Their roster may be changing daily, but their mentality has not.
The Checkers’ aggressive, up-tempo style introduced to mirror Carolina Hurricanes coach Kirk Muller’s new system prior to this season worked beautifully when the team had a stable of elite, puck-moving defensemen and dangerous forwards to finish chances in transition.
With many of those players either in the NHL or sitting out due to injury, the overall level of skill isn’t quite what the same as when the lockout was still in effect, but the Checkers are having success with the same approach.
“We’ve stuck with it,” said coach Jeff Daniels, whose team is 13-8-0 since players first began to depart for Carolina’s training camp on mid-January. “No matter who’s here, we play our best when we play with speed and get pucks deep.”
That’s made it easy to resist the temptation to make more defensive-minded tweaks in the absence of raw firepower. Not that Daniels, whose ultimate goal is to develop players capable of fitting seamlessly into the Hurricanes’ lineup, would have done so anyway.
“We want to keep the same message when guys go up top to make that transition as easy as possible,” he said. “They should be able to go out and play and not have to worry about anything.”
For all the changes at forward (six of the current 13 started the season in the ECHL) and in goal (two of two), the relative consistency on defense has help keep things stable, according to Daniels. Aside from newcomer Bobby Raymond, who earned an AHL contract in short order after coming up from the Florida Everblades, the remaining five blueliners on the current roster have been around since opening night.
“We miss Faulk and Sanguinetti, but we still have some guys that can move the puck,” said Daniels, citing Marc-Andre Gragnani, Michal Jordan and Raymond. “They may not have the same amount of points but they can still make a good first pass.”
The biggest variable the team faces now is simply bringing the right amount of vigor each game. That may not have been present in Monday’s 4-2 loss to Oklahoma City, but it returned two days later in Norfolk and resulted in a 3-2 overtime victory.
“We played with a lot more energy and a lot more drive,” said Daniels.
More observations from this week:
GRAGNANI FUELS POWER PLAY
Given the roster turnover, one might have expected the power play to be one of the first areas to suffer. As it turns out, it’s not only kept the pace, it’s actually improved.
Over the course of their last nine games, the Checkers are 15-for-44 (34.1 percent) on the man advantage. They’re now tied with Oklahoma City for first in the AHL at an even 22 percent, a territory they haven’t occupied since the roster was at its strongest in October.
Along with Terry, one of the constants all season has been Gragnani, who made a great pass to find Jeremy Welsh for one power-play goal in Norfolk before scoring the man-advantage winner himself in overtime.
“Without a doubt he’s one of the top guys we’ve had down here,” said Daniels of the AHL’s top defenseman from two seasons ago. “He’s such a good passer, he’s so patient, he doesn’t panic and he’s a step ahead in seeing things that others don’t see.”
That Gragnani is tied for the AHL lead with 18 power-play assists is nothing short of remarkable given that he has missed 21 games due to injury and illness. A true power-play quarterback who seemingly runs the point by himself at times, he has scored 21 of his 27 points this season on the man-advantage.
As proof of his impact, the Checkers are a full 10 percentage points better on the power play with him in the lineup (25.5 percent) than without him (15.2 percent).
“He’s a special, special player to have back there,” said Daniels.
After Wednesday’s three-point outing, Gragnani has 11 points (2g, 9a) in his last nine games.
MUSE TAKES OVER
In a split second, John Muse went from seldom-used backup to everyday starter. It would be a shock to the system if the same thing hadn’t occurred last season.
Since Cam Ward’s injury in Carolina caused the subsequent departure of Checkers All-Star Justin Peters, Muse is the team’s starter once again, with fellow ECHL recall Rob Madore rounding out the team’s new tandem. A little over a year ago, it was injuries to Carolina’s Brian Boucher and Charlotte’s Mike Murphy that thrust him into the spotlight, with Peters filling in for the Canes.
Notoriously even-keeled both in his everyday personality and in goal, Muse dealt with both situations in stride.
“Even as a backup you have to be ready because you never know what can happen in a game,” he said. “The way this has played out is just the same thing on a bigger scale.”
Muse went 10-3-2 with a 1.81 goals-against average and .941 save percentage as a rookie last season, most of which came when he started 13 of a possible 15 games between Jan. 20 and Feb. 25. Prior to that he had sat idle for long stretches, as was the case from when he joined the team in mid-January of this season up until Ward’s injury last week.
“The way the schedule set up in February we just didn’t have the chance to get him in games, but now I expect him to be able to get in a rhythm and get strong as we go along,” said Daniels.
“I hadn’t played much since I’ve been here, but I’ve been working hard in practices,” said Muse. “I definitely feel I’m prepared and I’m confident in myself to play as well as I know I can.”
Muse had a bit of a shaky start on Monday, allowing three goals on five first-period shots, but rebounded to stop 19 of the next 20. He appeared to be back to his old self two days later, making 31 saves to beat Norfolk.
Though the Checkers don’t have back-to-back games until the very end of the month and have only one-three-in-three remaining from April 11-13, they may still have to rely heavily on Muse going forward during a packed month of March.
It’s a challenge he’s more than ready to face.
“It’s good and exciting to play a lot of games in a row,” he said. “Hopefully you get into that groove and go from there.”
MARSHALL RETURNS FOR THE FIRST TIME
When Charlotte signed former ECHL Checker David Marshall to a tryout contract on Wednesday, it was because they were familiar with him, though not in the way one might expect.
Daniels, not involved with the Checkers until the AHL era, remembered Marshall from playing against him when he was with the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins in 2010-11 and with San Antonio last season. When it came time to look outside of the organization – there are currently no forwards signed with either Carolina or Charlotte remaining in the ECHL – he went with a name he knew.
“Right now we’re just trying to find enough people to play, but we were looking for someone who can score,” said Daniels, who was tasked with replacing the injured Justin Shugg in his lineup. “He can obviously do it at the ECHL level, and it’s just a matter of him having that confidence to do it here.”
Marshall, 27, had 50 points (18g, 32a) in 55 games with ECHL Reading at the time of his latest trip to the AHL. He slotted right in on the top line with Chris Terry and Luke Pither and even recorded a first-period assist on Terry’s goal in Norfolk.
As is sometimes the case when Checkers players go to Carolina, Marshall and others now that coming up from the ECHL isn’t necessarily a guarantee of heavy playing time. In that regard, he was pleasantly surprised to find himself on the top line.
“It was a little bit shocking to walk in and see your number up there, but it was definitely a great opportunity,” he said.
It was a solid debut, one that nearly didn’t happen due to adverse weather up north. On the way to Philadelphia to catch a direct flight to Norfolk, Marshall learned that his initial flight had been canceled. The next one brought him to his Norfolk hotel at 4 p.m. – three hours before game time.
“I didn’t even have time to check in,” he said. “I just left my stuff in the lobby.
“My legs didn’t feel so great after the first period, but those things happen.”
Marshall, who scored 34 points in 55 games for the Checkers in 2009-10, became the sixth player to play for the team in both leagues. Current teammate David Rutherford is another, though the two did not play for the team at the same time. Still, he does know a few members of the remaining off-ice staff.
“It’s weird to come back and see some familiar faces,” he said. “I’ve gotten to come back a few times with other teams, but to actually put that sweater on again in a different league is definitely pretty cool.”