With the parent team Carolina Hurricanes set for their next season, it’s time to take a look at the boys in Charlotte. Canes Country staff writer Justin Lape gives you the Charlotte Checkers Season Preview.
The Charlotte Checkers had a successful season in 2016-17, reaching the playoffs for the first time in three seasons. After losing a tough five game battle to the Chicago Wolves in the first round of the Calder Cup Playoffs, head coach Ulf Samuelsson departed for a role as assistant coach with the Chicago Blackhawks. Enter Mike Vellucci, current Hurricanes assistant general manager and director of hockey operations, who will serve as head coach for the Checkers this season.
Vellucci is no stranger to dealing with younger players, spending 13 seasons with the Plymouth Whalers before joining the Hurricanes organization. The transition to American Hockey League hockey should be easy for Vellucci, especially being handed the reins to a team who recently made the playoffs and looking every bit as dangerous a year later.
The team Vellucci will be leading looks a bit different from the one a year ago. First, it will be an open competition for the number one goalie position as Tom McCollum, the team’s number one down the stretch, is no longer a member of the team, returning to the Calgary organization before being traded to Detroit, the team that picked him in the first round of the 2008 NHL Draft. Veteran goalie Jeremy Smith may get a majority of the starts this season while Callum Booth and Alex Nedeljkovic will battle it out for the rest of the starts. Give the edge to Booth for this competition. Nedeljkovic will need to make vast improvements from his abysmal rookie season that saw him demoted to the ECHL for stints.
The defense will likely be without Haydn Fleury, who is pushing hard for a roster spot with the Hurricanes. Dennis Robertson was a notable standout down the stretch last season on the back end, and Charlotte will need him to repeat his performance this season. Newcomer Keegan Kanzig, a towering 6’7” defender acquired in the Eddie Lack trade, will bring additional size to the blue line which has no player below 6’0”.
Offensively, this team could blow way past the numbers they put up last season. Last season, Charlotte finished 16th in goals for and dead last on the power play. With additions such as Nicolas Roy, Julien Gauthier and Warren Foegele inserted into the top nine, the Checkers shouldn’t have the issue of scoring like they did last year.
There is room to improve this season. First and foremost, the power play has to be significantly better. It’s very interesting that a team that was dead last in this category was able to stay competitive and claim a playoff spot. Samuelsson wanted shots from the point to generate offense during power plays most of the time, and didn’t make adjustments when it wasn’t working. Look for Vellucci to import some ideas from the Hurricanes while up a man.
However, the most important factor heading into the season is the need to find consistency in net. Charlotte saw six goaltenders rotate in and out of the net last year, with none of them producing consistently until McCollum got hot late in the season. Smith and whoever wins the competition between Booth and Nedeljkovic will need to be the backbone of the team in order to stay competitive.
Don’t be surprised if the Checkers find themselves back in the playoffs. With the addition of young offensive talent and “veterans” such as Lucas Wallmark and Valentin Zykov leading the way, it should be a successful season in the Queen City.