While AHL teams will gladly accept the services of players like Justin Faulk as long as they’re available, the trickle-down effect of the NHL’s lockout spelled trouble for the league’s existing depth players who suddenly had to worry about losing their spots.
In other words, players like Sean Dolan. Only, that’s not what happened.
The 24-year-old checking center did sit out a few games as part of a rotation earlier in the year, but just as he did last season when he first joined the team on a tryout contract, he earned his spot. It’s not glamorous work on the team’s fourth line, but it’s something, which is more than anyone’s ever promised him over his two-year professional career.
“Not at all,” said Dolan when asked if had any idea what this season would hold. “I was one of the few guys on an AHL deal instead of an NHL deal, and you don’t really know how they think of you or where you’ll end up.”
As it turned out, he ended up in Charlotte, where he spent the second half of last year after arriving as an emergency injury replacement from the ECHL’s South Carolina Stingrays. That tryout turned into an AHL contract to finish the year and another over the summer, but he still had to outlast a few other centers, rookie prospect Victor Rask and teammate A.J. Jenks, now with ECHL Florida, to grab an everyday spot in the lineup.
“He came in last year on a tryout and probably only thought he’d be here for a couple of days, but he really took advantage of an opportunity,” said coach Jeff Daniels. “Training camp was going to dictate what happened this year, but he fills a good role for us, he’s strong down the middle and kills penalties.”
Though the Checkers never ended up getting a forward from last season’s Carolina Hurricanes squad, the NHL’s work stoppage did mean that players like Drayson Bowman, Zach Boychuk and Zac Dalpe would continue to take up roster spots in Charlotte they otherwise might have vacated. The depth of this year’s team could have seemed daunting to a player like Dolan, but he shook off that notion.
“It was sort of exciting to think about the great players that could end up being here and how they would make you better every day you practiced with them,” he said. “That was how I approached it.”
The rest of approach has been the same it always was. Though two of his three goals this season have been of the highlight-reel variety, including his wraparound at Milwaukee on Oct. 19 and his diving finish against Lake Erie on Dec. 7
, he’ll likely never be known for those. It’s his defense that got him to the AHL as an undrafted player following a four-year career at the University of Wisconsin, and it’s his defense that’s kept him there despite increased competition for jobs.
“I want to be a player that’s hard to play against, brings that energy and does all the little things that make a difference,” he said. “I like to put in a goal here and there, but not getting time on the power play is never going to upset me or anything like that.”
Dolan certainly gets plenty of time on special teams, having formed an effective partnership with even-strength linemate Nicolas Blanchard on the penalty kill. Since Dolan’s arrival, the Checkers have consistently been one of the league’s top penalty-killing teams, currently ranking fourth at 87.0 percent.
“He takes pride in it,” said Daniels. “Every time we have a penalty kill he knows he’s going to be out there at some point, and when he knows he’s going up against another team’s top line he also takes pride in shutting them down.”
Even with the lockout having worked against him earlier in the season, he should continue to do that and continue a stay that’s lasted much, much longer than he might have expected when he played his first career AHL game for the Checkers last January.
“You’re here for a couple of days, and then those days turn into weeks and months,” said Dolan. “I’ve said it all along, but the coaches here have given me a great opportunity.”