The roller coaster of a year continues. Last time out I spoke of a wild ride that had skyrocketed heading down the stretch. The Checkers were playing at an extremely high level, showcasing their depth, flexing their muscle as one of the best teams in the AHL. Then, well, we all know what happened: NHL Trade Deadline Day. Gone are Kuokkanen, Gauthier, Priskie, and Luostarinen, plus veteran defenseman Fredrik Claesson. Geekie was called up (and made a huge splash, eh? Love the kid, but didn’t see this coming). Both goalies spent time in Raleigh, though Ned is now back. And now, I’m looking around the roster, and on many occasions asking… who?
This is a business, and competing for a Calder Cup is a long way from Waddell and co.’s mind when trying to maneuver to bring a Stanley Cup back to Raleigh. I think the team has successfully put itself in better position moving forward, as Skjei is going to fit in nicely on an already-deep blue line with his grit and skating ability, Trocheck is a good middle-six center that fits the Canes’ system and is a rock-solid placeholder for when (if?) Necas moves to the middle, and Vatanen is going to add a much-needed offensive dynamic from the back end when (… if?) he finally gets on the ice, while also providing a balancing effect as a right-hand shot.
But we aren’t here to talk about the big club; I guess, maybe, this has just been my way of avoiding talking about the losses of my large adult children. It stings a bit to watch so many players we’ve watched get drafted and grow as players get shipped off at a moment’s notice, especially with some of them on the cusp of breaking through to the NHL. Such is the way of life in professional sports. But at the end of the day, this, too, is a professional hockey team with its eyes set on the postseason. Things just got a whole lot tougher, though. Let’s see where the Checkers are at moving into the regular season’s final month.
2/11 Rochester Americans (2) at Checkers (4)
Coming in hot (and, you know, with a still-intact roster), the Checkers stretched their winning streak with a rock-solid effort against Rochester. Julien Gauthier had three points, two of them goals, to lead the way. After Rochester had jumped out to a lead just 41 seconds in, Roland McKeown and Gauthier would swing momentum and give the home team the one-goal advantage. The Americans would tie it in the second, but the third saw the Checkers take control. Dominating much of the play in the final 20, Geekie scored what turned out to be the game-winner while Gauthier added an empty netter to close the deal. Alex Nedeljkovic had a good game, making 26 saves for the win.
2/12 Rochester Americans (2) at Checkers (5)
The next night’s rematch back at Bojangles’ Coliseum was more of the same, running the win-streak to five games. After a quiet first in which Anton Forsberg was the star with 15 saves, the Checker offense exploded in period two. After a disallowed goal from Kuokkanen, Max McCormick, Derek Sheppard, Clark Bishop, Julien Gauthier, and Dave Gust all scored for Charlotte, giving them a 5-1 lead through 40 minutes. Early in the third Rochester would score the final tally while shorthanded, but Forsberg (42 saves) held the fort from there on. Jake Bean and Stelio Mattheos had two assists apiece, while 11 different Checkers registered at least one point in what was a total team effort.
2/15 Springfield Thunderbirds (4) at Checkers (3) (OT)
Sporting sleek, new, black alternate jerseys, the Checkers clawed back from a 3-1 deficit to earn a point before ultimately falling in overtime. For the second consecutive game the Checkers were a little shaky defensively, but some good goaltending (33 saves for Ned) helped keep them in the game. After Kaski opened the scoring with a one-timed bomb off a beautiful cross-seam feed from Kuokkanen, Springfield took momentum and ran with it, hemming the Checkers in for long stretches. But late in the second, Janne Kuokkanen again gave his (now former L) team a lift, scoring with less than a minute to play before intermission. Derek Sheppard, formerly of zero goals, then scored for the second straight game, the equalizer early in the third. The Checkers got it to the extra session, largely thanks to Ned, but twice ended up shorthanded in overtime which led to the game-winner on a seeing-eye wrister. Of note, Steven Lorentz was a goal shy of a Gordie Howe hat trick.
2/16 Springfield Thunderbirds (4) at Checkers (3)
Sporting a slick look again, this time the normal red jerseys but with black pants and helmets rather than the typical red, the Checkers dropped the final game of the Julien Gauthier era. After a first period Gustav Forsling goal, assisted by two now-Panthers in Priskie and Luostarinen, old friend Aleksi Saarela ripped home a powerplay laser of his own from the right circle in the second. Seen that before a time or two; kid has a cannon. Lorentz and Gust then teamed up to give the Checkers the lead again at the game’s midway point, but the visitors again answered right back to head to the third tied. Springfield’s Dryden Hunt would play the hero, scoring twice (one empty netter), before Lorentz helped Charlotte claw back to within one with 30 seconds left, bringing us to our final score. The Checkers were the better team much of the game, but fell just short, and the home stand ended with a 4-1-1 mark.
