For each category, each member of the Checkers communications staff cast a vote and explained their choice, with the third vote coming from the fan poll over the last week. The player who received the most votes in each category won that award, with any tiebreakers going to the fans.
Unanimous Winner: Tom McCollum
Paul Branecky, Checkers VP of Communications: I thought this was a really tough call given that he didn’t play his first game with the team until March, but it ended up being unanimous, so I guess not. As deserving as the other finalists are of this award, McCollum was the difference in terms of making the playoffs. With Michael Leighton injured, McCollum provided the steady, experienced presence in goal that was clearly the team’s biggest need at the time. That he was able to do what he did despite extremely limited playing time in Stockton prior to his acquisition was even more impressive. Full credit to management for making this move when they did.
Nicholas Niedzielski, Checkers Director of Communications: It might be a bit of a strange pick to name a player who only joined the team in March the MVP, but it’s hard to argue that anyone had more of an impact on the Checkers’ season than Tom McCollum. The netminder helped stabilize the team and his consistently solid play down the stretch provided a spark that pushed the whole team’s game to new heights as they stormed their way into the playoffs. He may not have the body of work of a whole season, but McCollum was the biggest factor in the Checkers finishing the season the way they did.
Winner: Lucas Wallmark
Branecky: After something of a slow start (at least relative to his second half production) Wallmark, once he adapted to the North American ice and developed more of a direct, shoot-first mentality, quickly became one of the most important players on the team. He could easily share this award with Poturalski, as a big key to the Checkers’ second-half turnaround was the ability for both rookie centers to eventually fill the huge void left by Derek Ryan’s NHL promotion. Wallmark gets the slight edge because of his goal-scoring consistency and playoff production. He should get a look with Carolina next season.
Also Receiving VotesNiedzielski - Andrew Poturalski: Several of these awards could be toss ups between Poturalski and Lucas Wallmark, as both had great seasons and propelled the Checkers’ offense. For best forward, though, I’ll give it to Poturalski, who led the team in scoring with 52 points. That puts him in some solid company with Derek Ryan as the only two players to hit the 50-point mark over the last three seasons. Given the fact that Charlotte’s offense hovered around the middle of the pack in terms of league rankings for most of the year, Poturalski was often responsible for keeping the unit afloat.
Unanimous Winner: Jake Chelios
Branecky: No Checkers defenseman was more consistent than Chelios, who has taken a huge stride forward in each season. He probably doesn’t get as much outside recognition as he deserves with names like Trevor Carrick, Haydn Fleury and Roland McKeown also in the picture, but I think Chelios could easily have seen some NHL games this season if not for the Hurricanes’ season-long logjam at the position. Not counting conditioning stints to Ryan Murphy and Klas Dahlbeck, Matt Tennyson, part of that logjam, was the only blueliner who got a call. A reliable player in all situations and a team leader to boot, Chelios ranked fifth on the team with 32 points, tied for fourth with a plus-8 rating and was the only Checker to play all 76 games this season. He also led the team with 12 power-play assists in a season where no other Checker had more than five, and his plus-23 rating from Jan. 1 on led the team and ranked third in the entire league.
Niedzielski: After earning himself an NHL contract with a strong 2015-16 season, Chelios came back and raised the bar again, becoming the anchor on Charlotte’s blue line. Locking down the top pairing with Trevor Carrick, he took a big step in solidifying his defensive game to become a more well-rounded player while continuing to show his offensive prowess by setting a new career high in points. Chelios also played a key role in the Checkers push for the playoffs, registering a plus-21 rating from Jan. 10 through the end of the season.
Rookie of the Year
Unanimous Winner: Lucas Wallmark
Rookie of the Year
Branecky: Any of Wallmark, Poturalski or Fleury could easily have won this award in any other season, which speaks to the strength of this year’s class. That said, I’ll give Wallmark the edge for reasons mentioned above. The Victor Rask comparison seems lazy because they’re both Swedish centers who played here but its true – smart players with sneaky wrist shots who know how to get in position and find their teammates.
Niedzielski: I picked Poturalski for best forward, but I’m going with Lucas Wallmark for Rookie of the Year for his consistent play as the grueling AHL season rolled on. The Swede showed a knack for goal-scoring that hasn’t been seen in Charlotte in a long time – his 24 goals, aside from being the most by a rookie in franchise history, are the seventh highest single-season total overall and the most since 2013-14. It took Wallmark a few months to completely find his footing in North America, but once it clicked he became a force. And on top of that, he did it while thriving at one of the game’s hardest positions, becoming the team’s top center.
Winner: Patrick Brown (Tiebreak)
Also Receiving VotesBranecky - Dennis Robertson: A ton of guys could win this award this year, which I suppose is what the American Hockey League is all about in terms of developing prospects. Wallmark is one, and Fleury might actually be my first choice, but of the options given I’ll take Robertson. He had been in and out of the lineup at times throughout his first three seasons, including the start of this one, but became a very solid member of a defensive unit that amazingly dressed the same six players for every single game starting with Philip Samuelsson’s debut on Feb. 24. An experienced, character complement to some of the younger guys, his second-half production was nearly identical to that of Fleury’s (10 points, plus-10).
Niedzielski - Philip Samuelsson: If you look at where Samuelsson’s season was when he joined the team at the trade deadline and were it ended up going, it’s hard to argue the improvement he showed. The blue liner was having a down season in St. John’s by his own accord, registering five points (1g, 4a) and a minus-7 rating in 40 games with the IceCaps. After joining his new club, however, Samuelsson reverted back to the player he once was, pumping in 14 points and a plus-9 rating in 25 games while helping to solidify the corps of defensemen that Charlotte leaned on down the stretch. His resurgence was also a key part of the Checkers’ power play coming back to life, recording six points on the man advantage during his time.
Winner: Connor Brickley (Tiebreak)
Also Receiving VotesBranecky - Patrick Dwyer: I think Brickley will probably be the popular choice, but based on his heroics down the stretch and in the playoffs I would consider him properly sung at this point. Instead, I’ll go with Dwyer, who ended up being a perfect fit in terms of character, leadership and experience. When the Checkers were at their deepest this season he was a great penalty killer and secondary scorer, but he also showed the ability to jump into a top-six role and continue to contribute when necessary. The AHL is a prospect’s league, but every team needs players like Dwyer.
Niedzielski - Michael Leighton: It seems kind of weird to call one of the best goalies in AHL history an unsung hero, but given the way Tom McCollum carried the team down the stretch, it can be easy to forget that Leighton was stellar for Charlotte when he was healthy. Despite not registering enough minutes at the end of the season to qualify for the league rankings, the veteran spent much of the year as one of the AHL’s top netminders, and his 2.17 goals-against average is the best in franchise history by a goalie with at least 20 games played. Leighton’s calm presence and strong play kept the team afloat for stretches of the season.