule tightens up. So, my apologies for not being particularly consistent with getting these up, but just know I do try my best to give those of you who can’t see the Checkers valuable, accurate insight into how players are doing and what to expect moving forward. I appreciate each and every one of you who reads and gives feedback here or on Twitter (and, especially, to Matt, who never gets on my case and continues to provide a platform and opportunity to do something I thoroughly enjoy). So, since this is a lot of games, these recaps are going to be short. If you want to skip this and get to the more detailed information, skip below to my Player Spotlight (one I think many people will be interested to read) and the “Other Notes” section. Now then…
The Checkers are one of the biggest turnaround stories of the 2019-20 AHL season. You may recall my early write-ups which started with things like “this looks like a transition year” or “this team had a lot of turnover, so I guess we shouldn’t be expecting too much”. Well… that has, uh, changed. This team has gone from a pretty bad team to a bubble team, a bubble team to a legit playoff team, and then a solid playoff team to now, a team that looks like a legitimate contender for a second consecutive Calder Cup. The Checkers have faced a tough schedule of late and accepted it head-on, doing nothing short of excelling against any and all competition. They’ve received contributions from all over the lineup, excellent special teams play, rock solid goaltending (mostly), and the wins have continued to pour in. They are now in the top ten of the AHL standings, and the last month shows that the young, exciting Canes team we already have is only the beginning of a long line of accumulated young talent started by Francis and continued by Waddell. Let’s do it.
1/8 Checkers 6, Wilkes-Barre Penguins 3
To kick things off, LorentzMania continued. Two goals, one of which was a gorgeous, off-balance, top-shelf backhander that tied things up and seemed to swing momentum the Checkers’ way, plus a helper to boot. Sleep on this kid at your own peril. After trading goals the first half of the game, Lorentz’ marker sparked a four-unanswered-goal run that buried the Pens. They would get some push back in the final frame, but Alex Nedeljkovic put forth a strong effort despite a mediocre overall line. He turned away all 12 shots he saw in period three, and secured the big win over the division rival who is right on their heels in the playoff race. Julien Gauthier continued his assault on AHL defenses with another goal and assist, and Janne Kuokkanen pitched in two assists of his own. This was also game six of their six-game winning streak they rode into 2020 on (FORESHADOWING ALERT).
1/10 Checkers 3, Hartford Wolfpack 6
Yep, fell one short of tying the franchise record of seven consecutive wins. The beginning of this game was Bananaland, as five goals were scored in fewer than four minutes of action early in the first, and a sixth was scored about halfway through the opening period. Minor league hockey, baby. Unfortunately, after that 3-3 tie, the Checkers’ offense dried up. The Wolfpack scored once in the second and twice in the third to seize control, and netminder Adam Huska would shake off the rough start to slam the door on the Checkers for the final 50 minutes of gameplay. Jake Bean, Gauthier, and Clark Bishop scored for Charlotte. Anton Forsberg came in playing well and having won four straight starts, but struggled a bit in making 28 saves.
1/11 Checkers 5, Bridgeport Tigers 2
The next night in Bridgeport, the Checkers put a bow on a rock-solid seven-game road trip, bringing six wins back to NC with them. Max McCormick, who has been one of the more underrated veteran leaders of this young squad, would lead the way with a hat trick. He had one goal on the powerplay, one at even strength, and sealed the game with an empty netter. Most of his goals come from doing the dirty work in front of the net, but his second goal showed off a powerful shot as well that beat goalie Jakub Skarek cleanly from the circle. Fredrik Claesson and Eetu Luostarinen would also score, while Dave Gust and Oliwer Kaski added two assists apiece. Nedeljkovic had a nice start, stopping 23 of 25 shots against a team that, despite its struggles, has some talented players (Oliver Wahlstrom, Otto Koivula, the since-called-up Kieffer Bellows, etc.). His start was actually somewhat similar to Huska’s the night before, as the Tigers got a couple early ones and the game sat tied at 2 after the first, but Ned completely shut the door from then on to allow the Checkers to grab control.