2/21 Checkers (1) at Binghamton Devils (2)
The beginning of the Joey Keane era had the same result. This was one of the tougher losses the Checkers have had this year, as they more than doubled Binghamton up in shots on goal (48-23, to be exact) but simply couldn’t solve a scorching-hot goalie. Swiss-born netminder Gilles Senn had by far his best game of the year (even with this game his save percentage is barely over .900), making save after save and completely robbing the Checkers of two points. Oliwer Kaski would net the only goal, his 10thh with Charlotte and 12th on the year, while Ned was solid in his limited action. With 4:30 left in the game, former Cane Matt Tennyson took a four-minute double-minor, giving the Checkers a Grade-A opportunity, but it was all for naught as Senn and the killers stood tall.
2/22 Checkers (6) at Binghamton Devils (3)
I’m starting to think alternates are bad luck in the AHL, because Binghamton, rocking Miracle-on-Ice-inspired red, white, and blues, were trounced by the Checkers in this one. Binghamton actually jumped out to a 3-1 lead in the first, but from then on it was all Charlotte. Oliwer Kaski scored (again, dude’s legit) with 15 seconds left in the first period, and the late-period goal proved to be a momentum-shifter. Joey Keane scored his first with his new squad early in the second, walking in and ripping a hard wrister through traffic bar-and-in. Bishop and Lorentz would then give the Checkers a two-goal cushion before the end of the middle frame, and Lorentz would add an empty netter for the only goal of the third. Forsberg shook off the early issues with 36 saves, including a whopping 22 in the third alone. Bean and Keane (lol) each had a goal and an assist, and Lorentz had a monster four-point game with two assists in addition to the final two goals of the game.
2/25 Checkers (1) at Hershey Bears (6)
This game was really ugly for a lot of reasons. For starters, it was the first game post-trade-deadline, so all the aforementioned names were replaced by ECHL players and minor league free agent signings. Additionally, both goalies had been called up to the Canes after the Toronto… thing. Legendary. Anyway, as for game action, the score pretty much speaks for itself. The new-look Checkers were completely outclassed by a good Hershey squad, falling behind early and never really getting back into it. Morgan Geekie actually evened it up at 1 halfway through the opening period, but four minutes later Hershey took the lead and didn’t relinquish it. Jeremy Helvig was pressed into duty and allowed all six goals, but I wouldn’t call it his fault, as the Checkers didn’t provide a ton of assistance. More importantly, near the midway mark of the game a fight broke out between notable tough guy Derek Sheppard and Hershey’s Kale Kessy. Kessy took a hard right from Sheppard and was out before he hit the ice, from what I could tell, then hit his head on the ice to boot. The broadcast quickly cut away, and Kessy was attended to by paramedics and eventually stretchered off the ice (he was reported in stable condition later that night and released the next day). The outcome really weighs secondary to this, because it was incredibly scary… especially when you had a bunch of concussions in your playing days. Tough to watch.
2/28 Checkers (3) at Lehigh Valley Phantoms (5)
With a chance to practice together and get a little more acclimated, the Checkers came back for a two-game set with Lehigh Valley. The outcome of game one wasn’t what was hoped for, but the effort was spirited. Jake Bean’s ninth of the year got the Checkers off on the right foot early, but the Phantoms fought back with two goals of their own before the end of the first. After the Phantoms stretched that lead with the only goal of the second, ECHL veteran Mark Cooper, signed earlier in the week to a PTO and playing in his second game, gave the Checkers a lifeline to begin period three. Later, both teams would score on a Checker powerplay (ugh), then Lehigh Valley would seal it late with an empty-netter. Mike Condon was pressed into duty for Charlotte and struggled a bit, making just 15 saves on 19 shots. Bean and Keane both had multi point games again, with a goal and assist and two assists, respectively.
2/29 Checkers (4) at Lehigh Valley Phantoms (2)
The next night, the Checkers got back into the win column with another solid effort in Lehigh Valley. Don’t worry, I realize there is an alarming lack of Steven Lorentz in this writeup thus far. Don’t fret! He was great in this one. He hit the 20-goal mark in the first period of this one with a shorty, in basically the Lorentziest way. Being a one-man-powerplay-breakout-disruptor, forcing a turnover at the opposing blue line, walking in, and ripping one right under the bar, short side. Love that kid. In the second the Checkers would get insurance from tough guy Cavan Fitzgerald and newcomer Blake Winiecki, formerly the Florida Everblades’ leading scorer (24-26-50 in 56 games). A third period bomb from Kaski put the Checkers up 4-0 and all but sealed this one, but they did have to fend off a late comeback with two quick Lehigh Valley scores making it a little closer than Charlotte likely hoped. Callum Booth got his first start of the year and was solid, making 21 saves.
