We will have to wait at least another year before we see playoff hockey in Raleigh, but for the second season in a row, the Charlotte Checkers have provided live playoff hockey to the contingent of Canes fans willing to make the 2 1/2-ish hour drive down I-40 to Bojangles’ Coliseum in Charlotte.
The schedule lines up absolutely wonderfully for a road trip with the series starting in Charlotte at 7pm on Friday and then continuing with game 2 at 6pm on Saturday. I will not be able to make the trip but am 100 percent jealous of what should be a sizable group that does for one or both of the games.
Charlotte Checkers vs. Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins series basics
The Checkers are actually the lower seed in the #2 versus #3 match up but start at home by virtue of the AHL’s 2-3 format that minimizes travel. The Checkers won three of four games against the Penguins during the regular season and maybe more significantly enter the playoffs red hot with seven straight wins and points in their last 10 games. As long as the four days off does not slow them down, the Checkers should enter the series with a head of steam. As long as the playoffs do not suck the offense out of it, the series has the potential to be an exciting and entertaining one. The Checkers led the entire AHL in scoring with 262 goals, and the Penguins were not far behind with 252.
For more details on the Penguins side of the series and great coverage in general, I highly recommend Nicholas Niedzielski’s series preview at the Charlotte Checkers’ website.
Canes-centric watch points and angles for the series
1) Building blocks for a winning culture
Now nine years removed from the playoffs at the NHL level, the only players who have really had success at a team level in a Carolina Hurricanes uniform are holdovers Cam Ward and Justin Williams. Any and all other playoff success on the current roster is the result of imports from the Chicago Blackhawks’ pipeline or elsewhere. The Checkers have not been overwhelmingly successful, but there is a groundswell of activity on the winning front. Many in the current group in Charlotte were part of the prospect team that won the Traverse City tournament two years ago. And though the team lost in the first round, it did also make the playoffs last year. In that regard, the the 2018 playoffs represent an important opportunity for the group to take a step forward in terms of winning in the postseason and doing its part to help build a winning culture.
2) Mike Vellucci on display
With Ron Francis already ousted from the general manager position and the potential that Coach Bill Peters exercises an out clause in his contract before the puck drops in Charlotte on Friday night, Mike Vellucci is in an interesting position right now. He was previously an assistant general manager at the NHL level before taking the Checkers’ coaching job this season, and he also has coaching experience at lower levels. Given the rumors and rumblings that suggest tough sledding in the general manager search, maybe significant is simply that he is a known quantity who is already part of the organization. And maybe more significant is Vellucci’s track record. Granted it was some years ago and at much lower levels, but Vellucci has a track record with winning. He collected championships and hardware in the NAHL from 1994 to 1999, and then also had success when he moved up to Canadian juniors to be coach and general manager for the Plymouth Whalers. Before joining the Hurricanes, Vellucci won two OHL Coach of the Year awards and also an OHL Executive of the Year award along with taking his team to the Memorial Cup in 2007.
Vellucci’s resume is really light for coaching consideration but maybe somewhat stronger for the open general manager role given experience at lower levels in that role and at the NHL level as an assistant in the Hurricanes organization. If the Checkers push a few rounds or more into the 2018 Calder Cup Playoffs, Vellucci will arrive in Raleigh for summer meetings with a luster of winning that is unique and greatly desired right now. Could these playoffs help propel Mike Vellucci to a much bigger role at the NHL level next season? That definitely seems possible.
3) Exclamation points for players seeking 2018-19 NHL roles
With the Hurricanes not in the NHL playoffs, the decision-makers for the Hurricanes (whoever those might be) will be focused on the Checkers’ playoff hockey. As such, the Penguins and hopefully subsequent series represent an opportunity for players to put an exclamation point on their 2017-18 season and garner more consideration before training camp opens next fall.
Valentin Zykov has probably done all that he can do already with a strong 10-game audition at the NHL level on top of leading the AHL in goal scoring, but others have more to gain in the AHL postseason.
For Lucas Wallmark, the AHL playoffs represent the chance to make an emphatic statement that he has played his way above the AHL level. Wallmark mostly did that during the regular season with 55 points in 45 games and is considered to be one of the most NHL-ready players in the entire league, but the playoffs are a chance to make it clear just how superior he is to most of the players at this level.
Warren Foegele had a short but productive two-game NHL audition after a strong rookie season as a professional. Foegele’s game as a hard-skating blue collar player but with some offensive ability is intriguing. The playoffs represent the chance to put an exclamation point on a strong season.
The AHL playoffs could be even more impactful for players who are another notch or two down the current depth chart. Aleksi Saarela put up 25 goals in 69 games but did not make it into the Hurricanes lineup during his lone call up during the 2017-18 season. The playoffs offer a chance to push his name into consideration for NHL ice time in 2018-19 with the players who did see ice time at the NHL level.
On a high-powered offense, Janne Kuokkanen was not so much a headline-grabber in his rookie season as a professional. He finished only eighth on the team in scoring with 40 points in 60 games but grew stronger as the season progressed. For him, the playoffs present the opportunity to showcase where he is in terms of development at the end of the season.
Last but not least is Alex Nedeljkovic. The story of the Checkers’ success in 2017-18 was not that of tight defense and stingy goaltending. Rather, the team was an offensive juggernaut whose success was driven by scoring in bunches. But as noted above, especially with this franchise right now, winning matters and Nedeljkovic did exactly that in a starter’s role only one level below the NHL. He comes in with a strong track record in postseason and tournament play at lower levels. The playoffs represent an opportunity for Nedeljkovic to make a statement that he has truly arrived at the AHL level after a bumpy rookie campaign in 2016-17. If he can do that, he increases his chances of getting a look at the NHL level if an opening presents itself with an injury or whatnot.
My player notes focus on the higher-end headliners, but as noted above, the AHL playoffs will receive attention across the organization. As such, the AHL playoffs represent the chance for a veteran AHLer to play his way into depth consideration at the NHL level and/or for players farther down the organizational depth chart to make impressions for now or for later.
4) Playoff fun!
Because of the playoff drought in Raleigh, the Charlotte Checkers present a breath of fresh air for the Caniac faithful with playoff hockey. The weekend scheduling lines up well for many to see one or two of the first games in person. If that goes well, a decent chunk of the Hurricanes fan base will hop aboard for the Checkers’ playoff ride. Here is hoping that the hockey gods look down upon a fan base that could use some fun and make it a fun ride.
As noted above, the puck drops at 7pm on Friday at Bojangles’ Coliseum in Charlotte.