During the season, Checkers broadcaster Jason Shaya checks in each week with his 10 Thoughts - a series of observations about the team and the hockey world in general.
1. Two years ago, Charlotte made the playoffs but I realized that even if they won in the first round, no team in the league was beating Grand Rapids – who would go on to win it all. Last season, I said the same thing in the second round with a potential matchup against the Marlies – they also won it all. This season, there is no unflappable team like those mentioned above standing in the path of Charlotte. If the Checkers can make it out of the first round – which is tricky with a best of five series – they have the best chance in team history to go all the way. Having said that, while there are no juggernaut-type teams, there are no easy opponents either. Anyone could come out of the Atlantic Division and it wouldn't be a surprise. It's going to be a fight to the very end.
2. With Charlotte sitting at a winning percentage of .697, it's not hard to imagine finishing above .700. That would be the best mark in AHL team history. I doubt many could've imagined that before the season started.
3. Janne Kuokkanen continues to sit out due to an injury that caused him to miss the AHL All-Star Game. As of now, there is no timetable for his return.
4. Former Charlotte Checkers captain Brett Sutter played his 800th game Tuesday night for the Ontario Reign. With the playoffs coming up, I remember how crucial he was to our run to the Conference Finals in 2011. Players like Brett are how you win not just playoff games, but series. He helped put the team on his back and we were better for it. What else but exceptional leadership and hockey sense can you expect from a Sutter? Brett will always be highly regarded in this town. Congratulations to Brett and let’s hope we see him on the trail again soon.
5. Right before longtime Hurricanes TV commentator Tripp Tracy did his pre-game bench interview in Colorado on Tuesday night, Jordan Martinook sent a hefty snow shower towards Tripp, who laughed it off immediately. I asked Tripp the next day if something like that bothered him. His response was in typical Tripp style, "Gotta have fun and not take ourselves seriously." Tripp is a happy warrior and always in a great mood on every occasion I've worked with him. He went on to tell me guys like Martinook have completely changed the Canes identity and the results are evident on the ice every night.
6. The games on Friday and Saturday are against the team closest to the Checkers in the standings. The point differential is only four at this moment. These games could be a preview of the Eastern Conference Finals. The Checkers beat Rochester twice at the very beginning of the season but October was a lifetime ago.
7. The Checkers player who received the most praise from head coach Mike Vellucci this past weekend was Morgan Geekie. With nine points (1g, 8a) in his last nine games, he is also +8 in that time. Geekie continues to impress the coaching staff. I think the one thing that gets overlooked is his vision and playmaking ability. For instance, his setup of Nick Schilkey's first goal on Sunday afternoon was remarkable.
8. There are scouts at every single AHL game and one of the reasons they are there is to assess the league's talent. Well, I hope these teams are taking a close look at Schilkey. No player has done more to earn an NHL contract next season than him. He has 12 points (6g, 6a) in his last 10 games and is one of the best stories of the year. I talked to Charlotte’s Sr. VP of Hockey Ops Derek Wilkinson about Nick and he told me that with a summer of training he can prepare himself to play in the NHL. But, like everyone in life, you just need an opportunity.
9. In an interview with Vellucci this past weekend, he said he's happy with the performance of his team but still feels that there is more in the tank. No matter how locked into a playoff spot they are, if they don't play to their potential, the outcome won't be favorable. There are still players on this squad – in particular some forwards – who aren't where they were earlier this season and need to figure things out.
10. I'll take this final thought to wish a very good friend of mine the best of luck as he moves from Charlotte to Philadelphia for a new job. Adam Solomon, born exactly 10 years after me in the city of Detroit, became a chemical engineer after leaving MSU. He is amongst the most brilliant people I've met in my life. Adam, a hockey player, quickly became my top defenseman and we went on to form a beer-league dynasty whose dominance will never be matched again. He also helped create part of an elite group of players known as Team Rebound – imagine if the Navy Seals were hockey players. Adam is one of the few skaters who could finish a game with seven points and still end up -5 on the scoresheet. All joking aside, I can write without hesitation that I won't handle his departure well. I have no idea what I am supposed to do on Sundays now. Goodbye and good luck to Adam and his beautiful wife Mia.