With a recent surge that has seen the Checkers win 7 out of 8 games, the team is sitting right on the cut line for the final playoff spot in the Western Conference in the American Hockey League. You can find Jordan Futrell’s most recent ‘Checking In’ update on the Charlotte Checkers HERE. Just like with the big club in Raleigh, a number of things are suddenly clicking, but arguably the key to the surge is addition of veteran goalie Tom McCollum to replace injured Michael Leighton. McCollum is 6-1 since joining the team to lead the winning run and has a goals against average of less than 2.00 in a Checkers’ uniform.
In addition to the winning run, there has been a high volume of personnel moves of late in addition to the trade for McCollum. Many of these have AHL and NHL impacts. Below are quick thoughts on the various moves for both the AHL and NHL level.
Putting players to use: Part of what is going on is putting good players to use wherever they can best help win games at the NHL level as priority 1 and at the AHL level as priority 2. There is a need to have a healthy extra around for just in case, but there is no sense having more players than necessary sitting up in the press box in Raleigh when they could be helping win games in Charlotte.
Addition of players who have finished seasons elsewhere: Players who finish their seasons early (basically meaning they missed the playoffs) in the Canadian Hockey League or overseas in Europe can be eligible to finish out the season at the AHL level. This provides additional help for the Checkers and also a chance to evaluate and develop these players briefly at the AHL level.
Players joining from elsewhere – Hudson Elynuik and Aleksi Saarela
Hudson Elynuik: When his Spokane Chiefs in the Western Hockey League missed the playoffs, Hudson Elynuik was signed to a try out contract by the Charlotte Checkers. He has yet to play but is available if called upon. With the Checkers fighting for a playoff spot, Coach Ulf Samuelsson will balance developing young players with maintaining lineup stability and giving the Checkers the best chance to win. I am not sure where Elynuik will fit in that equation though I would expect him to see action at some point.
Aleksi Saarela: Saarela’s team in Finland missed the playoffs which also made him available to play in the US for the remainder of the season. The Checkers announced that he was joining the team on Monday, so he might still be en route from Europe. Saarela is already signed to his entry-level contract with the Hurricanes. He could provide skill and scoring, and I think is farther along in his readiness than Elynuik, so I think he might jump right into the lineup when he arrives in Charlotte.
AHL/NHL fringe players – Valentin Zykov, Lucas Wallmark and Patrick Brown
Valentin Zykov: Zykov had a good NHL debut that saw him score a goal of the ‘crashing the net’ variety that the Hurricanes desperately need more of. But his NHL try out was derailed when he was injured on a big hit on the first shift of his second game. He has been out of the lineup for 8 games with the injury and was just returned to Charlotte on Monday. My thinking is that with the Hurricanes winning and scoring right now, the top 9 is fairly set (though the combinations seem to be in flux). And with Zykov being out for an extended time, best is for him to go help Charlotte in a top 9 role and get his feet back underneath him in terms of playing time.
Patrick Brown: Brown had an extended run with the Hurricanes and was serviceable in a depth forward role. But at least from what he has shown so far, “serviceable depth forward” is his current ceiling. In 14 games, he did not collect a single point. He was a captain and leader in Charlotte, so his return to the AHL very much falls under the category of best using players to win in both places.
Lucas Wallmark: Wallmark was recalled more or less to replace Brown in Raleigh. Wallmark brings a bit more offensively, and I think more significantly, he is a center (see below) which I think fits better with what I think Peters wants to do with the lineup at least for the 4 home games that are next on the schedule.
Bill Peters and the NHL lineup for this week
For parts of recent road games, Peters was using a balanced lineup (he even tried it with the blue line with Slavin/Murphy and some ‘iffy’ results) that spread the talent across 4 lines. With the next 4 games at home where Peters can better dictate match ups, my expectation is that he will build more of a top-heavy lineup at forward with a top 9 and a fourth line. Despite the busy week, I think Peters will shorten his bench as needed in close games, and at home he can pick specific match ups that he wants for the fourth line and use them accordingly.
So getting back to the roster maneuvering above. If I am right about Peters’ general plan, Wallmark makes more sense than Zykov or Brown at the NHL level simply because he is the best option to center a fourth line probably book-ended by Brock McGinn and Joakim Nordstrom. That gives Peters to put his top 9 forwards together on the top 3 lines and allocate more ice time to his best players.
I guess we will see tonight if this is in fact the reason for swapping Wallmark for Brown.
Based partly on Wallmark’s play and the team’s success this week, Peters might tinker a bit with the next big transition point before road games on Sunday and Tuesday.
So when you net it out, I think it’s about 1-Building top-heavy top 9 + last 3 for Canes home games; 2-Returning as much as possible to Charlotte for their playoff run; 3-Plus couple chances to evaluate players from below AHL level for a few games since they are available.