1/14 Hershey Bears 1, Checkers 4
The Checkers headed back to Bojangles’ Coliseum to kick off a homestand with a two-game series against a tough Hershey squad. Hershey has a nice mix of veteran AHLers (most of which have had cups of coffee in the NHL) and young, higher-upside talent. Kaski was the big story with two gorgeous goals; one bomb of a slapshot, one snipe of a wrist shot off the rush. His production with Charlotte has been ridiculously good. After Kaski gave the Checkers a 2-0 lead, Hershey would try to fight back, but Dave Gust would add an insurance marker and Lorentz sealed it with an empty netter. Forsberg shook off the shaky Hartford game to stop 26 of 27, and Kaski, Lorentz, Gust, Kuokkanen (3 assists, he’s a possession monster and playing the best hockey of his pro career), and Bean (2 assists, could say the same) all had multi-point games as the Checkers did well to carry over their momentum from the road.
1/15 Hershey Bears 4, Checkers 5
The next night, the Checkers finished off an impressive mini-sweep of the Atlantic Division leaders, jumping out to a 5-1 lead and fighting off a furious comeback. Bean and Gust would open things up in the first to stake the Checkers to a 2-0 lead, but halfway through period two Hershey would split that lead in half. The rest of the middle frame, though, was all Checkers. Forsling, Kaski, and Lorentz would add insurance markers that ended up being desperately-needed, as Hershey would roar back with three goals of their own in a five-minute span in the third. Ned had a couple he probably wants back, but I wouldn’t call them necessarily “bad” goals either, as he got a couple bad bounces as well (and Brian Pinho had a pretty filthy snipe on a two-on-one that started the avalanche). Regardless, he held on late when it mattered most. Janne Kuokkanen had three more assists, giving him six in two games against one of the league’s best teams. He and Lorentz (1 G, 1 A) were the only players with multiple points as the Checkers continued to get balanced production.
1/18 Toronto Marlies 3, Checkers 4 (SO)
Rocking those sweet, black alternate “CLT” jerseys (man they really need to become a thing), the Checkers pulled off a wild comeback against another top AHL team. Mason Marchment scored to put the Marlies up 1-0 after 20 minutes, but the Checkers pushed back in period two thanks to their powerplay. Morgan Geekie tipped home a Kuokkanen blast after Kaski did a great job of keeping a clear attempt in at the blue line, then Kuokkanen would bang in his own goal barely a minute later off a mad scramble in front. Mason Marchment would continue to be a huge pain, though, as he scored twice more in the third to finish off a hat trick and put Toronto back in front. With time winding down and the Checkers still down a goal, Jake Bean showed off one of my favorite attributes he possesses: his poise, and internal clock, if you will. There is no rush in his game, as he showed at the offensive blue line when calmly corralling the puck and playing catch with Kaski, then Kuokkanen, with precious seconds ticking off, before finally finding a shooting lane he liked and releasing a perfect, low, snap-wrister that found it’s way to the twine. I think I like Bean’s wrist shot more than his slap shot (he uses it a lot more and it serves him well), as he gets it off quickly and heavily and consistently picks corners. That set the stage for extra time, and after an action-packed but ultimately fruitless overtime, Lorentz won it for the home team in the shootout with a slick deke and one-handed backhand finish. Kuokkanen’s goal and two assists gave him his third consecutive three-point game, and Kaski added two more assists in helping steal one from the Marlies.
1/19 Toronto Marlies 3, Checkers 7
This game was quite the seesaw. After a relatively quiet first, with only a Geekie powerplay marker to speak of, the ensuing 40 minutes were wild. It looked as though the Checkers were going to run Toronto out of the building, with Gust, Gauthier, and Luostarinen extending the lead to four halfway through the game. However, Toronto would roar back and make it a 4-3 game late in period two thanks to two deflections and a tic-tac-powerplay goal. However, Lorentz would continue his trend of timely goals with an insurance marker just before the second intermission, then Geekie and Lorentz, again, would ice it in the third. Four Charlotte goals, three Toronto goals, three Charlotte goals. Momentum is funny. Ned only faced 20 shots, so the stat line wasn’t great, but he stood exactly zero chance on any of the goals scored. This was the biggest game of Geekie’s ridiculous point streak, as he had three points (2 G 1A), and four other players – Bean, McKeown, Lorentz, and Luostarinen – had multi-point games as well.
