HOW DO YOU REPLACE THE OFFENSIVE PRODUCTION?The nature of the AHL as a development league typically means that there is a significant amount of turnover from season to season, but the Checkers were hit especially hard over the offseason.
Lucas Wallmark (17g, 38a), Warren Foegele (28g, 18a) and Valentin Zykov (33g, 21a) all made the Hurricanes out of training camp while Andrew Miller (15g, 37a) jumped overseas, leaving nearly a third of last season’s offensive production absent from the new roster.
So where does the offense turn now?
“Those were four of our top five scorers, so we have to buckle down now,” said head coach Mike Vellucci. “We’ve got [Julien] Gauthier and we’ve got [Janne] Kuokkanen in their second years so they should be leaders offensively. And I expect more out of Bish [Clark Bishop].”
Replacing high-end individual talent is a tall order for any team, however, and the Checkers’ best chance at regaining that firepower may be by committee.
“The key to me though is that we have four solid lines that can score goals,” said Vellucci. “We had that last year and we hope to continue that this year.”
WHAT CAN GREG MCKEGG DELIVER WITH A WHOLE SEASON IN CHARLOTTE?After joining the organization at the trade deadline, Greg McKegg electrified the Checkers down the stretch of last season, producing at over a point-per-game and elevating his teammates around him. Now the Checkers will get the benefit of having him in the lineup to start the year.
“We expect Kegger to be a leader,” said Vellucci. “He was a great influence when he came here last year and we just named him one of our alternate captains.”
The 26-year-old is heading into his seventh pro campaign with plenty of success at the AHL level under his belt. After a slow start with Wilkes-Barre/Scranton last season, McKegg seemed reinvigorated by the change of scenery in Charlotte down the stretch and has carried that approach into a productive summer.
“He came in in the best shape of anyone at Carolina’s camp,” said Vellucci. “So he takes care of himself off the ice, that’s something we want him to lead the young guys on.”
As a veteran leader in the room McKegg brings plenty to the table, but it’s his play on the ice that could propel the Checkers’ attack as a whole.
“His speed and his skill are things that we really used last year,” said Vellucci. “He’s a great faceoff guy and he’s very important offensively.”
WHAT CAN WE EXPECT FROM SAKU MAENALANEN?While most of the Checkers’ group of forwards consists of returning skaters and incoming rookies, one notable addition is Saku Maenalanen. Originally drafted by Nashville in 2015, the 24-year-old has spent the entirety of his pro career in his home country of Finland, just making the jump to North America this season.
After a breakout season in Finland, Maenalanen impressed enough to earn an extended look at NHL training camp and, while he’ll start in Charlotte to get his bearings, there’s no guarantee for how long he’ll stay.
“He’s a well-rounded player,” said Vellucci. “I expect him to be back in the NHL sooner than later. He just needs to come down here and get used to the North American style and the smaller rinks.”
While he’s a bit of an unknown commodity to Checkers fans, Maenalanen’s game is likely to catch eyes right away.
“I think he’s going to score goals for us,” said Vellucci. “He’s a big body that can skate and we’re going to use him on the penalty kill and the power play. I expect a lot of big things from him.”
If his deployment at practice is any indication, the coaching staff is setting up the Finnish forward to succeed up front.
“He’s been meshing really well with Kegger and Potsy on that first line so far,” said Vellucci.
HOW WILL THIS ROOKIE CLASS STACK UP?The Checkers boasted a wildly impressive group of rookie forwards last season, from Foegele and Aleksi Saarela’s goal barrage to Kuokkanen’s 40-point effort to Nicolas Roy and Gauthier’s emergence as everyday players. While it’s a tough task to measure up to those standards, this season’s group is far from shabby.
With Morgan Geekie, Cliff Pu and Spencer Smallman (“I consider Smally a rookie since he only played a few games last year,” said Vellucci) all making the roster out of training camp, the Checkers will house a line’s worth of highly skilled rookies.
“The three young guys that we have in the lineup, they’re all coming off of junior careers where they put up points, so we’re expecting them to put up and contribute,” said Vellucci. “What I like about those guys is they’re all offensively gifted.”
Geekie is coming off of a dominant WHL playoff run with Tri-City, a trajectory similar to Foegele’s a year ago, while Pu was a standout producer in the OHL each of the last two campaigns and Smallman showed a strong flash late last season after recovering from injury.