3/1 Checkers (6) at Hershey Bears (3)
In a tough back to back with travel (well… sorta, Hershey and Lehigh Valley are only about an hour apart), the Checkers struck back against a team that drubbed them less than a week prior. This may have been the game that made the Canes look at Geekie and say, “maybe it’s time to give him a shot”, as the young forward picked up a hat trick against the Atlantic Division leaders. Geekie earned this hat trick the same way he’s earned his success in his first two NHL games: getting to the dirty areas, taking punishment, and earning every inch. His goals came off rebounds (twice) and once on a deflection, and the total distance on the three goals added together was probably ten feet. Kid is resilient, smart as hell, and always in the right spot. Another big story on the night was Stelio Mattheos, showing off the shot that helped make him a highly-sought-of prospect for the WHL’s Brandon Wheat Kings. He scored two goals in the game, the first of which was a high-glove absolute snipe, coming from the dead slot off a nice Spencer Smallman feed. The other came off a gorgeous backhander from the side of the net, following a great net-front presence on a point shot. He showcased his strength and skill on both these goals, getting to the interior of the ice and making no mistake. The second marker also changed the complexion of a 4-3 game, giving the Checkers a little breathing room. Keith Kinkaid made his first Checkers start after being loaned from Montreal, earning the win with 28 saves. Jake Bean added three assists on the night, and you know this was an eventful game if I’ve already written this much and haven’t even mentioned Steven Lorentz’ highlight-reel snipe that was scored while falling down.
3/6 Utica Comets (2) at Checkers (1)
The Checkers returned home, kicking off a six-game homestand with a weekend series against Utica. Recent trade acquisition Alexis D’Aoust scored a pretty goal early in the first period, dangling around a man and nicely placing a backhander past Utica’s Michael Dipietro’s glove. However, that would be the only crack in the netminder’s armor all night. Kinkaid started again and played well enough to win, stopping 29 of 31 shots, but was saddled with the tough-luck loss. Utica’s Reid Boucher, a veteran of 133 NHL games and AHL’s leader in points per game at 1.29 (67 points in 52 games) had a goal and an assist.
3/7 Utica Comets (3) at Checkers (2) (OT)
With Geekie called up and suddenly an alarming lack of notable players on the roster, the Checkers battled hard but still fell in overtime. It was a shame to allow Utica to come away with four points on the weekend seeing as Charlotte held a lead on them in the standings prior to it. Once again falling while wearing an alternate jersey – seriously, I’m tellin ya, just rock the normal threads – the Checkers actually built up a 2-0 lead in the middle frame, but Reid Boucher continued to show he probably doesn’t belong in the AHL. He scored twice on the powerplay to knot things up, then one of Vancouver’s top prospects, Kole Lind, scored the game-winner on a bit of a broken play and coverage breakdown in overtime. Two newcomers, Mark Cooper and Ryan Borque, scored for the Checkers, while Forsling, Keane, Pritchard, and Bishop had the helpers. Kinkaid, who surely is the first Checkers goalie to start three games in a row (and the same probably goes for a back-to-back as well), made 23 saves.
3/10 Cleveland Monsters (1) at Checkers (2)
After getting off on the wrong foot during this homestand, the Checkers pulled to 1-1-1 at its midway point with a solid team win over Cleveland. Max McCormick caught a pass from Roland McKeown and ripped home a snipe in the first period to get the crowd into it. Then, less than a minute later, Stelio Mattheos would continue to show he’s ready for his increased role while on the powerplay. A Joey Keane rim hit something (still not totally sure, but I think it was actually a Cleveland player’s stick), and Mattheos was in the right place, punching home the odd carom to make it 2-0. The Monsters would cut the lead to one in the third, when Sheppard failed to clear the puck from his own end and Trey Fix-Wolansky beat Kinkaid from distance to break the shutout. But despite some breakdowns the Checkers lead stayed intact, largely thanks to a sensational game from Kinkaid. He made 29 saves, none bigger than an explosive, diving blocker save off a rebound with six seconds remaining that looked like a sure goal. Additionally, I thought it was a bit odd that Kinkaid started, as Nedeljkovic has been back in Charlotte for a couple of days and this was the fourth start in a row for the veteran. I suppose with a back-to-back he’ll start tomorrow (the 11th). In any case, this was a big win to maintain pace in a brutally tight conference, where they catapulted up a spot with this win.
The Checkers now sit at 33-22-5 on the year with 16 games remaining. They are currently the 7-seed in the East, with a four-point cushion over the ninth-place team with a game in hand, one more point than eight-seeded Binghamton with a game in hand, and two points behind both the fifth and sixth place teams, Utica and Hartford, with a game in hand on the latter.
