In the first four seasons of the team's AHL existence, a handful of players have become synonymous with the Charlotte Checkers. Every one of those players now faces an uncertain future.

Whether it's those players' contract situations, the likelihood of moving up to the NHL or both, the Checkers, who have been relatively lucky to have a consistent core for what has to be considered a long time by development-league standards, could easily be an entirely different team in year five. Among those with decisions to make this summer are Nicolas Blanchard, Zach Boychuk, Michal Jordan, Brett Sutter and Chris Terry, all of whom have been with the Checkers since their inaugural season in 2010-11.

And they aren't the only ones. Of the 25 who finished the season with Charlotte and are old enough to start there next season, just eight are under contract for next year.

"We're going to be a little younger next year, and that could change, but we only have a few guys under NHL contracts and 10 guys that are totally unrestricted," said coach Jeff Daniels. "It'll be an interesting summer from the standpoint of what they want to do with their careers. Do they want to stay with Carolina and earn their place, or does Carolina have room for them?"

Brett Sutter and Chris Terry

Free Agents

G Mike Murphy
G John Muse
D Matt Corrente
D Mark Flood
LW Nicolas Blanchard
LW Philippe Cornet
C Sean Dolan
LW Matt Marquardt
C Brett Sutter
LW Chris Terry
D Rasmus Rissanen
LW Zach Boychuk
C Greg Nemisz
RW Aaron Palushaj
LW Justin Shugg
RW Jared Staal
Some very preliminary conversations on the subject between Checkers coaches and players took place at the annual exit meetings earlier this week. No decisions were made or communicated at this very early stage, but the sides at least might have an idea of where the other is leaning.

Starting with the Checkers' established core, Boychuk, a restricted free agent who remains tied to the Hurricanes, said that, thanks to his best year as a professional that saw him pick up end-of-season hardware as the AHL's top goal scorer and a member of the Second All-Star Team, he's moved on from the prospect of playing in Europe that he seriously considered one year ago.

"I feel like I can play in the NHL now," said Boychuk, who finished second in the AHL with a franchise-record 74 points, including league highs in goals (36) and power-play goals (18) in 69 games. "With how good of a season I had in the AHL this year, I'm just ready."

Boychuk quickly cited a comparison to Texas Stars forward Colton Sceviour, his old junior hockey teammate who earned a two-year, one-way contract with Dallas in February of a campaign that saw him score 63 points in 54 AHL games.

"(The numbers) don't always translate to the NHL, but that's where I want to be and that's what I'm going to be shooting for this summer with contracts," said Boychuk.

Terry, who turned pro alongside Boychuk in 2009, is an unrestricted free agent for the first time. He too will be looking for NHL opportunities.

"I feel like I'm ready and capable," said Terry, who played on the Hurricanes' top line with Eric Staal and picked up a pair of power-play assists in his most recent NHL game on April 3. "Especially in the second half of the year when I got those three games (in Carolina), I felt really good up there and comfortable with that speed. It'll be a good training camp next year and I'm excited for it."

Though admitting his bias after five seasons of working closely with Boychuk and Terry, Daniels feels their time has come.

"I think so," he said. "They've proven down here that they're impact players, and a lot of the guys that are impact players down here usually deserve an opportunity up top."

Blanchard and Sutter have been unrestricted free agents in the past, just as they will be again this summer, but chose to return to Carolina at each opportunity. For Sutter, who just completed his fourth season with the team and third as team captain after spending the first month of the season with the Hurricanes, things are a little different this time around.

"My wife and I are starting a family now, so that's going to factor in to my decision a little bit with staying in a place where we're comfortable," he said. "Other than that, you want to find a place that's going to give you an opportunity and hopefully that's here, but you have to do what's best for you, your family and your career."

Blanchard, whose time in the Hurricanes organization goes back longer than anyone other than Cam Ward, Eric Staal and Justin Peters, was hoping to build on the first NHL recall of his career that came late last season. Instead, he spent his seventh professional season entirely at the AHL level.

"For me it was disappointing not getting called up," he said. "I felt like I did well there last year but it's out of my control. I still believe that I can play on the fourth line in the NHL. I'm looking right now at the playoffs and St. Louis' fourth line is all American League guys. I can see myself doing that job, so there's some hope. As long as you work hard in life you'll find your way in."

Jordan, a restricted free agent who went from a rookie fighting his way into the lineup in 2010-11 to an AHL All-Star and top pairing defensemen over the course of his stay in Charlotte, has a similar story.

"I would like to stay with the Canes if there's going to be a good offer and a good opportunity, but if not there are other places I can go," he said. "When I signed last year they told me there would be a good chance to make the team and it didn't happen, but they had lots of players. It was pretty disappointing that I didn't get a chance."

Rounding out the pending free agent class is an unrestricted group that includes forwards Philippe Cornet, Sean Dolan and Matt Marquardt, who are all on AHL deals, defensemen Matt Corrente and Mark Flood and goaltenders Mike Murphy and John Muse. Forwards Greg Nemisz, Aaron Palushaj, Justin Shugg and Jared Staal and defenseman Rasmus Rissanen complete the restricted group.

With a significant number of players likely to depart for one reason or another, the Checkers will look to continue the development of the small under-contract group highlighted by Victor Rask, Brody Sutter, Danny Biega, Brendan Woods and Keegan Lowe.

Victor Rask
For the young guys, now the real hard work begins," said Daniels. "They can use this year as a learning year of what it's like to be a pro both on and off the ice and what your weaknesses are. This is a tough league, and I think it showed what guys need to work on. Now they've got to put the work in during the summertime so that they come to camp in Carolina and let them know that they're serious for a job."

They'll be joined by a strong incoming rookie class that includes forwards Phil Di Giuseppe and Brock McGinn, defensemen Trevor Carrick and Dennis Robertson and goalie Daniel Altshuller, among others.

"A lot of guys are turning pro, and whether they play here or in Carolina or wherever, they've got to play," said Daniels.

As always, there's the possibility of signing new players to help fill the void and add some supplemental veteran leadership. Palushaj, Corrente and Flood are recent examples of that.

"You look at some possibilities, and Chris, Chucky and Palush scored 38 percent of our goals or something like that," said Daniels. "That's a lot of goals to replace, but we'll find guys to come in and play. It's just a matter of who they are."

How everything shakes out will start at the top, and between the reports of a potential change in general manager to the rumors of a big roster shakeup, Carolina may be entering its most unpredictable offseason to date.

"In years past you could kind of see what was coming, but this year it's kind of a wild card," said Brett Sutter.

"They probably want to figure out their priorities before they start offering contracts," said Terry. "I think they'll figure it out and then I'll know if I'm in the plans. I'd like to be."
Paul Branecky
Author: Paul BraneckyEmail: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.
The Checkers' vice president of communications, Paul Branecky has been covering hockey in North Carolina since 2006, including five seasons with the Carolina Hurricanes.