It seems obvious, but it’s a statement that didn’t always ring true last season: the Checkers’ best players have been their best players.
Five games into the season, the top of team’s scoring chart reads pretty much like one would expect it to (minus the presence of Justin Faulk, who didn’t necessarily plan on being here, but that’s another story). After struggling through inconsistencies throughout last season, the likes of Drayson Bowman, Zach Boychuk and Zac Dalpe, now going on their fifth or sixth seasons as top Hurricanes prospects, have come out of the gate with guns blazing.
For their coach, that’s been a welcome development that has the team off to its best start (3-1-1) in three years in Charlotte.
“It’s the character of the guys,” said Jeff Daniels. “They want to help the team and help their careers.”
All three of the above-mentioned players are averaging near a point per game in the early going, with Boychuk leading the way with six, putting him into a tie for 16th in AHL scoring and just three off the league lead. Only two players have more goals than Bowman’s four, all of which came during a three-game stretch last weekend, while none have more than his three power-play markers. Since shaking off a nasty bout of food poisoning that cost him the team’s first game, Dalpe has five points in his last three games to tie Faulk for second on the team.
Though the results have been the same, each player has his own unique set of circumstances. The resurgence of Boychuk, who led the team with 65 points two seasons ago but fell to 44 last season, could partially be due to his approach.
“He’s a lot more focused and businesslike,” said Daniels. “He’s been really skating, moving his feet and is a lot more consistent. He’s getting a lot of quality chances, and right now he’s finishing them.”
“Having my entry-level contract expire over the summer kind of changes your mindset,” said Boychuk, who recently inked a new one-year deal with Carolina. “That makes you realize that it’s more of a business, not just a game.”
Boychuk, who has points in all but one game this season (a game in which he tied his career high with eight shots on goal), has also been effective on the power play, where he’s scored four of his six points.
“The power play has really been clicking,” said Boychuk of a group that ranks sixth in the league with a 28 percent conversion rate. “A lot of us have been together for a couple of years now. I’ve played with (Chris) Terry a lot and now with (Bobby Sanguinetti) running the point, we’ve really got some chemistry. It’s fun to play with this group.”
Bowman entered the season arguably the closest to the NHL of the three, having scored 13 points in 37 games with Carolina last season. He was also the only player that the Hurricanes chose to protect from waivers in September, indicating a perceived threat of interest from other teams and a fear of losing him for nothing.
So far, he’s making that move look wise.
“He wants to prove that he belongs in the NHL, and he’s been real solid for us on both sides of the puck,” said Daniels. “He scored some goals getting into the dirty areas but he also scored by just using his shot.”
And then there’s Dalpe, who’s getting accustomed to playing a new position. Having only played the wing in quick spurts away from his natural position at center, the organization is planning to use him on the right side full time this season. After going scoreless in his season debut, one day after being violently ill (“It was terrible,” he said. “I couldn’t even eat soup.”), he’s proven to be more than effective in that role.
“As games go by I’m getting a lot more comfortable and a lot more involved, and I’m enjoying it,” he said.
“He looks more comfortable every game, getting to the puck more often and making plays,” agreed Daniels. “It’s an adjustment, but to his credit he never complained and did everything we asked him to. He should only get better and better.”
To be sure, it’s not the first fast start that either player has experienced, but this one could come with added benefits. Much as they haven’t yet experienced the disappointment of not making the Hurricanes out of camp, there’s a good chance that, with their momentum and conditioning, they could be better prepared for a shortened NHL season than many of their locked-out colleagues.
“It would definitely help just because we’ve been skating hard down here for a while and have those games under our belts,” said Bowman. “I think I’m ready, and if the season started tomorrow, having that confidence would be the biggest thing.”
Until that happens, they’re doing what they have to do under the watchful eye of the Hurricanes’ brass, which is fixed firmly in their direction for the time being.
“They’re out to make a statement,” said Daniels.