For coach Jeff Daniels, Tuesday’s shootout drill to end practice was a little more difficult than usual.
As he does once per week, the Checkers coach stood along the wall at one end of the ice opposite his players. He then called them one by one, in numerical order by jersey number, signaling their turn to shoot.
With his team having gone through 19 transactions since the last time he ran the drill, an impromptu mental organization of his new-look team, featuring eight players who started the season with other teams, was always going to be a challenge. All things considered, Daniels handled it quite well.
“I think I have the numbers down pat for the most part,” he said. “Maybe a few second delay here and there.”
With the NHL’s lockout ending and Carolina Hurricanes training camp in full swing, a total of eight players who started the season with Charlotte are unavailable for the time being. The mass exodus that began with Justin Faulk’s departure last week continued with the recalls of six additional players following Friday’s 7-0 win over Oklahoma City and three more once the team returned home from its three-game road trip. The return of Riley Nash and Jeremy Welsh later in the day Tuesday gives them barely enough forwards to field a full lineup.
Despite the roster turmoil, made further chaotic by a handful of preexisting injuries, the Checkers have tied a franchise record with five straight wins, including two in overtime that immediately followed the first major wave of NHL recalls.
“It was good leadership from the veteran guys that we have,” said coach Jeff Daniels. “The guys that came up all gave us some good energy, and just like those we lost that are getting an opportunity up top, those guys have that same opportunity here.”
“I thought the guys that had already been here stepped up huge,” said active scoring leader Terry, who scored the overtime winner on Saturday. “(The new players) are good character guys, and it’s an attest to them and how well they played our system.”
Some other notes from an unprecedented period of roster turnover:
Welsh and Nash immediately bolster the Checkers’ depth down the middle for two games against Grand Rapids on Wednesday and Thursday – arguably their biggest need following the first few waves of NHL recalls.
Welsh was back with the team for Wednesday’s morning skate, while Nash, who played three games in three nights over the weekend before traveling to Raleigh and back, got the morning off but will be in the lineup for the first game against the Griffins.
The few days spent in Carolina’s training camp were the first for Welsh, who signed with Carolina at the conclusion of his college season last April.
“It was a good experience just to be out there with the big guns,” said Welsh. “It’s a confidence boost to know it’s the same game.”
It remains to be seen whether the reassignments to both players last beyond the next few days. Whatever happens, Welsh said that feedback he received upon his reassignment was positive.
“They told me to just to keep improving every day,” said Welsh. “They and I feel like I’ve come a long way since the start of the year, and they just want me to keep going.”
During Tuesday’s intrasquad scrimmage at Hurricanes training camp, Welsh played on a line with former Checkers teammate Tim Wallace and Andreas Nodl. With no preseason games, it was the only chance to play alongside and against established NHL players prior to Saturday’s season opener.
“We (recalls from Charlotte) have kind of an advantage just because we’ve been playing, but at the same time there’s not a lot of time to mix and match rookies into your lineup because every game is going to be so important,” said Welsh.
Scrimmage in Carolina
With the help of goals by Drayson Bowman and Zach Boychuk and the play of Dan Ellis in goal, Team Red earned a 5-2 victory in Tuesday’s scrimmage in Raleigh.
Bowman and Boychuk, still the Checkers’ top two goal scorers, took turns playing the wing on the team’s anticipated first line alongside captain Eric Staal and major offseason signing Alexander Semin. With each NHL veteran also scoring a goal against Cam Ward, it proved to be a dangerous line regardless of which auditioning player was on it.
Zac Dalpe also got a look on a prime scoring line as he played the wing with Jordan Staal and Jeff Skinner. According to reports from those attending practice in Raleigh
, Boychuk and Dalpe remained on lines with the Staal brothers on Wednesday. Bowman was skating with Tim Brent and Patrick Dwyer.
Forward Matthew Pistilli hoped he’d make it back to the AHL after signing an ECHL deal with South Carolina over the summer, but he never expected it would be in Charlotte.
“There are 30 teams in the league, and it’s pretty funny that I’m back with this one,” he said. “It’s pretty rare for a guy to spend two years in an organization and then come back.”
