Still, as the head coaching duties shifted to Mike Vellucci over the offseason, the new boss pinpointed multiple areas he deemed needing work.
The first should have come as no surprise.
“We came in and said that we were going to fix the special teams,” said Vellucci.
The Checkers’ power play finished dead last in the AHL last season by more than a full percentage point, with the 13.1 conversion rate standing as the worst in franchise history.
Fast forward a year and things have certainly changed, with the Checkers holding a 22.2 percent on the power play, good for third in the AHL.
“We fixed it,” said Vellucci. “Now we’re around the top for the power play.”
Such a steep improvement in such a short amount of time while using many of the same personnel begs the question: what exactly changed?
“There’s definitely been adjustments,” said Vellucci. “I think it’s the practice habits with it and the preparation for it. We practice it a lot and we’ve been lucky enough to stick with the same couple of units. It’s a big part of the game so if you don’t practice it, it doesn’t make any sense.”
That’s not the only adjustment to the power play either, as a stylistic wrinkle has helped accentuate one of the team’s biggest strengths.
“We’ve added a few more net front guys, big guys with good hands,” said Vellucci. “Zykov has 11 so obviously he’s been great but Nicky Roy has been really good in front of the net as well.”
While it appears that the team has been able to accomplish the goal of getting the ailing man advantage on track, it’s not the only deficiency that the coaching staff have their eyes on. Namely, stringing those dominant performances together.
“We’ve got the power play, now we just want to get consistent overall,” said Vellucci. “We have too many ups and downs. We’ll go into a game and not have our best game and we’re not ready to play or we’ll go in and be really good. We want to be consistent and be really good every night.”
As the schedule moves closer and closer to its midpoint, the team doesn’t seem content with the progress they’ve made yet.
“We fixed the problems we addressed, so I think we’re halfway there in the season and halfway there to where we want to be,” said Vellucci. “We want to be consistent and good at the power play and at five-on-five.”
FIRST-YEAR PHENOMSThe Checkers’ offense has been largely prolific thus far this season, but losing a pair of big pieces at the same time – as they have with Valentin Zykov and Lucas Wallmark exiting the lineup simultaneously multiple times this year – can throw a wrench into that production.
“When you have two-thirds of your top line out it makes things difficult, especially against Lehigh since their forwards are older and more experienced guys,” said Vellucci, referring to the team’s most recent games. “They have an older team with a high-powered offense. I think we’re 1-2 in goals for this season so when you’re missing two guys on your top line, it’s difficult. But again Foegs [Warren Foegele] stepped up, [Aleksi] Saarela moved up to that top line and they played really well. [Mike] Ferrantino came in and got another point. [Nicolas] Roy had a great game. Guys stepped up when we needed them to.”
A cursory glance at those players picking up the slack reveals nearly all of them to be relatively new to the pro game, though they certainly don’t play that way.
“We have seven or eight first-year forwards and they’re playing prominent roles, which is tough in this league,” said Vellucci. “So when you’re going against Lehigh whose top six are almost all big-time veterans, it’s difficult. But on every given night those first-year guys have stepped up and been contributors. Guys like Roy, Foegele, Bishop, Gauthier, they’ve all stepped up at certain times.”
A big part of the young forwards’ success can be traced to the trust the coaching staff has put in them. Vellucci has no qualms deploying those first-year pros into any situation he believes they’ll succeed in.
“A lot of people want to say that because they’re in their first year there’s a learning curve,” said Vellucci. “But I’m a little different than that. I said in juniors if you’re good, you’re good, no matter if you’re 16 or 19. Up here whether you’re 20 or you’re 24, if you’re good, you’re good.”
Players like Foegele, Roy and Saarela have shown no issue fitting into the pro game physically, jumping right in while providing a strong scoring presence for the Checkers. But despite the young forwards’ proficiency on the ice, that’s only half the battle.
“These guys are good hockey players and now it’s more of a consistency thing,” said Vellucci. “Competing every night, every shift, the grind of the travel, cooking your own meals. Those are the things. But they’re all good players. I don’t care how old they are as long as they’re getting better each day.”
Vellucci has been using the same mantra with his young forwards all year, and now it appears to be taking hold.
“We’re seeing it now where instead of just fitting in they’re becoming elite players.”
FORWARDS IN, FORWARDS OUTThe Checkers’ lineup will be without at least one mainstay up front going forward, as Vellucci offered an update on Sergey Tolchinsky, who left last Friday’s game in Lehigh Valley with an injury and did not return.
“Tolchinsky is out probably six weeks at least,” said Vellucci, confirming that the forward would be undergoing surgery on Thursday.
In that contest against the Phantoms, Tolchinsky took a point-blank shot to his lower leg, went down in a heap and had to be helped off the ice and into the locker room.
On a positive note, the Checkers look to be receiving two reinforcements up front.
After missing the last two games due to injury, Zykov returned as a full participant to practice this week. The forward, who leads the league in goals and was selected to the AHL All-Star Classic yesterday, should be ready to go for this weekend’s series in Hershey.
Additionally, rookie Janne Kuokkanen has returned to the team after his Finnish team was eliminated from the World Junior Championship. The 19-year-old notched two assists in five games for Finland, who fell to the Czech Republic in a shootout in the quarterfinals.
That leaves the Checkers with 13 healthy options at forward heading into Hershey, as they have assigned Mitchell Heard back to the ECHL’s Florida Everblades. Rookie Steven Lorentz, who made his AHL debut last week, remains with Charlotte.
REFLECTING AND LOOKING AHEADThey’ve had a week to recuperate, but the Checkers’ first three contests following the holiday break were largely ones to forget.
Two days after Christmas the Checkers went into Binghamton to face a last place team who they had waxed earlier that month but had the tables turned on them, suffering a lopsided loss to the Devils. They then traveled to Lehigh Valley where the Checkers faltered for the second straight game. Charlotte was able to snap out of it in the next night’s rematch, however, upending the Phantoms to get back in the win column.
“The first game back after Christmas is never fun, it’s never a good game,” said Vellucci. “We didn’t give Binghamton a lot of chances but they scored a lot of goals so I think from top to bottom we weren’t very strong. But I thought we played pretty good for some parts of those first two games.”
The Checkers were forced into some major lineup shuffling right out of the holiday break for various reasons, turning to ECHL recalls at forward for the first time all year.
“Yeah we had some call ups and some guys out for the last two games,” said Vellucci. “But Lehigh obviously has a very high-powered offense and I think we dominated the play in the last game with a short lineup and that’s always good. Guys get in different roles and play a big role. And Ned [Alex Nedeljkovic] played really good in that game.”
With that rough patch hopefully in the rear view, the Checkers are now staring down a two-game series in Hershey against a team that forced a split at Bojangles’ Coliseum just a few weeks ago.
“We didn’t play well the first game here but we played well the second game,” said Vellucci. “So we weren’t ready. Obviously it’s going to be a tough building to play in on the road. They’re a strong, tough team so we’re going to have to battle for all the open ice we can get. We’re going to have to be ready to compete from the first shift.”