The team has scored at least three tallies in each of their first four contests and have the second-highest goal total in the AHL so far. Six different Charlotte skaters have recorded at least three points in four games, including Lucas Wallmark’s eight, which ranks second in the AHL overall, and eight different players have lit the lamp.
The droves of capable forwards on Charlotte’s roster are a definite plus, giving the team an ample group of skilled skaters to mold their lineup with, but it also creates some logistical issues, with just 12 forward slots and an abundance of bodies.
“We’ve got a lot of forwards in our lineup right now that deserve an opportunity to play,” said head coach Mike Vellucci. “It’s a learning experience for all the forwards now that we have a lot of depth.”
Given the overall young nature of the club, there are no shoo-ins for making the lineup, and Vellucci has made it clear what he wants to see from his players.
“If you play well the game before, you stay in, and if you don’t you come out,” he said. “You’re going to get in the lineup and stay in the lineup if you compete every night and do what the coaches ask. It could be said about all the forwards.”
For the first three games of the season, it was the trio of Zack Stortini, Nick Schilkey and Mike Ferrantino who sat out as healthy scratches up front for the Checkers – who have been carrying 15 forwards since the start of the year. But after a tough loss to Bridgeport in the home opener, Vellucci made some changes by bringing Stortini and Schilkey into the fold and scratching Sergey Tolchinsky and rookie Julien Gauthier for the next night’s rematch.
Taking players, especially young ones, out of the lineup can be a tricky task, but Vellucci has his ways to ensure their confidence isn’t damaged.
“Communicating is the key,” he said. “Talk to him about it, kids want to know why they’re out and what they can do to get better. Communicate with him and all the forwards about why they may be out that game and how they can get back in and stay in.”
Gauthier’s scratching in particular was an interesting move, as the rookie entered the pro level this season with considerable hype around him. The young skater, who just turned 20 over this past weekend, went scoreless through his first three games before coming out of the lineup.
“A lot of people take things for granted,” said Vellucci. “The American League is a very difficult league and I think guys from college and junior, they come here and they see their buddies in the NHL and think they should be there too. But this is a very difficult league. There’s men here, people making their livelihoods. It’s a culture shock, that’s the best way to put it.”
Gauthier sitting for a game as a healthy scratch isn’t the end of the world. Last season Haydn Fleury, who made the Hurricanes out of camp this season and is currently holding down NHL minutes, found himself in a suit early on. The key for Gauthier will be how he responds and bounces back in his next opportunity.
“You have to have a positive attitude and mind frame,” said Vellucci. “Make sure you compete and do the things that will make you successful.”
TAKING A PHYSICAL APPROACHOf the two players making their Checkers debuts last Saturday it was Schilkey who found the score sheet, but Stortini did more than enough to make his presence known.
A veteran of over 800 pro games and the proud owner of more than 2,400 penalty minutes, Stortini entered the rematch against the Sound Tigers and immediately brought a physical edge by doling out a few big hits and mixing things up, just as the coaching staff hoped he would.
“I felt that Bridgeport was pushing us around a little bit in the first game, as far as trying to intimidate us,” said Vellucci. “Zack’s a big guy and he plays the game physical.”
“That’s a big part of my game, being a physical presence and bringing that element to the game,” said Stortini. “It’s something I enjoy doing.”
The veteran forward manned the fourth line and provided a strong presence during his time on the ice, but it was his leadership qualities off of it that stood out to the coaches.
“As much as his play on the ice, what I liked the most was his demeanor on the bench,” said Vellucci. “He’s one of those guys that says all the right things and knows when to say them and when to back them up. He kept the bench loose and into the game. He was a huge help for us.”
The team seemed to follow Stortini’s lead for the rest of the night, not backing down from Bridgeport and earning a hard-fought win.
“Being an older guy, a veteran leader, it’s important I give those younger guys the confidence to do that,” said Stortini. “We have a great group here and there are a lot of guys who are willing to pay the price. For us, it’s about bringing that side of the ice every night.”
For Vellucci, physical play is just a part of a bigger scope that he wants his team to focus on each night.
“You can call it playing physical or competing, I say competing,” said Vellucci. “We want to compete, and part of that is being physical. We’re a big, strong team and we should play to that advantage. We are fast, but you have to put that physical element along with it.”
INJURY UPDATEAfter taking a puck to the mouth in during the preseason, defenseman Brenden Kichton is moving closer and closer to a return to the ice.
“I think he’s about two weeks away,” said Vellucci. “I think next week he’s in full practice and then we’ll decide from that point.”
Kichton, who signed with Carolina this past offseason, has been a scoring force during his first four AHL seasons, twice topping 40 points and never failing to record at least 20. Second-year pro Josh Wesley has been holding down Kichton’s presumed spot in the lineup since the start of the season.