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. The player who received the most votes in each category won that award, with any tiebreakers going to the fans.
Paul Branecky, Checkers VP of Communications: That there are a lot of candidates for this award speaks to the kind of individual success that many players had, but I will give the edge to Lucas Wallmark. He was the most productive player in the entire league when in the lineup (his 1.22 points per game was the highest of any AHL player who played more than 10 games), and he was missed more than any other player when he was out of the lineup (the Checkers were a modest 15-15-1 without him). A true difference maker who has a great chance to be an NHL player next season.
Nicholas Niedzielski, Checkers Director of Communications: He may have only played 45 games this season, but Lucas Wallmark was such a driving force behind the Checkers’ success. He was a model of consistency, being held off the scoresheet only 12 times all season and just three times over the final three months, he made the players around him better, helping boost Andrew Miller to his highest point total since 2014-15 and assisting on nearly half of Valentin Zykov’s league-leading 33 goals, and he scored at a rate that no AHL player with more than 10 games under their belt could touch. It’s a smaller sample size, but Wallmark’s domination this season was second to none.
Also Receiving VotesFans: Alex Nedeljkovic - 43.6 percent
Fans (53.5 percent)
Niedzielski: Valentin Zykov scored more goals than anyone else in the AHL. I could probably just leave it at that, but I won’t. The Russian forward was near unstoppable around the net, physically overpowering defenders and getting to the right areas. Zykov also developed a strong all-around game and became a workhorse for a Checkers team loaded with talent at forward.
Also Receiving VotesBranecky - Lucas Wallmark: In addition to the case made above, I’ll also make the case that he makes other players around him better. The biggest adjustment he made over his two seasons with the Checkers was to shoot more, but that didn’t affect his ability to make plays for others – it only made him more dangerous.
Fans (37.1 percent)
Niedzielski: On a blue line stacked with offensive firepower, Trevor Carrick bounced back nicely from a down year statistically to lead the way. The fourth-year pro shouldered a heavy workload from the back end and still managed to contribute mightily in the offensive zone, re-establishing himself as one of the league’s best. Carrick also had a hand in the soaring power play, helping set up the high-flying unit with 22 helpers on the man advantage.
Also Receiving VotesBranecky - Roland McKeown: His point total, while improved, doesn’t jump off the page at you. That’s why he may not be an obvious choice or why he might not get as much attention as some other players. That said, reliability and consistency are just as important, which is part of why he played more NHL games than any other Checkers defenseman this season – it’s hard to remember a costly mistake that he made or a tough game that he had. What does jump off the page is his plus-34 rating, which was third in the league behind partner Philip Samuelsson and Toronto’s Martin Marincin.
Rookie of the Year
Fans (60.9 percent)
Branecky: Even coming off a junior season when he earned MVP honors in the OHL playoffs, I don’t think many expected Foegele to have the kind of success he had in his first pro season. He ranked 11th in the league with 28 goals and was the only player among the league’s top 70 goal scorers that didn’t score once on the power play. Another way to say that is that he led the entire league in even-strength goals, and even managed to throw in four shorthanded. He has the speed, size and the work ethic to continue to be successful, as his two-goals-in-two-games NHL debut showed. If he’s back with the Checkers next season, he could do even more with a bigger role.
Niedzielski: This was probably one of the most talented group of rookies this franchise has seen, but what Warren Foegele was able to accomplish in his first pro year was truly impressive. He eclipsed a record that hadn’t been touched since the franchise’s inaugural season with 28 goals, a mark he hit while playing on the team’s pseudo-fourth line and garnering almost no time on the power play. Foegele filled the role he was given – killing penalties, forechecking and playing physical – all while emerging as one of the team’s most prolific offensive talents, all in his first pro season.
Fans (55.4 percent)
Branecky:Nedeljkovic came into his sophomore campaign as a much better player than he was as a rookie. Then, he continued to get better. At the end of the day, he went from struggling to the point where he was in the ECHL during last year’s playoffs to being a legitimate No. 1 in this year’s AHL postseason. Having settled in and found his confidence, he’s now looking a lot more like the goalie everyone thought he could be. At this rate, he’s probably not done improving.
Niedzielski: Watching Alex Nedeljkovic between the pipes this season, you would never know that he’s only a second-year-pro coming off a rocky rookie campaign. Nedeljkovic was a rock for the Checkers, ramping up his play and exuding a confidence and mental toughness that allowed him to snatch the full-time starting role and run with it. The netminder helped stabilize the team around him and, although it led to some heart-stopping close calls, his penchant for playing the puck helped the corps of defensemen in front of him immensely.
Branecky: A consistent, hard-working player who hits, kills penalties and even showed a real mean streak in the playoffs. What more do you want from this award? His season-long chemistry with Foegele also led to a healthy uptick in points. Not every prospect has to be a big scorer – there are NHL jobs for guys like this too.
Niedzielski: In his second pro season Clark Bishop doubled down on what he does best – being a fast and physical force who forechecks and kills penalties. Only this year, he added a scoring element to his game. Granted he was playing with one of the most talented “fourth lines” in the league, but jumping from six to 28 points in a season is no fluke. Combine that with the mean streak we saw come out in the postseason and Bishop was one of the toughest Checkers to play against night in and night out.