In the AHL, where the ultimate goal is for players to move on to a higher level of competition, the identity of a team can change dramatically over the summer. Players who have been indispensable to a team’s success can finally make that breakthrough or move on to different organizations in pursuit of better opportunities, leaving others to fill that void.
Developments such as those will affect Charlotte’s 2013-14 team more than in previous years. Team captain Brett Sutter, two-way center Riley Nash and shutdown defenseman Brett Bellemore, all key members of Charlotte’s team in its first three AHL seasons, are expected to be on a different roster – that of the Carolina Hurricanes – when both teams open their seasons on Friday night. Two perennial top scorers, Zac Dalpe and Jerome Samson, have moved on to the Vancouver and Winnipeg organizations, respectively. Center Jeremy Welsh will start the season in Utica after moving on in the same trade as Dalpe, while up-and-comer Ryan Murphy seems set to begin his first pro season in the NHL.
All of that has left Charlotte with a mixture of faces both familiar and new as it attempts to build on last season’s return to the playoffs. It’s a quest that starts this weekend, when they visit their most recent postseason opponent, the Oklahoma City Barons, for games on Friday and Saturday.
“It’s definitely a different feeling,” said Zach Boychuk, who will again be counted upon to deliver offense in his fourth season with Charlotte. “This team seems a little bit younger than last year. There are a lot of rookies coming in and I’m one of the older guys now, so I’m excited to be a leader.”
With a prominent group of players having moved on – Sutter, Dalpe, Nash and Welsh were among the team’s top seven scorers last season – opportunity has been the most commonly heard word at training camp. Experienced additions like forwards Aaron Palushaj and defensemen Matt Corrente and Mark Flood will be assured of their places, but a host of others will be hoping to make the kind of advancements that will allow them to enter that discussion.
That opportunity is perhaps most prevalent at forward, where Boychuk, Palushaj and Chris Terry are the only players with a demonstrated history of scoring at this level. Rookie center Victor Rask, who has been centering a so-far impressive line with Boychuk and Palushaj in the preseason, certainly has the skills to join that group.
“He has a sneaky, sneaky wrist shot that will fool a lot of goalies,” said Boychuk of Rask, who played 10 games with the Checkers before returning to his junior club in Calgary last season. “He has great vision and can really distribute the puck to me and Aaron.”
Beyond that line is where a majority of the “ifs” come into play. Justin Shugg and Brody Sutter, members of the supporting cast last season, could now be top-six forwards. Rookie Adam Brace, on an AHL contract, has offensive skills and a scorer’s pedigree at the college and ECHL levels, but has yet to make his debut in this league. In the absence of a true offensive center behind Rask, Sean Dolan, a fourth-line player for the last two seasons, seemed set to start on a scoring line between Terry and Shugg, at least until the surprise, last-minute signing of NHL veteran Manny Malhotra to a professional tryout contract.
“Last year with the lockout, we had three power-play units at one point,” said Boychuk. “We were so deep with skill. This is more like halfway through last year when a lot of guys came up on PTOs and got those opportunities they may not have gotten otherwise.”
Coach Jeff Daniels, who still managed to win during that tumultuous second half of last season, said that his team needed to be cognizant of their new look.
“We’ve got to realize what we are,” he said. “We do have some guys with some skill, but the others are going to have to play a certain way, and that’s go straight line and go to the net. You can score and have success that way as well.”
If scoring does come a little less easily than in the past – the Checkers were an offensive force during the lockout and finished 11th in the league with an average of 2.97 goals per game – they have the personnel that should allow them to win low-scoring games. That starts with goaltending, where they boast what could be one of the league’s top tandems with two-time All-Star Justin Peters and a rejuvenated Mike Murphy.
“That’s huge, and it showed in those exhibition games when there were breakdowns,” said Daniels. “It’s good to have two goalies who have been around for a while.”
Though he had mixed results at the NHL level after replacing Cam Ward in March, Peters, 27, was a star in the AHL last season, tying or setting club records for most wins (22), lowest goals-against average (2.29), highest save percentage (.921) and most shutouts (six).
Most importantly, he’s exhibiting no frustration whatsoever over starting yet another season as the Hurricanes’ third option instead of backing up Ward full-time as he did in the 2010-11 campaign.
“I’m excited to be here,” said Peters. “It’s an opportunity to play hockey, which is what I love to do. Everything else is out of my control.”
It looked as though Peters, known for his communication, could be instrumental in holding a young defensive corps together. That will still be true to some extent – two rookies in Danny Biega and Keegan Lowe could be in the opening-night lineup – but there should be enough experience to balance things.
“We have a lot of respect for MJ (Michal Jordan) and what he’s done here, Mark Flood has been around for a while and knows what it takes to get to the next level, and (Rasmus) Rissanen, even though he’s in his third year, has always played like a veteran for us,” said Daniels. “Those three guys will be the key.”
Since that comment, Corrente, a 25-year-old known for his grit and leadership, arrived from Carolina and should further strengthen that core group.
With that backbone in place, the Checkers should have a solid foundation on which to build and learn to thrive in new roles.
“I don’t think our game plan has changed,” said Peters. “The coaches have a system we feel works. The biggest adjustment will be learning to trust one other and play together.”
Were two preseason games enough to accomplish that, or will the Checkers need more time to come together?
“We’ll find out this weekend,” said Daniels.