Canes and Coffee is thrilled to announce that Brandon Stanley will again be offering regular updates on the Charlotte Checkers and with it the good group of Canes prospects playing at that level. You will find Brandon’s longer thoughts here, but please also consider following him on Twitter at @bwstanley26.
Welcome back, Caniacs!
Charlotte Checkers departures
After their thrilling run to the Calder Cup championship last spring, the Checkers saw a significant amount of changes heading into the 2019-20 season. Let’s just take a peep at this list of key players from last year’s roster no longer in Charlotte.
Andrew Poturalski – alternate captain, playoff MVP with 12 goals and 23 points in 18 games, leading scorer with a 70-point regular season, signed with Anaheim.
Aleksi Saarela – team-leading 30 goal-scorer (and yes, I’m still salty about it. I hope the kid can figure out how to get his head right soon, if the reports are true, because the talent level is immense), traded to Chicago.
Martin Necas – 52 point rookie season, looking great in the Canes lineup.
Trevor Carrick – 47 points from the blue line while serving as alternate captain. Traded to San Jose, where he’s finally getting a shot at some NHL ice time.
Nick Schilkey – really solid AHL player, responsible two-way game while chipping in 15 goals and 37 points and playing all over the lineup, in all situations. Now with Bridgeport, the Islanders AHL affiliate.
Patrick Brown – 19 goals and 35 points while being one of the team’s top penalty killers, and serving as captain. Signed by Vegas.
Nicolas Roy, Saku Maenalanen, Haydn Fleury… the list goes on.
That’s the team’s top four scorers, all three captains, and doesn’t even account for Julien Gauthier (who came on very strong down the stretch last year and scored two goals in the Checkers’ first two games) also spending time in Raleigh after the Martinook injury*. That’s, uh, a lot of turnover. Incidentally, it kind of messed up my “Season in Review” series this summer, as a lot of the guys I planned to profile moved on. So, what we’re going to do to kick off the new year is kind of put a bow on the profiles and transition into the new season of my “Checking In” series. Instead of profiling one player this week, we’re just going to do a quick dive-in on a couple new faces we’re going to see in Charlotte this year, then give a short rundown on the first week of action.
All hope is not lost on this squad despite the turmoil. They are adding some very talented young players, and bringing back a few studs who are bound to take a nice step forward such as Morgan Geekie, Jake Bean, and reigning AHL Goalie of the Year Alex Nedeljkovic. Janne Kuokkanen is also back and healthy, and I expect him to get back to being the player he was pre-injury last season. I believe we’re about to see a monster year in his development, as he is somehow still only 21 years old despite it feeling like he’s been in the system since the team relocated from Hartford. Still, the Checkers are going to need some new guys to step up and take a large role. Who are the leading candidates to do so? Let’s take a look at a few names you need to know.
Charlotte Checkers new arrivals
Eetu Luostarinen (Center, acquired 2017 entry draft, 2nd round, 42nd overall)
The big Finn has come a long way the last two years. He saw a significant jump in scoring each year in Liiga (Finland’s top pro league) after being drafted – from 7 points in 32 games as an 18-year-old, to 20 points in 55 games in 17-18, to 15 goals and 21 assists for 36 points in 54 games while centering the top line for Kalpa much of last season. That point total was second on the team to only Alexandre Texier, who made the Columbus Blue Jackets out of camp this year and is already playing in their top six. I think his playing style will make for a smoother transition to the North American game than some European finesse/perimeter-oriented players who thrive with the ample time and space the Olympic-sized rinks afford. He isn’t a flashy player that’s going to light up the score sheet, profiling as more of a third-line type, but he plays with an edge to his game and makes things happen in all areas of the ice. He uses his body to protect the puck well and gets to the dirty areas – he scored his first AHL goal the other night on a nice rush to the front of the net, banging in a pass from on the doorstep. The skating ability is a question for me, but it does seem to be improved the last couple years. Luostarinen can labor his first few strides, but his top speed is adequate. He does need to show a little more discipline, as his 79 penalty minutes were far and away the highest total on Kalpa, and the 12th-highest total in the league. He has some work to do in rounding out his 200-foot game and filling out his 6’3 frame, but I think he has a great chance to help out the big club eventually. He’s probably still at least a year and a half to two years away. Expect his role to grow as the season wears on and he gets adjusted, and to see him centering the Checkers’ second line with some powerplay minutes to boot.