- With all that said, making the playoffs is going to be a real grind for this squad. Geekie doesn’t seem like he’s going anywhere soon, and after him, who are the Checkers top prospects? We’ve obviously got the two stud defensemen in Jake Bean and Joey Keane (someone come up with a nickname for that duo plz), Kaski has proven to be a nice piece from the blue line, and Steven Lorentz is a beast. Stelio Mattheos has shown some promising signs, and Max McCormick has been a nice veteran presence. After that, it’s a whole lot of unproven players signed to PTOs or called up from the ECHL. In a tough division, and it’s going to be a real grind.
- With Fredrik Claesson moving on (and scoring goals!) to New Jersey in the Vatanen deal, Max McCormick was given an “A” on his jersey, joining Clark Bishop in the leadership group as alternates along with captain Roland McKeown.
- I know Ned’s numbers weren’t great in his NHL stint, largely skewed by that all-quality-no-quantity start in Dallas. But, overall, I thought he looked good and showed enough to warrant giving him a chance next season. Additionally, knowing the way he plays and seems to operate mentally, I expect him to give a huge lift to the Checkers now that he’s back. I wouldn’t be surprised to see him start rolling big-time from here on out, and that’s a solid reason for optimism that the Checkers can still get into the postseason.
- With Ned and Forsberg spending time in Raleigh, we got to see Helvig and Booth make their first appearances on the year. Helvig was recently arrested in Florida for battery (a couple weeks after the game he appeared in), and I have yet to hear any comments/details about the situation, so not much to say on that front at this time. I had some hope for these guys at one point, particularly Booth, and he’s still only 22 years old. He’s big (6’4, 195) with solid athleticism, and he’s likely ticketed for Charlotte next year with Ned on his way to graduating from the AHL ranks. He should be one to watch in 20-21.
- Oliwer Kaski continues to show off his cannon of a shot, and now sits at 13 goals on the season, 11 of which came after the mid-season trade to the Checkers. He’s fit in quite nicely. The back-end has clearly been the strength of this team of late, with McKeown, Bean, Kaski, Gustav Forsling, and Keane making for about as good a top 5 as you’ll see in the AHL. The strength of this defense along with two high-level AHL goalies will be tested and heavily relied upon after the depletion of the forward ranks.
- The Checkers’ three most recent additions were added on tryout-bases, one of which was 2016 fourth-rounder Max Zimmer. Zimmer recently completed his career at the University of Wisconsin, coming off a somewhat disappointing year (just like his entire team). With names like Dylan Holloway (proj. first rounder in 2020 draft), Cole Caufield (15th overall pick last year by MTL), Alex Turcotte (5th overall 2019, LAK), and K’Andre Miller (22nd, 2018, NYR) in addition to multiple other drafted prospects, a lot more was expected of the roster. But youth and inconsistency did them in, so now Zimmer heads to Charlotte on an amateur tryout. Zimmer has some interesting tools, mainly his speed, but didn’t develop as the Francis regime hoped when he was drafted during his four years in college. Still, he had a decent prospect camp last summer, serving as one of the ‘captains’ along with David Cotton, and numbers don’t always tell the story when it comes to college players. This is an opportunity for him to step into a roster in need of forward help and show he can be an asset at the professional level. He is also easy to pull for as a diabetic who has to battle just to play the game he loves, and its awesome to see the work he does to encourage other athletes battling the disease. There was an awesome article recently done on The Athletic following UW for a few days, and he is featured a bit talking about what he goes through to monitor it while playing hockey.
- The other two tryout players were added on PTOs (professional, as opposed to amateur). Tom Parisi is a puck-moving, left-shot defenseman who has had a big year playing for the best team in the ECHL. He is a US National Development Team Program and Providence College (where he was a national champ) product, and scored 12 goals and 35 points in 48 games this season. Those numbers were good for the 11th-most points for any defenseman in that league, as well as tied for third in goals (and many of the leaders have played in around 60 games, for the record). The other player, Kamerin Nault, is also coming from the ECHL, where he played for the Greenville Swamp Rabbits. Nault burst onto the scene when he scored 12 goals in 20 games finishing out last season with the team after wrapping up his college career at the University of Manitoba. His only AHL appearance also came last year, and he had a goal and an assist in that game. He hasn’t been quite as dominant this year, with 16 goals and 16 assists in 40 games, but has good size at 6’2 and is known as a solid goal scorer. He had 37 goals in 54 games his final year of juniors as well, playing in the Manitoba Junior Hockey League. The MJHL is a far cry from the level of the three CHL leagues (OHL, WHL, QMJHL), but it is still Canadian Junior-A hockey. Hopefully these guys can prove they belong and help the Checkers down the stretch.
No player spotlight, as the year-end player profiles will begin the next few weeks. Keep an eye out for that!
And as always, Go Canes (and Checkers)!!