Now, all three will be counted on to help bolster an increasingly young Checkers squad.
“We just have to get them to play hard and compete every shift and play a 200-foot game,” said Vellucci. “If they do that they’re going to score a lot of points because they won’t be in their own end. All three are very talented they just have to learn the pro game and get better every day.”
HOW WILL SPECIAL TEAMS SHAPE UP?It’s no secret that the Checkers’ bread and butter last season was their power play. Ranking third in the AHL, Charlotte was especially lethal on the man advantage, something that helped boost the offensive production as a whole.
This year’s units will be missing some key faces, but plenty of talent remains, leaving the coaching staff confident.
“We’re losing Zykov and Wallmark off the top unit but we’ve still got McKegg and Poturalski and Carrick,” said Vellucci. “We’ll make sure we get guys to fill in those spots. We’re going to get Gauthier in front of the net there, probably use Kuokkanen. I don’t think we’re going to miss much there. We’ll miss those two guys but we’ll have two very strong units, I think we’ll be alright.”
On the flip side the Checkers’ penalty kill struggled a season ago, ranking in the bottom third of the league, and has led to a renewed focus over the offseason on righting the ship.
“The key to this year is making sure the penalty kill is improved,” said Vellucci. “Bringing in [new assistant coach] Ryan Warsofsky, who had the top penalty kill in the ECHL the last few years, is going to make a difference for us.”
HOW IS THE NEW-LOOK DEFENSE COMING TOGETHER?After having a fairly steady defensive corps for the past two seasons, the Checkers have shaken up their back end heading into 2018-19, adding several pieces over the offseason that should play big roles.
“We bring in [Dan] Renouf, he’s a tough player, really good skater who plays physical, brings another dimension to our game,” said Vellucci. “We got Big Mike [Michal Cajkovsky], another guy who can move the puck and really hammer it. And then Beaner [Jake Bean], he’s an offensive guy, first-round NHL pick and we expect big things for him.”
That’s not to say it’s all new faces on the blue line.
“We have some guys back with McKeown and Trev,” said Vellucci. “Dids [Josiah Didier] is out but I think he’ll be ready for the home opener, so that’s three guys returning plus Robo [Dennis Robertson].”
Overall, the belief is there that Charlotte’s blue line is as strong as it’s ever been, top to bottom.
“I think we solidified our D this year,” said Vellucci. “They’re all puck movers and they all can skate, which is key in today’s game. Hopefully that’ll help us get out of our zone quickly and more efficiently.”
WHAT CAN WE EXPECT FROM JAKE BEAN?Of all the talent on the blue line, no one is more intriguing than Bean. Taken 13th overall in 2016, Bean has been on Canes fans’ radars for years and is now set to kick off his pro career in Charlotte, a task that is easier said than done.
“He’s going to have to catch up to the pro game, this game is fast for him right now,” said Vellucci. “He’s not a big guy so he’s going to have to be smarter than everyone else. He needs to have a good stick and move his feet a lot more than he is right now. It’s just going to take him some time to get used to it.”
The 20-year-old’s calling card has always been his offensive edge. After losing some of their more point-producing blue liners over the last few seasons, the Checkers would largely benefit from Bean’s nose for the goal.
“Offensively he’s really gifted,” said Vellucci. “He sees the ice really well and he’s very good on the power play.”
While his offensive flair will grab the headlines, the goal for Bean’s development lies in him grasping the defensive side of the game.
“Defensively he’s got a long way to go,” said Vellucci. “He wants to get better and he’s doing that right now and our D coach is working with him and doing video with him every day. I’m sure it won’t take him long to get used to this style of play.”
CAN NEDELJKOVIC REPLICATE HIS SUCCESS?After a bumpy rookie campaign, Alex Nedeljkovic jumped light years ahead in his sophomore season. The young netminder grabbed the starting job and never looked back, establishing himself as one of the top goalies across the entire league.
Now Nedeljkovic has an even firmer grasp on the starting job, with the organization forgoing the typical veteran signing to let the 22-year-old take center stage.
“He just needs to be consistent,” said Vellucci. “That’s something we’ve talked about. You put last year behind you and start new this year. He’s going to play more so he’s going to have to make sure that he manages his ice time as far as his work load there. I want him to work hard and compete and be consistent.”
The Checkers are now Nedeljkovic’s team, and the coaching staff is behind him all the way.
“I have the utmost confidence in him,” said Vellucci.