Chase Priskie (defenseman, signed as a college free-agent 8-17-2019)
Florida native Chase Priskie’s signing was a big deal for a lot of reasons. We often hear about players finishing out their four-year college careers and choosing not to sign with the team that drafted them, instead opting for free agency and the ability to pick any team in the league with interest in their services. Priskie, a Washington Capitals draft pick, turned down a chance to sign with a less-competitive blue line and perennial Cup contender, instead choosing to sign with the Carolina freakin’ Hurricanes, guys. What a time. His list of suitors included St. Louis, Boston, and many others. Priskie capped a stellar college career with Quinnipiac as a top-ten finalist for the Hobey Baker Award, given annually to the top player in the NCAA. The roving, puck-moving defenseman posted career highs in goals (17) and points (39) while tying the career mark set in his freshman year in assists (22) in just 36 games, all while wearing the “C” on his sweater for the second straight season. Priskie isn’t a sure thing. His skating is just okay, and his defense will be a large question – especially considering Rod Brind’Amour will be his coach – but that is the case with almost every college defenseman transitioning to the pro game. That will be an area I’ll be following closely, and will ultimately determine how far out he will be from getting a shot with one of the best blue lines in the NHL. However, his vision, ability to activate from the blue line, and elite offensive IQ give the 23-year-old a great shot to crack the NHL lineup before too long. He has the ceiling of a second pair, powerplay quarterback defenseman.
Jacob Pritchard (Winger, signed as college Free Agent, signed April 2019)
A player that doesn’t come with the recognition and fanfare of the aforementioned two players, Jacob Pritchard joined the Checkers late last season after finishing his senior season at UMass- Amherst. He ended up suiting up for six games during the postseason, registering one goal. Pritchard is a skilled, savvy playmaker who makes his mark being a stellar powerplay contributor. He led all NCAA players with 26 powerplay points, and finished second on his team behind only Cale Makar (2017 4th overall pick who has been identified by many as the Calder Trophy favorite despite entering the league at the same time as Kaapo Kakko and Jack Hughes) in scoring with 47 points (16 goals, 31 assists). Pritchard will be an interesting one to track. He is probably a long shot to ever crack the NHL roster, at least here in Carolina, when considering the depth both on the current roster and coming up through the pipeline. Still, look for him to get better as the year moves along and eventually be a solid contributor at the AHL level. Players with his type of track record and offensive instincts are perfect fits for organizational depth, as we learned last year when the Checkers made their run to the Calder Cup relying heavily on fellow former college free agent signings Poturalski and Schilkey. We’ll see if Pritchard is next in that line.
Hunter Shinkaruk (signed to AHL contract, July 18, 2019)
File this one mostly under the category of personal curiosity. Hunter Shinkaruk has long past earned the dreaded “bust” label. Once upon a time, he was one of the most promising snipers in Canadian major junior hockey. In the 2011-12 season, the year before his draft year, he put up a whopping 49 goals and 91 points in 66 games for the Medicine Hat Tigers of the WHL, causing scouts to salivate over his potential as a high-end future NHL goal scorer. He fell off a bit to 37 goals, 86 points his draft year, but the production still warranted a first-round pick, 24th overall, to the Vancouver Canucks. The pick was universally lauded as a massive steal, and many experts were stunned a player with his speed, shot, and overall skill level fell that far. He then ran into some terrible injury luck, appearing in just 18 games (and falling under a point per game for the first time since his age 16 season) in his draft +1 year. His first two AHL seasons seemed to revive his stock a bit, as he scored 43 times in 136 games, but he was never able to fully crack a bad Canucks roster. Eventually, he was traded to Calgary for career bottom-sixer Markus Granlund, so… That should tell you about where his stock was trending within the organization. Since then it’s been all downhill, and that stock hit a new low last season when he scored just 5 goals and 10 points for Laval (Montreal’s AHL affiliate). Some players are late bloomers, but now at 25 (October 13th birthday), it’s getting to the point where that once-dreamed about career seems highly, highly unlikely. Shinkaruk has scored at the AHL level before, though, and the talent has never been in question. It isn’t outside the realm of possibility he could have a nice bounce-back in Charlotte and provide some depth scoring in the minors. It will be a fascinating storyline to follow for a prospect junkie like myself.