Though no longer affiliated with the Carolina Hurricanes organization, the 24-year-old winger who had played the majority of the last two seasons in Charlotte had only recently been traded to its ECHL affiliate in Florida. When the Checkers needed a handful of players, he was there for the taking.
Unlike his last stint in Charlotte, his professional tryout contract could be terminated at any time, giving him considerably less job security.
“He’s like everyone else that’s come up in that he has to take advantage of that opportunity,” said Daniels. “He’s got pretty good skills for a big guy, but it’s all about getting in on the forecheck and doing all the little things we’d been telling him to do for the last few years.”
“For now I’m just hoping to have some fun and do the best I can,” said Pistilli. “I don’t know how long I’ll be here, so I have to take advantage.”
Pistilli, scoreless in two games with the Checkers last weekend, had 28 points (11g, 17a) in 38 ECHL games at the time of his recall. Beginning with his offseason search for a new team after the Hurricanes decided not to renew his contract, the opportunity to get back to the AHL was a long time coming.
“I won’t lie, this summer was a big disappointment,” he said. “No one ever enjoys getting fired from their job, pretty much. I took it pretty hard for a while, but I got married and that helped take my mind off of it. I got over it, checked my pulse and I was still alive.
“It’s exciting to be back. The way the guys are making fun of me, they must have missed me.”
Center Luke Pither, who the Hurricanes acquired in a trade that sent goalie Brian Boucher to Philadelphia, joined the Checkers for the first time at Tuesday’s practice. The 23-year-old, who spent Monday making the seven-hour drive from his previous team in Wheeling, WV, was expected to play on a line with Pistilli and Justin Shugg on Wednesday.
That game will be his first in the AHL game since suiting up for Adirondack on March 30 of last season. Since then, he was in the ECHL with Wheeling, where he scored 22 points (9g, 13a) in 24 games this season.
“My first two years in Adirondack were a battle being in and out of the lineup, but while I was in Wheeling I feel like I got my game back and got more confident in my shot,” said Pither, who had 30 points in 106 career AHL games. “Now I’m more experienced and have a better idea of what I’m supposed to be doing out there.”
“It’s a fresh start for him,” said Daniels. “Just from seeing him today, he can skate and he’s got a good shot.”
Pither said that he learned of the trade the same way many others did - from Bob McKenzie's twitter feed
- but was happy to hear the news.
"It’s an opportunity for a lot of guys like myself," said Pither, who can be found on twiter himself @LukePither. "With guys being in camp, you get some ice time and get to show what you can do."
Muse Hoping to Stick Around
Though he had not been told anything to that effect as of Tuesday morning, goalie John Muse hopes this stint with the Checkers will be permanent. There’s seemingly nothing in his way, with Dan Ellis having earned the job as Cam Ward’s backup in Carolina.
“It’s exciting to be back, and I’m glad I’m getting the opportunity to play at the next level,” said Muse.
In his first Checkers game of the season, Muse picked up right where he left off, making 25 saves in a 2-1, overtime win over Houston on Sunday. He is now 12-2-3 with a 1.75 goals-against average and .942 save percentage in 17 AHL games played over the last three seasons.
Those games all came due to a tryout or as a fill-in for other goalies who were either injured or recalled to the NHL. His successful stint with the Checkers last season had him in line to be the team’s starter for the current campaign until the lockout brought Ellis and Justin Peters back to the AHL.
“He’s a guy we liked a lot last year and was a big part of our team,” said Daniels. “I’m sure he was disappointed with the way things turned out in camp, but it’s nothing against him.”
“It’s always tough,” said Muse. “Obviously I wanted to be here from the beginning but it didn’t happen. It was pretty upsetting, but I knew I’d get lots of ice time in Florida and would still get a chance to work on my game.”
Daniels said he had not yet decided how to split goaltending duties for the rest of the season. Ellis and Peters had shared starts equally up until last week, but it’s possible that Peters, the more experienced option, will take over as the team’s starter. However, there’s also the chance that Peters could join another team after Carolina placed him on waivers Wednesday.