With the offseason finally coming to a close, the Checkers returned to the ice Monday for the start of their training camp and wasted no time easing into things on day one.

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“I wanted to set the pace,” said head coach Mike Vellucci. “We weren’t standing around too much, we would show them what the drill is and then we’d start right away. I was very impressed, the guys kept up the pace.”

The first few days of camp are unique in that, with Carolina’s camp still holding a substantial amount of NHL-contracted players, the majority of the skaters hitting the Bojangles’ Coliseum ice are new faces. Monday’s group consisted mostly of incoming rookies, AHL-contracted players and camp invitees, all of whom are looking to impress enough to land a spot on Charlotte’s roster.

So how does a fringe player catch eyes during a standard training camp practice?

“It’s hustle,” said Vellucci. “[Jeremy] Helvig’s helmet got knocked off in a drill and [Jamie] Phillips skated all the way down the ice and got in net so the drill wouldn’t have to stop. He hustled all the way down the ice and I noticed that right away and gave him a tap on the pads. It’s things like that that coaches notice.”

Making an impression early on in camp as a player battling for a spot can seem like an uphill battle, but you don’t have to look far for a prime example.

“I’ve been talking about Dids all summer long,” said Vellucci, referencing defenseman Josiah Didier, who was at the rink Monday but did not practice after suffering an injury during the Canes’ preseason game against Tampa Bay last week. “There’s a guy who last year was on an AHL/ECHL contract, started the year in the ECHL and played three games, came up and outplayed contract guys to play the whole year. Dids, if he hadn’t gotten hurt, he’d probably still be up in Carolina right now because they were very impressed with his training camp.”

Didier’s rise to becoming an everyday defenseman last season illustrates Vellucci’s belief in building his team.

“I want the best players, I want the guys that are going to work the hardest and be committed to the team,” said Vellucci. “Even if you have a contract or you’re a high draft pick, if you’re not committed to the team, we’re not going to play you.”

While Vellucci was happy with the team’s performance to kick off training camp and quick to highlight some of those invites who impressed – “[Trevor] Owens had a good practice, I saw him score a couple nice goals and he was getting right there in the play, which is what we like our D to do. It’s little things like that that you notice on day one” – this is only the beginning.

“I said to them at the end, it doesn’t matter if you have a great first day if you don’t follow it up with a great second day,” said Vellucci. “That’s a true pro, the guy who’s going to come back and have a great second day and third day. Let’s not drop off at all.”

SAARELA TAKES CHARGE

The group hitting the ice Monday morning wasn’t entirely new faces, however. Among them was Aleksi Saarela, coming off a goal-filled 2017-18 campaign that saw him rank third among league rookies with 25 tallies.

Despite those accolades, Saarela was among one of the first groups to be cut from the Hurricanes’ camp, a move that was somewhat unexpected.

“Obviously he’s disappointed that he got sent down,” said Vellucci. “He got sent down early and management expressed what they want him to work on.”

Saarela departed last season with mixed feelings about his statistically impressive rookie year.

“I feel like I have to compete more in every game,” said Saarela in June. “I had ups and downs. I played 10 games good and then I was bad for the next five games. So I have to figure out how to compete and be a great hockey player every game.”

Heading to Charlotte early is no doubt a tough pill to swallow for the young talent, but Saarela has done all the right things since returning to the Queen City.

“I was pleased with his practice today,” said Vellucci. “He came down here today with a very good attitude. He worked hard, took ownership and leadership of the team today in practice. He’s not pouting and that’s step one.”

Standing out as one of the top skaters on the ice during Checkers camp could go a long way toward Saarela’s continued growth in year two.

“He had the disappointment of getting sent down early but he handled it very well today,” said Vellucci. “Let’s see how he handles it the rest of the week.”

WARSOFSKY COMES ABOARD

The new faces on the ice Monday morning weren’t just limited to the players, as new assistant coach Ryan Warsofsky joined the team for the first time since being hired earlier this summer.

“Today was exciting,” said Warsofsky. “First day out on the ice, meeting all the new faces, it’s fun. It’s a day that I was looking forward to when I took the job.”

The Checkers were in the market for a new assistant coach this offseason following the departure of Peter Andersson, and the move to hire Warsofsky has Vellucci optimistic for the upcoming campaign.

“I’m very excited about Ryan,” said the Checkers head coach. “We talked several times over the summer, we met at the draft, I picked his brain a little bit. He was a head coach the last two years in the ECHL, he’s a young guy who’s full of energy and wants to learn and get better. He’ll make us better.”

Warsofsky comes to Charlotte after spending the last five seasons with the ECHL’s South Carolina Stingrays, including serving as the head coach for the last two. A quick-riser through the coaching ranks, the Massachusetts native points to several key reasons for his jump to the next level.

“Mike and I had some really good talks over the summer,” said Warsofsky. “I know that Charlotte has been a great place to play, they had a good team last year and we’re going to have a good team this year with some young kids who are hungry to get to the next level. Mike and I have great chemistry and I’m excited to work with a guy who has a ton of experience. I can learn from him and learn from the players and hopefully add a piece to help these players get to the next level.”

As far as his on-the-ice expertise, Vellucci has been quick to champion Warsofsky’s dominant special teams during his tenure with the Stingrays.

“He’s had the best penalty kill in the league,” said Vellucci. “That’s something that we talked about and want to improve on, so he’s going to take that over this year.”

“We want to be aggressive,” said Warsofsky of his PK strategy. “If you watched our teams in South Carolina, we were aggressive on the PK and we had great success. It’s a pride thing. You have to have pride in your work and do the little things, have good stick details, block shots, stuff like that. It’s a game-changer if you can kill off a penalty and get momentum out of that, it helps your hockey club. That’s our mindset and we’ll work on that every day until it’s perfect.”

The 30-year-old Warsofsky hopes to make an impact on his new team off the ice as well, combining with the current staff to elevate the players in the room.

“I’m not much older than some of these guys and I can relate to them, the way they were brought up, the way they’re feeling on the ice and off the ice,” he said. “Which guys need to be pushed, which guys need to be reeled back a bit. I think the biggest thing for me is you have to care about the person first and then you’ll get the most out of the players. Mike believes that same thing.”
Nicholas Niedzielski
Author: Nicholas NiedzielskiEmail: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.
Director of Communications Nicholas Niedzielski joined the Checkers in the summer of 2014. A Texas native, he previously worked for the AHL's Texas Stars.