1/24 Wilkes-Barre Penguins 5, Checkers 4
Entering the final two-game set of the long home stand, the Checkers hit their only real lull of 2020 thus far. It began with this defense-optional, penalty filled contest with Wilkes-Barre. The two teams combined for nine goals on 76 shots, and 5-10 on the powerplay (including 3-4 for WB, somewhat surprising against the Checkers second-ranked penalty kill). Chase Priskie would come out of his slump with five shots and two assists, and Gauthier and Luostarinen would pitch in a goal and an assist each. Gustav Forsling and Gust were the other goal scorers for Charlotte as the five-game win streak ended. Forsberg made 31 saves, but this game probably could have looked worse if not for a handful of impressive, athletic stops. Cole Cassels, who has 12 points in his other 38 games, had a five-point night for the Pens. That’s a quick, efficient way to skew your stat line. Despite the loss, the Checkers were trailing 3-0 in the second and showed a lot of fight, they just couldn’t quite overcome the slow start.
1/25 Wilkes-Barre Penguins 4, Checkers 2
Unfortunately, the Checkers were unable to exact revenge on a team they’re fighting for playoff spot with in the last game of the homestand. This was a tough loss, as the game was tied with under two minutes to play before Thomas Di Pauli walked right around Fredrik Claesson, then went backhand and slipped one through Nedeljkovic five-hole to break a 2-2 tie (he then added an empty netter as well). Geekie and Gauthier were the goal scorers, with Bishop, Smallman, McCormick, and Luostarinen picking up assists. Ned made 27 saves. This was one of the less-spirited efforts, I thought, from the Checkers. They just didn’t seem to have the jump they usually do, which is not uncommon for teams at the end of a long home stand. Forslund said it on a recent Canes broadcast: “When you’re home too long, things can get stale”.
1/31 Checkers 2, Toronto Marlies 6
Unfortunately, getting away from Bojangles’ Coliseum didn’t bring an immediate turnaround, as the Marlies crushed the Checkers in the return from the All-Star Break to run the losing streak to three games. Though Geekie opened the scoring, Toronto would answer with three straight goals to chase starter Anton Forsberg. Ned would come in, but 19 seconds after hitting the ice gave up another goal to make it 4-1. McCormick would temporarily provide a little hope when he tapped home a beautiful pass from Gust on the powerplay late in the second, but before the intermission came the Marlies extended the lead back to three on a PP marker of their own. They added the final goal 5 minutes into the third. Both goalies ended up allowing three goals, as Forsberg made 13 saves and Ned made 8 (yuck and yuck) as the Marlies flexed their muscle.
2/1 Checkers 4, Toronto Marlies 3
The Checkers righted the ship the following night, and once again the strength of its special teams play provided a big hand in the win. Kaski opened the scoring with a powerplay bomb off a Bean feed high to the glove of the Marlies’ Kaskisuo. Bishop would extend the lead to two on a nice individual effort before the first intermission, and the Checkers effectively eliminated a nice mid-afternoon Toronto crowd early on. Next, Geekie would showcase his hands and ability to work the interior of the ice, catching a pass and wiring it into the top corner with defenders draped all over him. After Toronto notched their own powerplay goal to get on the board, Gauthier provided a beautiful answer, shorthanded (Gaut on the PK!). I’m sure many have seen it on Twitter, but for those who haven’t, he intercepted a tipped pass, flew down the ice, split the two defensemen (skating ability for a big man A+++), and deked to the backhand before sliding the puck five-hole. That goal would turn out to be the difference, as Toronto carried much of the play the rest of the game and got back to within one midway through the third. Nedeljkovic (31 saves) and the defense would stand tall from there, though, and the Checkers got back in the win column.
2/7 Hartford Wolfpack 0, Checkers 6
Back on home ice and still fuming over the three-game losing streak or something, I guess, the Checkers took out their frustration on one of the AHL’s top teams. This one was over pretty quick and a start-to-finish destruction, as the Checkers more than doubled up the Wolfpack in shots on goal (38-17), and the score obviously speaks for itself. Forsling, Geekie, and Kuokkanen staked the Checkers to a 3-0 lead after 20, Gauthier and Gust lit the lamp in the second, and Kaski put the finishing touch on in the third as part of a three-point game. Nedeljkovic picked up his fourth shutout on the year. Just a complete effort from all 19 guys in the lineup, another sign that this is a team capable of doing a whole lot of damage come playoff time.