If you have any questions about any of these or other players on the team, new or old, feel free to ask in the comments or on Twitter. I’m always down to talk prospects.
Week One Results
Opening night, October 5, @ Hartford Wolfpack (Rangers affiliate)
The Checkers opened up with a tough one, falling behind 5-1 and ultimately falling by a score of 5-3. Gauthier and Kuokkanen had goals, while Morgan Geekie and Roland McKeown picked up assists. Chase Priskie registered an assist as well for his first professional point in his first game. Charlotte outshot the Wolfpack 29-23, but Nedeljkovic struggled mightily in making just 18 saves. Longtime NHLer Matt Beleskey scored twice for Hartford, while Igor Shesterkin, one of the top goalie prospects in hockey, was outstanding.
Game 2, October 6, @ Springfield Thunderbirds (Panthers)
Playing in their second city in two nights, the Checkers picked up their first win of the year behind a stellar outing from Anton Forsberg and some timely powerplay goals. Forsberg made 33 saves on 35 shots, while Gauthier and Geekie scored on the man advantage. Jake Bean and McKeown added two assists apiece. Special teams were the story of the game, as the Checkers went 2 for 4 on the powerplay and 7 for 7 on the kill, including a nearly-full two minutes of 5 on 3 in the first period. That type of boost will put you in a good position most nights. The Checkers held on for a 4-2 victory despite being outshot 16-7 in the third period.
Game 3, October 11, vs. Bridgeport
In the home opener and banner raising night, the Checkers let down a raucous crowd with a 4-2 loss. Luostarinen crashed the net for his first AHL goal just six minutes in, and the Checkers controlled play for most of the night, but Chris Gibson made 42 saves for Bridgeport to put a damper on the celebration. Gustav Forsling also scored his first goal in the organization, and Chase Priskie and Morgan Geekie added assists. Sebastian Aho scored, which is a bad thing for the Canes organization in this case, with four minutes to go in the second to make it 2-1 Bridgeport. Then, after the Checkers tied the game at 2 early in the third, they gave up the winning goal less than a minute later. Nedeljkovic allowed three goals on 24 shots, as his start to the year hasn’t been great. The final goal was an empty netter to put the game away with just under two minutes to play.
Game 4, October 12, vs. Bridgeport
The two teams would have a rematch back at Bojangles Coliseum the very next night, and the Checkers would exact a little revenge by a score of 4-1. Morgan Geekie was the star, blasting a laser of a slap shot by Bridgeport goalie Jared Coreau to open the scoring in the first and finishing with two goals on the night. Anton Forsberg was excellent again, stopping 28 of 29 shots to improve to 2-0-0 (he got an assist too!). Brian Gibbons added a goal and an assist, Luostarinen would score his second goal on an empty netter, and Bean and Priskie chipped in with powerplay assists. New captain Roland McKeown got his fourth assist in four games, and if his offensive numbers take a notable step forward this year, it’ll be a really intriguing development for the steady defenseman.
Notable Stats (4 games played unless otherwise noted; goals-assists-points)
Morgan Geekie – 3-2-5 (he’s also a -5. I know +/- is dumb but. Weird.)
Brian Gibbons – 1-3-4 (also a -5)
Roland McKeown – 0-4-4
Jake Bean – 0-3-3
Chase Priskie – 0-3-3
Julien Gauthier – 2-0-2 (2 games played)
Eetu Luostarinen – 2-0-2
Janne Kuokkanen – 1-1-2
Fredrik Claesson – 0-2-2
Gustav Forsling – 1-0-1
Steven Lorentz – 1-0-1
Hunter Shinkaruk – 0-1-1
Clark Bishop – 0-0-0
Jacob Pritchard – 0-0-0
Alex Nedeljkovic – 0-2-0; 4.14 Goals Against Average; .830 save percentage (small sample, but ouch)
Anton Forsberg – 2-0-0; 1.50 Goals Against Average; .953 save percentage