It may be only the first day of camp in Charlotte, but Checkers head coach Mike Vellucci is treating it like a mid-season practice.
“HUSTLE, HUSTLE, HUSTLE,” Vellucci bellowed in Bojangles Coliseum during Monday’s training camp session. The roster, as it stands, is not filled with many stars or players that will play a major role in Charlotte this season but Vellucci is pushing them hard to test who is in shape. “If you want to play here, you practice hard, you play hard,” Vellucci says as he draws up another play on the board fashioned against the glass. Vellucci is back for the Checkers for the second season in a row, stopping the coaching carousel that had been spinning around the Checkers for the previous few seasons. Checkers COO Tera Black called Vellucci “a valuable asset.”
While more roster cuts are expected during the coming days, there are plenty of players on ice for the first session. Vellucci and company are putting emphasis on odd-man rushes and transition defense and goaltenders Jeremy Helvig and Jamie Phillips were tested well throughout the session. Among the first cut, Aleksi Saarela is on ice, working hard to prove Hurricanes management made a mistake. Saarela remained a step quicker than his other camp teammates in most drills.
With players like Andrew Poutralski, Julien Gauthier, Niolas Roy and Jake Bean still up with the big club, these first few sessions mean a lot to fringe players and camp invitees like defenseman and Raleigh native Trevor Owens. Vellucci stressed that players like Owens and other fringe players have to work extra hard in the first few sessions of camp to prove they belong.
The Checkers are coming off a strong season, finishing with 46 wins but eventually losing in the second round of the Calder Cup playoffs. They’ll be a competitive team again this season with one of the deepest teams they’ve had, which is a testament to the the front office in Raleigh.
The roster will likely feature Bean in his first professional season and with added defensive depth and returning veterans like Trevor Carrick and Dennis Robertson, the defense could resemble the stacked defensive corps seen in Raleigh. Players like Roland McKeown and Josh Wesley are also returning.
As camp continues in Raleigh, the most intriguing battle that could affect the Checkers is the fight for the sixth spot on defense. With Dougie Hamilton, Jaccob Slavin, Brett Pesce, Calvin de Haan and Justin Faulk firmly in spots, an all out battle for the sixth spot remains. Trevor van Riemsdyk could be the likely candidate, so then it leaves the tough choice for Haydn Fleury, whose NHL spot could be in jeopardy.
Adding Fleury, who is still on a rookie contract, to Charlotte seems ideal for both the team and the player instead of having Fleury in the press box most nights. Charlotte’s defensive pairings would become even tighter and normal contributors for Charlotte could even be at risk of being cut or sent to the ECHL.
While it may be the first day, this camp is the un-official start of the 2018-19 season and sets a vital tone for the season ahead. For the Checkers, the hope is to fill the shoes the Toronto Marlies filled as champions and not in another disappointing playoff exit.