As abruptly as the NHL lockout ended, sweeping changes at the AHL level will be quick to follow.
Hours after an agreement was reached between the league and the players association around 5 a.m. Sunday, reports began to surface that training camps would start in a matter of days. Several more now indicate that won’t happen any earlier than this weekend, with games projected to start somewhere around the 19th.
It remains to be seen how many Checkers will be invited to a shortened camp in a shortened season, as teams won’t have much time to prepare. Even if it’s only a small group, Charlotte will certainly be without key contributors for at least a short while, including some missed games. That won’t be ideal, but it’s a problem that will be felt around the league. With Oklahoma City and Houston on the schedule for this weekend, the Checkers will benefit from NHL camps as much as they’ll suffer.
The Checkers have just one player who is a lock to leave for the NHL full-time – defenseman Justin Faulk, who has more than likely played his last game in a Checkers uniform. They’ll almost certainly lose more, though the exact number and exact players will depend on who’s performed well this AHL season, who performs well at camp and at what rate the Canes’ NHL veterans are able to shake off the rust.
A look at potential camp battles and roster losses that could start this week:
There’s no question that Cam Ward is the No. 1 goalie in Carolina. However, his backup job is completely up for grabs.
Incumbent Brian Boucher is coming off an injury-filled season and is thought to have only recently recovered from another ailment suffered during the offseason. He should be in the mix to keep his job, but it’s perhaps more likely that one of the Checkers’ Dan Ellis or Justin Peters, who have both played very well this season, will have the upper hand.
Ellis, 32, is the more experienced of the two and filled a similar role as recently as last season when he played behind Jonas Hiller with the Anaheim Ducks. In his first AHL games in several years, Ellis, who is under a tryout contract with the Checkers, is 8-7-2 with a 2.46 goals-against average and .922 save percentage.
Peters, 26, had the job just two seasons ago, though he played sparingly behind Ward. He’s played perhaps his best hockey in the last month to improve his numbers to 12-6-1 with 2.44 goals-against average and .911 save percentage. It may or may not matter in terms of what happens now, but the organization does have a longer commitment to Peters, who has a one-way NHL contract for next season.
With Ellis in no way bound to the Hurricanes organization, it’s important to note that he’s free to sign with whatever NHL team might be interested in his services, making it entirely possible that he won’t return to Charlotte even if things don’t work out in Carolina.
The Checkers have a readymade replacement in John Muse, who performed admirably for the team last season. Muse, who signed an NHL deal with Carolina over the summer, has spent the entirety of this season with the ECHL’s Florida Everblades, who he led to a championship last season. Muse is 9-7-4 with a 3.64 goals-against average and .887 save percentage this season.
It’s also not out of the question that Boucher could play some games in Charlotte if Ellis and/or Peters prove to be more prepared for the NHL season. Boucher, 36, has only played three competitive games since his injury trouble began in December of 2011.
A handful of Checkers would’ve had a chance to fill a scoring role for the Hurricanes regardless, but veteran Carolina forward Tuomo Ruutu’s recent season-ending surgery has made at least one clear opening.
Top candidates are the usual suspects who have made frequent trips to Carolina over the last few seasons – Drayson Bowman, Zach Boychuk and Zac Dalpe. Based on an extended NHL stint last season, Bowman started the season in the lead and has done nothing to lower his stock, having, at one point, scored goals in eight consecutive games (that is still the longest streak posted by any player in the AHL this season).
However, the other two have enjoyed good starts as well, particularly Boychuk, who has greatly increased his consistency from last season. He leads the Checkers in scoring with 31 points (15g, 16a) in 36 games and has been among the league leaders in goals, points, power-play goals, game-winning goals and shots on goal all season.
Meanwhile, Dalpe has done himself a favor with a good adjustment to playing the wing full-time. His scoring has not been as consistent as Boychuk’s (23 points in 35 games), but he’s done enough to improve his all-around game – a necessity to play at the next level – that he will still be very much in the conversation.
Candidates to replace whoever goes to Carolina include A.J. Jenks and Brody Sutter, who are currently playing under the NHL deals in Florida. Justin Shugg, Justin Soryal and Jared Staal, already with the Checkers, would see increased roles as well.
If the Hurricanes need a physical presence on their fourth line, Brett Sutter and Tim Wallace could be in line for a promotion.
Sutter, the Checkers’ captain, played 15 games for the Hurricanes last season and has some familiarity with the organization. He’s also added an offensive touch to his game at the AHL level this season, scoring 10 goals, putting him just three away from his single-season career high. His ability to play either at center or on the wing will help his cause, as will an improved skating stride that came as the result of work recommended by the Hurricanes after last season.
Wallace, 28, has more NHL experience, having played most of last season with the New York Islanders and Tampa Bay Lightning. He hasn’t scored as much for the Checkers this season as he has for other AHL clubs in the past, but he, like Sutter, has provided physical presence and leadership. He also brings versatility, as he’s able to play on either wing.
Nicolas Blanchard, who was on the verge of making his NHL debut before suffering an injury late last season, could also be in this mix. However, more bad timing may prevent that from happening, as the forward has missed most of the team's last four games.
It’s possible this spot will be filled by an NHL veteran along the lines of Jussi Jokinen, but there could also be a few options in Charlotte should they prefer to keep the versatile Finn in a top-six role.
Dalpe would be among that group, as the Hurricanes have spoken of the possibility of moving him back to his natural position should the opportunity arise. However, if they are committed to using him on the wing, other names rise to the forefront.
Jeremy Welsh seemed to be the leading candidate for the job prior to the season and could again merit consideration. However, he hasn’t adjusted to the professional game in Charlotte quite as quickly as the Hurricanes may have expected, meaning he may need more seasoning before he plays next season in the NHL under his one-way contract. Welsh has improved as the season progressed, scoring 12 points in 36 games.
Riley Nash is another option, as the team was happy with his all-around game before he suffered a concussion midway through last season. Nash, who has 18 points for the Checkers, including a three-point performance on Friday, played his first five NHL games with Carolina last season, recording one assist.
With Faulk guaranteed to go up, five NHL veterans coming back and top junior prospect Ryan Murphy likely head to camp, this will be the hardest position to crack, though a few players hope to force the Hurricanes into making a difficult decision.
Bobby Sanguinetti, who made his Hurricanes debut in the midst of a 44-points-in-44-games finish to last season with the Checkers, leads that group. He hasn’t scored at the same pace this season – partially because the additions of Faulk and Marc-Andre Gragnani have lightened the offensive burden placed entirely on his shoulders last season – but has made the necessary improvements to his all-around game. No longer just an offensive defenseman, Sanguinetti has shown the ability to be responsible in his own end, which would help him crack the NHL lineup in a depth role.
Gragnani, like Wallace at forward, has the edge in experience. The AHL’s defenseman of the year two seasons ago spent all of last season in the NHL with Buffalo and Vancouver and certainly has the skill to go back, though he has been limited by injury this season. He has missed each of the Checkers’ last seven games and may not be healthy enough to attend camp.
Even if one of those players isn't able to crack the Hurricanes' top six, the NHL club will want to have an extra player or two around just in case.