2/8 Hartford Wolfpack 3, Checkers 4 (OT)
Hartford came out with a spirited effort after being embarrassed the night before, but the Checkers answered the call. Hartford twice took the lead in the second, but each time the Checkers responded. Geekie tied it at one, and Priskie would score just before the second intermission to knot it at 2 heading into the final 20. Lorentz gave the Checkers their first lead less than three minutes into the third, but a point shot through a ton of traffic that Anton Forsberg never saw brought Hartford back even. The game would go to overtime, and the Checkers caught quite the lucky break to bag the extra point. After Chase Priskie very nearly overskated a puck to lead to a Hartford 2-on-1, Hartford’s Vinni Lettieri would return the favor and mishandle the mistake himself. A quick backhand saucer pass by Priskie led to a (mishit) one-timer from Kuokkanen, that somehow fluttered over Tom McCollum’s shoulder for the OT winner. With that, the Checkers finished off another impressive sweep and now sit somewhat comfortably in a playoff spot, as their .606 points percentage puts them at #5 in the Eastern Conference (by points they’re in 7th, but have as many as four fewer games played than some of their conference competitors. They have played fewer games than any other eastern conference team).
Player Spotlight: Oliwer Kaski
When I watched him the first few times, I wasn’t all that impressed. He showed off a big shot and definitely some smarts in the offensive end with the puck on his stick, but he wasn’t much to me other than a new Trevor Carrick. My mind has opened up to the possibility that that isn’t the case in the last month. In his first few games he may have struggled to fit in a bit, just been somewhat timid trying to find his place, as I didn’t see the same aggressive, mobile defenseman that has since arrived. He moves much better than I initially thought, and if you remember my last comments about him… well, this little report is going to sound a bit different.
Defensemen don’t score 19 goals in one Liiga season if they lack skill. This dude definitely has it. The conversation with the 24-year-old blueliner starts with the offense he provides, and with good reason. With the puck on his stick, he’s a threat from anywhere. Kaski excels on zone exits and entries, as he can spearhead a rush from the defensive zone with his hands, long stride, vision, and ability to make crisp, tape-to-tape passes. He has an absolute cannon from the back end, with both a booming slap shot that can beat goalies cleanly, and a hard, accurate wrist shot he keeps low from a distance (or can elevate from the slot, as he showed against Hershey) and gets off quickly. He scored a gorgeous powerplay goal (He’s become a staple of the top unit with Bean, Geekie, Kuokkanen, and Gauthier – pretty fun) on a 5-on-3, where they moved the puck well and he unleashed a rocket that goaltender Phoenix Copley never stood a chance on. He and Bean switched sides on what seemed like a set play of sorts, and you could tell the Checkers were looking for him – that was the shot they wanted. That same game also showcased his willingness to jump into the play and add a fourth option on the attack. He identified an opportunity to jump, got open and created a beautiful give and go with Kuokkanen, then kept pace to retrieve another pass from his fellow countryman in the offensive zone before wiring an absolute snipe high to the glove side. He is aggressive with his pinching at the blue line, and this can be a positive attribute, especially for a team like the Hurricanes which plays an aggressive forechecking style. However, he needs to get a tad better at choosing his spots, as he nearly gave up a few odd-man rushes when he ended up getting beaten and didn’t have the re-load from a forward to help defensively. I still haven’t seen a ton of reps of him defending one-on-one, but I have come away impressed from what I’ve seen (and, hell, not noticing defensemen in their own end is generally a good thing – in most cases it means they’re doing their jobs). He’s a big kid and moves well in a straight line, and he has a long reach that made a number of deflections and pass breakups, even though he doesn’t play a physical game. He made a Slavin-like stop on a two-on-one where he efficiently cut off a passing lane while also creeping towards the forward with the puck, but making sure he did so in a manner that provided no cutback lane or other escape route. He now has a near even split between Grand Rapids and Charlotte this year, and the difference is staggering: with the Griffins, 19 games played, 2 goals, 3 assists. With Charlotte, 21 games, 7 goals, 8 assists. He’s now on pace for nearly 40 points, a mark he’ll hit easily if he continues the pace he’s had since being acquired. He has clearly shaken off the relatively tough start he had in the Detroit organization. He has been phenomenal with Charlotte, and though it is still early in his North American hockey career, Kaski looks like he could be one of the more underrated moves that pays off nicely. There is obviously another jump in skill, processing speed, and game speed from the AHL to The Show, but the way he has handled his first extended taste of stateside hockey makes me believe he could potentially fill a role as a puck moving, bottom-pair or seventh defenseman that sees PP time. However, with 24 a bit old for a prospect and being in an organization with a plethora of offensive defensemen such as Jake Bean, Chase Priskie, Dougie Hamilton, Jake Gardiner, guys like Fensore and Honka down the line, and even Jaccob Slavin, that opportunity may be tough to come by in Raleigh.
