Today CandC featured the first edition of ‘Checking In’ which will be a roughly weekly report on the Charlotte Checkers. If you missed it, you can find the first edition of ‘Checking In’ HERE.
The first edition has an introduction and short recap from the Checkers successful first week of hockey and will expand a bit as we move forward. The weekly report is being contributed by Jordan Futrell who is a Canes and Coffee intern and aspiring sports journalist at UNC-Charlotte. Please welcome and support him, as he helps with Checkers coverage and hopefully also uses Canes and Coffee for his professional development and as a path to bigger things.
In addition to the usual who is in/who is out, what is the outlook, who are the new stars, etc. angle on the Charlotte Checkers 2015-16 season, I think there is a bigger one lurking underneath the surface.
Ron Francis has orchestrated a quiet, subtle but very significant transformation of the Hurricanes AHL affiliate. I think the goal is to make 2 somewhat interrelated improvements.
First, the Hurricanes organization needs to improve upon its ability to ready players for the NHL. In covering Ron Francis’ decision to let Jeff Daniels go when his contract expired, I wrote a fairly detailed blog back at HB that covered some of the struggles in terms of player development. You can find that HERE. The short version is that while the team did have some draft picks jump almost instantly to the NHL with minimal or sometimes no AHL development, the team seemed to struggle during the Daniels years in terms of taking pretty good AHL players and equipping them with the skills necessary to jump in and at least be serviceable at the NHL level. It was not said that directly obviously, but I think Daniels was jettisoned and new Coach Mark Morris brought in to directly address this problem.
So that explains the decision not to re-sign Daniels and instead to bring in veteran AHL coach Mark Morris.
But consider the rest of the timeline
April 30, 2015 — The Hurricanes announce that they will part ways with Jeff Daniels and not re-sign him. Daniels is a company guy with good relationships and deep ties to the organization, but he was not a great AHL coach and Francis knew it.
May 29, 2015 — Without an AHL ready younger goalie, the Hurricanes re-upped with 31-year old Drew MacIntyre to keep a veteran netminder in the #1 slot in Charlotte.
June 15, 2015 — The Hurricanes added free agent veteran European scorer Derek Ryan on a 2-way contract. I actually think that Ryan was signed with the intent that he might compete for an NHL roster spot either in 2015-16 or soon after, but I also think that plan B (him adding more veteran scoring for Charlotte) was also considered.
July 1, 2015 — The Hurricanes sign veteran AHLer T.J. Hensick to a 2-way deal. As a 29-year old undersized forward who has thus far been unable to stick at the NHL level, this signing had “add a good forward to the top half of Charlotte’s roster” written all over it.
July 3, 2015 — The Hurricanes announce the signing of veteran AHL coach Mark Morris to coach the Checkers. Ron Francis first words about Morris in the press release announcing Morris were “Mark is an experienced head coach whose teams never had a losing record in 21 seasons at Clarkson and with Manchester.”
July 7, 2015 — There is an element of adding NHL depth in this deal, but with Boychuk spending the end of the 2014-15 season in Charlotte and never really sticking at the NHL level, I think this deal was much more about adding a good, veteran AHL scorer to improve the chances to win in Charlotte.
Along the way — Ron Francis also decided not to re-sign fixture and name player Jared Staal.
When the dust had settled on the summer, Ron Francis had either added or re-signed 3 proven veteran scorers, a new veteran AHL coach with a track record of winning and a good veteran AHL netminder. Most of these moves are not about player development. In fact, one could argue that filling this many spots in Charlotte with older AHLers is actually the opposite.
So why would he do this then? Part of it was simply a function of the Canes lack of system depth at forward, but I also think that it is unmistakable that Francis made a conscious effort to build a team that could help teach the young prospects how to win knowing that a number of the team’s best prospects will be playing Charlotte this season.
Data is limited with the NHL season only 2 games old, but there are already 2 early clues inside of the NHL season that support the same hypothesis.
–The Canes went with a roster of 22 instead of the maximum 23 to start the season. Part of this was because the team was healthy, but Francis could still have carried an extra if he wanted.
–Maybe more significantly was the recent handling of the James Wisniewski injury. The Canes recalled Danny Biega as necessary for Saturday’s game in Raleigh and quickly returned him to the Checkers, so he could play in the team’s Sunday game that it won.
With the way he is stockpiling draft picks and prospects since taking over as GM, it is clear that the longer-term plan is to stock the system with prospects and do everything possible to aid their development. I think it is also easy to see that Francis is putting a conscious effort into building a winning culture in Charlotte, not just Raleigh.