The Checkers’ lineup has gone through a lot of iterations this season.
That’s no surprise given the high amount of turnover on the roster during the offseason, especially when combined with a new coaching staff taking the reins. So the Checkers spent the first chunk of the season moving the pieces around, adjusting to the waves of arrivals and departures and waiting for something to stick.
“It took a little bit there to get there,” said head coach Ryan Warsofsky. “With injuries and call ups, we always had an open door where guys were coming in and out.”
“Early on [Warsofsky] was mixing and matching to find who gels with each other,” said Dave Gust. “Which is normal to do when you come to a team with a lot of new players.”
At some point that shuffling spit out the trio of Gust, Janne Kuokkanen and Steven Lorentz, and something clicked.
“I think right around Christmas he put us three together,” said Gust. “We played well and had a few games to build off one another. We haven’t looked back since then.”
The line came together for the Dec. 18 game and has fairly consistently been together in the following games. In the span from that contest to the present, Kuokkanen and Lorentz are tied for the team scoring lead with 18 points in 16 games, while Gust is tied for third with 15 points in 15 games.
That line brings together three distinctly different players, each of whom bring something unique to the group.
There’s Kuokkanen, a playmaking winger who was an AHL All-Star and frequent NHL recall last year before an injury ended his season. A second-round pick by Carolina, he has returned to the ice this year and holds the team scoring lead.
“When you give him time and space, he can make things happen,” said Warsofsky. “He’s getting more confident with the puck in the offensive zone. He’s moving and using his body a little bit more. It’s creating more space for him.”
“He can make plays that just make you go, ‘Wow’,” said Gust.
There’s Lorentz, a big-bodied center who went from splitting his time in the ECHL a season ago to being an offensive leader for the Checkers.
“Lorentz is 6-4 and he can skate,” said Warsofsky. “That’s hard to play against.”
“Lory has a bomb of a shot on him,” said Gust.
And then there’s Gust, a quick winger who had a pair of strong seasons in Bakersfield before joining Charlotte over the offseason.
“Gust is holding onto pucks so his skill set is really coming out,” said Warsofsky.
“He’s fast,” said Kuokkanen. “He can see me on the ice."
Combining those three skill sets has paid off handsomely for the Checkers.
“I think they found some chemistry,” said Warsofsky. “They all three have complemented each other really well.”
Their impact goes beyond the scoresheet as well.
“That line, if you were to look at the analytics side of it, they have the puck on their stick a lot,” said Warsofsky. “They’re possessing it. When they don’t have a play they’re making the right decision. They’re getting it deep and using their size to forecheck.”
While all three have emerged as some of Charlotte’s biggest offensive weapons, they are quick to attribute that success to the group as a whole.
“It’s easy when you can play with two guys like that,” said Lorentz. “They can make great skill plays and have great vision. I just do my job and go to those dirty areas and let those guys snap it around. That’s how we’ve had success so far.”
“It’s been fun playing with those guys,” said Gust. “I think we’re just starting to get chemistry with each other.
“I really like to play with them,” said Kuokkanen. “We’re playing really good right now.”
Finding a line that works so well and keeping it consistently together has proven to be a big boost for the Checkers, especially now as other top players heat up offensively and the lineup begins to settle into place.
“It’s nice to see that we’ve found some chemistry in our lines, that’s important,” said Warsofsky. “We’re at our best when we can roll four lines and come at you in waves. I think that’s been really, really important.”
“Just playing together for a month or so now, we’re starting to click,” said Gust. “Hopefully we can keep it going.”