The first to punch his ticket was head coach Mike Vellucci, who will be manning the bench for the Atlantic team by virtue of the Checkers posting the division’s best record.
“For myself it’s a great honor but it’s an honor that the team did for me,” said Vellucci. “They’ve listened, they’ve worked hard and they want to get better. They’ve been a pleasure to coach. I’m representing them and I’m representing the Charlotte Checkers and (team owner) Mr. Kahn, which gives me a lot of pride.”
As for the team Vellucci will be leading at the event, the Checkers earned two All-Star selections in Janne Kuokkanen and Trevor Carrick. The former has frequently bounced between the AHL and NHL this season, but when suited up for Charlotte has been a lights-out scorer.
“He’s consistent,” said Vellucci of the 20-year-old forward. “Offensively he’s consistently putting up points and that’s part of being a pro. Everyone forgets about how young he is but he’s consistently offensive in his effort this year.”
“I’ve just been working everyday and I’m lucky to have these kind of teammates and management,” said Kuokkanen. “It’s a great honor for me.”
As for Carrick, who has been a rock for Charlotte on the blue line this season, this will be his second time donning an AHL All-Star sweater.
“It’s about what you bring everyday,” said Vellucci. “Trevor has a great attitude, he’s tough and he can put up the points. He’s a well-rounded defenseman who does everything well and he’s a leader on this team and his peers notice.”
Two players is the max that any team is sending to the All-Star Classic, but for the top team in the league there’s a case to be made for several others who are worthy of the honor.
“For the players selected, they deserve it, but there could have been four more on this team,” said Vellucci. “That’s the way it goes, but you could say Poturalski, you could say McKeown, you could say Bean, there’s so many guys. To me Nedeljkovic should be there, he has 17 wins. You go on down the list, they should all be there.”
The two selections will now eagerly wait to take part in the event-filled trip to Springfield, even if one of them is unsure what exactly to expect.
“I don’t have any kind of information about what it’s going to be but I’m excited, it’s going to be fun,” said Kuokkanen. “This is my first time to play in this kind of game. It’s special.”
For Vellucci, getting to share the experience with his players is something to look forward to.
“In the past when I’ve done All-Star games I’ve taken them to dinner and gotten to know them a little bit better,” said Vellucci. “We’ll have conversations and relax in a different environment. I’ll spend time with them and make sure we’re on the same page and have a little fun while we’re doing it.”
MAKING STRIDESThe Checkers’ scoring depth has been one of the biggest pieces to their success through the first half of the season. Their lineup is chock-full of offensively gifted talent and it has shown – the Checkers boast more double-digit goal scorers than any other team in the league.
Two players have especially picked up the scoring slack as of late – Julien Gauthier and Morgan Geekie.
Gauthier’s improvement from his rookie year to now has been much talked about by the coaching staff and is visibly noticeable when he takes the ice. Now the sophomore forward is finding the back of the net, having racked up four goals over the last three games to move into a tie for second on the team.
“He’s done nothing but improve,” said Vellucci. “Him and I have a great relationship, I can be honest with him and tell him what I need him to do and he’s actually trying everything. Give him a lot of credit, he’s improving.”
So what exactly has been ratcheting up his goal-scoring ability as of late?
“It’s the little things,” said Vellucci. “One is that we moved his position on the power play to be more of a shooter because that’s what he is – a shooter.”
That's his 4th goal in the last 3 games— Charlotte Checkers (@CheckersHockey) January 6, 2019
The staff has also worked with Gauthier to refine the physical qualities that made him a first-round draft pick out of junior.
“We’ve been working on puck protection, that’s a big thing for him,” said Vellucci. “He’s so big and strong, if he gets his technique better and does it the right way, nobody can stop him. Get to the net, use two hands, bend his knees more, we’ve been working on those things and he’s been carrying them into the games and he’s gotten goals just from doing that.”
Things were deadlocked for a while, but then two goals in less than two minutes gave us our first lead of the night pic.twitter.com/pTfmrlih7L— Charlotte Checkers (@CheckersHockey) January 6, 2019
There have been flashes of what Gauthier can bring to the table as a dominant forward and as he starts to string those strong performances together, his production is something to keep an eye on going forward.
“Confidence is good for everybody, Goat especially,” said Vellucci. “He’s got a long way to go but he’s made huge strides.”
As for Geekie, the rookie forward has found his groove once again, heading into this weekend with 10 points in his last 10 games.
While the gaudy numbers are never a bad thing, it’s the other parts of Geekie’s game that have drawn praise during this most recent stretch.
“I don’t like to grade Geeks by his points because he has to do other things well to be a good player,” said Vellucci. “Obviously the points are good, he’s put up big points for us, but he’s playing the game the right way and he’s doing things defensively that are giving him those opportunities to score. That’s the key for him. We love to see him put points up without sacrificing the rest of his game.”
LINEUP CHALLENGESThe nature of the AHL dictates that there will undoubtedly be times when the roster takes a hit.
For the Checkers, that time came last week.
With injuries piling up in Carolina and reinforcements heading to Raleigh, the Checkers headed into last weekend’s three-in-three road trip with a fairly bare-bones group. Those recalls combined with Martin Necas making his way back from World Juniors and Kuokkanen forced out due to an illness led to the Checkers having to make do with just 11 forwards.
“That’s the most difficult thing about coaching a minor league team, you’ve got call ups all the time,” said Vellucci. “You could lose two or three guys in a day, so you have to make adjustments. I’ve been doing it for a long time to where I know what it takes to do that.”
You won’t see this Checkers team throwing in the towel in that scenario though.
“We use it as motivation,” said Vellucci. “You can complain about it, you can whine, but you still have to play the game so let’s make the most out of it. Bear down and do the things that make us successful and let’s be good teammates and root each other on.”
Charlotte emerged from that weekend with a perfect 3-0-0 record and is now staring down more roster decisions come this weekend.
“It was a switch real quick, we were short D and had too many forwards and now it’s the other way around,” said Vellucci. “But that’s minor league hockey. It’s been difficult but I like the challenge. Instead of complaining about it let’s take the challenge and use it as a positive. There’s more ice time for guys and they have the chance to show me what they can do and build off it.”
NHL SUCCESSThe flip side of the Checkers losing players to Carolina over the last week has been those players’ big impact on the NHL club.
Saku Maenalanen has been a force on the fourth line for the Canes and has put up his first NHL goal and assist over the last four games, while Greg McKegg’s first stint with Carolina has seen him throw up four points (2g, 2a) in three contests.
Given how key of roles the duo has played for Charlotte so far this season, their quick success shouldn’t be much of a shock.
“It doesn’t surprise me at all because they’ve been good players here,” said Vellucci. “Personally it’s a proud moment. I feel like I had something to do with their development. We work them hard here so when they get up there they can step right in. It’s a proud moment to watch those guys do well.”
As McKegg-mania takes over Raleigh, it’s hard not to root for the guy who got a change of scenery late last season and has turned it on from there.
“A guy like Kegger came to us with not much fanfare and nobody really knew who he was,” said Vellucci. “He came in to camp in great shape, he’s got a great attitude, he built up his confidence offensively here – he wasn’t really known as an offensive guy – and I’m very proud of him.”