Justin kicks off the first edition of Checkers Corner for the 2018-19 season featuring more quotes, thoughts and analysis surrounding the Charlotte Checkers.
CHARLOTTE — The Charlotte Checkers play seven of the first nine games in the month of October on the road. What may seem like a challenge for a young team, though, should be the opposite. Checkers head coach Mike Vellucci set the tone for the season with an uptempo pace during training camp, stressing hard work and playing a two way game if the players want to work their way up to the NHL. “To say you’re just going to go in there [Raleigh] and be in the top-6 when they have Ahos and Teravainens, that’s not realistic. You need to make sure you have a complete game,” said Vellucci after a brisk training camp session.
Having Vellucci back for a consecutive season is reassuring; the Checkers haven’t had a coach return for a second consecutive season since now-Canes assistant Jeff Daniels coached his final season in 2014-15. Vellucci will have the opportunity to coach what should be one of the deepest teams that the Queen City has seen. What he does with it, remains to be seen. The fate of the Toronto Marlies, the 2017-18 Calder Cup champions, shouldn’t be as far out of reach for the Checkers as one may assume.
The offensive production should remain despite Valentin Zykov and Warren Foegele graduating to the NHL. Andrew Poturalski remains a strong AHL forward and Julien Gauthier is a great bounce-back candidate after a strong showing this preseason. While Janne Kuokkanen did not make the Hurricanes’ roster, he will be relied on heavily in the Checkers top-six and should be a nominee for a call-up if someone goes down with an injury in Raleigh.
One candidate who flew under the radar is Clark Bishop, who Vellucci is high on. “He brought it every single game last year. He’s competitive and he’s going to do whatever it takes to make it,” said Vellucci at training camp. With that extra vote of confidence from his coach, expect Bishop to produce.
The defensive pairings remain quite the question mark as to how they will shake out. Jake Bean is the most enticing player on the back end. Selected 13th overall in the 2016 NHL Draft, Bean kicks off his first full professional season. Vellucci did not play rookies heavily last season and it’s unlikely that he will change his way. Bean will have to prove his worth through the first few months before the coaching staff trusts him with top pairing minutes.
The rest is filled by a mixture of depth defensemen that will fill their roles and play them well. Dennis Robertson remains a physical force on the blue line and is a great locker room guy. Roland McKeown seems like trade bait at this point. The reality is the franchise has become so deep on the back end that an NHL spot for McKeown seems like a long shot under current circumstances. McKeown is an RFA after the season and his performance will determine whether he has a future with the team or will be in another sweater next season.
Thought of the Season
For many in Raleigh, this may seem like a hot take. I’ve seen enough games covering this team that I think this is the do-or-die year for Alex Nedeljkovic. After a rough rookie season, Nedeljkovic bounced back and led the AHL in wins, improving in both save percentage and goals against average. With goaltending serving as such a pressing issue for the franchise, I’m not sure they want to invest in a Charlotte goalie long term unless they are assured he’s the one.
Which is not to say Nedeljkovic isn’t the one. I just believe this is the year we’ll find out if he is or if it’s time for the franchise to turn their attention towards Callum Booth and Jeremy Helvig. Just something to monitor throughout the season.
Player of the Week
A camp stand out for me is Morgan Geekie. He is strong in transition and nimble on his skates. During one drill, he lifted a puck over Jeremy Helvig at such a sharp angle that I’m almost mad I didn’t get it on camera. A strong camp could point to signs of a strong year for the forward.
The Checkers start their season on the road on Friday against the Rochester Americans. They’ll play a second game against the Americans on Saturday. The Americans are led by Alex Nylander and Justin Bailey.
Author’s note: Hey guys, it’s Justin. I just want to say I really want to make these articles destination reading this season. I want to be your go-to-guy for Checkers hockey. Last year, I wasn’t able to put my all into it. School was my focus and I had three internships during the fall. Now that I’ve graduated, I’ll be able to attend more games and have more in-depth Checkers content. I just hope each of you will put a renewed sense of faith in me.