- Morgan Geekie was trending towards the possibility of the dreaded “sophomore slump” type of season for a while. Then 2020 hit, and a franchise record, 13-game point streak later, I think that went out the window. His game is really coming along. His offensive toolkit is diverse, he gets to the dirty areas, and he plays a responsible game. He’ll probably push for a spot in Raleigh next year.
- The skating ability of Jake Bean never ceases to amaze me. I wouldn’t call him the fastest straight-line skater in the world, but he’s incredibly quick with his ability to change direction and that, along with his high-end ability to think the game, lets him expertly create time and space. Think Jaccob Slavin in that aspect (please note the phrase in that aspect). He’s crafty at the blue line, and while it is impressive and clearly showcases his skill and confidence, making stop-and-start cuts trying to deke people at the offensive blue line when you’re the last man back could be a recipe for disaster at the NHL level. A turnover or two like that will get him in Rod’s doghouse, very quickly. But, overall, what he has done all year long in Charlotte has been nothing short of outstanding. Always super fun to watch. He’s NHL-ready right now, and going to bring a really nice element to the Canes blue line next season, if not sooner.
- What else can we say about Gauthier? All he does is score goals. He’s now up to 23 (32 points) in 40 games, and has a realistic shot at hitting 40. In fact, when you extrapolate that goals per game average over a full AHL season, that comes to 44 goals (though he has missed a handful of games during his call ups with the Hurricanes). It’s not just a fluke or some hot streak where the bounces are finding their way in the net, either. He continues to grow his game and learn to use his absurd natural talents, seemingly trusting his strength and skill more and more which has allowed him to dominate AHL defenders on a regular basis. If the Canes forward group wasn’t already overcrowded (man, what a time… Gauthier would probably be entering his third year in the league if he were drafted in, like, 2011, right?) I think he would be in the NHL right now. It’ll be interesting to see what comes out over the next couple weeks as we near the trade deadline. I’m sure any scouts in attendance report back with a lot of praise. I can’t help but think he’ll be a highly-sought-after player due to his talent, production, and NHL-readiness, if the Canes are looking for upgrades.
- You knew I had to bring him up at least once in this section… but I wish there was a site I could find AHL leaders in takeaways, because Steven Lorentz HAS to be near the top. He continues to make a defensive difference each game, and playing against him has to be an absolute nightmare. He’s just a pest, and fits extremely well into what the organization wants. Get ready for Brind’Amour to play him 19 minutes a night next to Aho and Svechnikov (he says, hopefully joking, but kind of wondering at the same time). Then again, if he keeps scoring nasty goals and putting up points in bunches (he had 12 points in the 13 games listed here, and had multi-point games five times), who knows. Not much more I need to say that I didn’t ramble on about endlessly last time out.
- The goalie play continues to be better than the numbers suggest for both Forsberg and Nedeljkovic. Though they give up more goals than you’d like to see, I think they make pretty much all the “ones-you-have-to-have”-type saves, as well as some huge timely stops that give the Checkers momentum and a chance to stay in games. The Charlotte defense is pretty aggressive with pinching and jumping up-ice, so there are a higher number of high-danger chances against than some teams would prefer. However, this is the style of play that guys like Kaski, Bean, Forsling, and Priskie SHOULD be playing. Let’s not re-create the Ryan Murphy fiasco, trying to turn a dynamic offensive defenseman into something he’s not. Giving the defense the leeway to make occasional mistakes at the very least evens out with the offense these guys create, if you ask me. Obviously, there is a fine line here, and you don’t want these guys developing bad habits where they sacrifice defense for offense TOO much. But whatever the Checkers are doing lately, it’s working.
- The Checkers now sit at 27-17-3 on the season. That includes a 7-3-0 mark their last ten games, and 11-4-0 in 2020. Unfortunately, they basically have the same issue as the Canes do (though not quite as pronounced): their division is absolutely stacked. They have the tenth best record in the AHL, but that is only good for fourth place in the Atlantic Division. It should be noted, though, that since the calendar turned the Checkers have swept two-game series from each of the teams ahead of them in the Atlantic. They can’t slow down, and have to continue to build on the momentum they have built the last couple months, but the team continues to trend very much in the right direction.
Thanks for reading, as always.
Go Canes! (and Checkers)!