Today’s Daily Cup of Joe offers a collection of random thoughts on the Charlotte Checkers and the Carolina Hurricanes prospects developing there.
As a disclaimer, my commitment to covering the Hurricanes and doing so only in my free time, I am able to watch very few Checkers’ games. As such, my viewpoint is a bit secondhand relying on Brandon Stanley’s updates here, what I read elsewhere, a few other sources I check in with fairly regularly and what I see from Checkers’ players who are called up to the NHL level.
By all measures Mike Vellucci has been doing a phenomenal job as the head coach of the Checkers. The team’s playoff berth last season and its league-leading record despite having a young team in 2018-19 speak for themselves. But another critical and maybe overlooked point is the repeated successful transitions by call ups. One of the things that stood out about Jeff Daniels’ tenure in Charlotte was how call ups seemed to unanimously have a deer in the headlights look when called up to the NHL level. No doubt, the group of AHLers that he worked with was not the best, but that group was not without talent or a ceiling that should have at least made them capable of being serviceable in a call up stint. Fast forward to today and one thing that impresses me most about Vellucci is that his players arrive in Raleigh and look like they are prepared to play at the NHL level. Lucas Wallmark hit the ground running in training camp and continues to be at a minimum ready for the NHL. The same can be said for Warren Foegele who looked ready for the jump in training camp and has proven to at least be a serviceable NHLer. In season call ups Nicolas Roy and Clark Bishop have similarly not looked overwhelmed. How high these players’ ceilings are remains to be seen, but Vellucci deserves a ton of credit for fulfilling job one which is to get AHLers ready to play in the NHL.
By all accounts, Jake Bean is having a strong rookie season as a professional. I have never been quite as high on Bean as his mid-first round draft pedigree. I have never questioned his potential to be a good or better offensive defenseman, but I have questioned whether he would develop enough defensively to be more than an offense-leaning third pairing defenseman with a role on the power play. With 29 points in 45 games, Bean has had a good campaign offensively, but maybe more significantly, he is playing heavy minutes and making step-wise progress defensively. What is more, he seems to be constantly improving which is critical for young players who still have room to grow. He just wrapped up a hot January with four goals and ten total points in 11 games. I am reserving judgment on Bean’s development defensively until I have a chance to watch him more, but indications are positive.
After a rough 2016-17 campaign in his first year in the professional ranks with an .880 save percentage and 3.40 goals against average, Nedeljkovic seemed to at least get his feet under him in 2017-18. His win/loss record on a good team was strong, and he improved statistically. But from talking to a few people who cover the Checkers his 2017-18 success was more a result of playing on a strong team than driving wins on his own accord. To some degree, the same could be said for 2018-19. Nedeljkovic’s record is a scintillating 21-5-2 with similar statistics to 2017-18. My read on Nedeljkovic from preseason/training camp was that he still had a ways to go with my biggest concern being how noisy he was in net. On the one hand, a smaller goalie like Nedeljkovic will need to be athletic and with the capability to make some scrambling saves. But at the same time, inefficiency of motion often has the effect of goalies trying to make too may saves while moving which is a recipe for NHL shooters finding holes when the goalie is even a tiny bit slow tracking shots. So my first check point for Nedeljkovic is to what degree he can become more efficient in his movement. But potential Achilles’ heel aside, two things stand out with Nedeljkovic. First, I really like his ability to handle the puck. That was a strength of Cam Ward that was lost when he left, but interestingly, that was a skill set that Ward developed over time. I think Nedeljkovicis significantly ahead of a similar age Ward in that regard. Puck-handling ability can be a powerful tool for a team that can skate as it accelerates the transition from defense to offense regularly throughout the game. The other thing that could prove to be the X factor for Nedeljkovic is having that ‘it’ factor. At lower levels, he always played his best hockey in the biggest games (namely world tournaments and the OHL playoffs). He at least has the potential to be a player who does not so much work his way up to the NHL level by mastering the AHL but more so just seizes an opportunity when he gets it.
His story and 2018-19 success represent a great under the radar story. As a fifth round draft pick in 2014, Bishop was very much a player unlikely to ever play in the NHL. And he might not even have received an NHL contract if not for the fact that he timed he decision year well with what was near the low point of the Hurricanes prospect pool depth. Even still, Bishop started his professional career as a player who needed to make significant progress pretty quickly to earn a second contract. He split his first professional season in 2016-17 between the AHL and ECHL. But he seemed to find a higher gear in 2017-18 as a great two-way forward who paired with Warren Foegele to play an aggressive and fast new NHL brand of checking line hockey. Bishop’s 2017-18 campaign boosted him from being a player trying to earn a second contract to being a player who had made an impression with Mike Vellucci and therefore the broader organization. His rise from being a fifth round draft pick to less than three years later playing an extended run at the NHL level is a great story.
What say you Canes fans?
With the team pacing the AHL so far in 2018-19, who else has viewpoints on the Charlotte Checkers and the Hurricanes prospects who populate the Checkers roster?