Though they'll face plenty of new opponents with their switch to the Western Conference, the Checkers open the regular season against a familiar foe in the Norfolk Admirals tonight at 7:30 p.m. The former division rivals clashed 12 times last season, with Charlotte winning the season series with a record of 7-3-0-2. That included a 5-0-0-1 mark at Norfolk, where they will follow up tonight's opener with a rematch on Saturday.
The Checkers and Admirals have eight meetings on the schedule for this season, with the team who holds the head-to-head edge in points at the end of the season taking home the inaugural GEICO Challenge Cup
The Checkers return most of their offensive threats last season, including leading point scorer Zach Boychuk (65 points), leading goal scorer Chris Terry (34 goals) and top point-per-game producer Jerome Samson (54 points in 53 games). Drayson Bowman and Jon Matsumoto, who each spent time with the NHL's Carolina Hurricanes last season, round out the top-scoring returnees.
The biggest departure from last season is center Zac Dalpe, a member of last season's AHL All-Rookie team with 57 points, who has earned a spot on the Hurricanes' opening night roster. Dalpe led the Checkers in scoring against Norfolk last season with 15 points (7g, 8a) in 11 games. The Checkers are counting on Riley Nash, a former first-round pick of the Edmonton Oilers in 2007, to help fill that void after a strong preseason that saw him become the last forward assigned to Charlotte from Carolina.
Chris Durno, Norfolk's captain last season, is set to make his Checkers debut against his old club tonight. Named an alternate captain by Charlotte on Thursday, Durno, 30, scored 10 points (3g, 7a) in the 12-game series against the Checkers last season.
Four of the seven defensemen on the Checkers' roster - Ryan Donald, Justin Krueger, Rasmus Rissanen and Mathieu Roy - are set to make their debuts with the team. The next appearance for Krueger, 25, will be his first in the AHL, while Rissanen, 20, appeared in one game with the Checkers following the conclusion of his junior hockey career last season. Both are classified as AHL rookies heading into the season, even though Krueger has one season of professionaly hockey under his belt, having spent last season in the Swiss elite league.
Notably absent from the Checkers' opening night roster is fellow first-year pro Justin Faulk, who won the NCAA national championship with the University of Minnesota-Duluth last season before joining the Checkers for their playoff run. The Hurricanes' second-round pick in the 2010 draft, Faulk, 19, has made the NHL team out of training camp and will make his debut there Friday night.
To Checkers brought in Roy, also a member of the Admirals last season, to help offset the loss of Faulk - a move that will also provide experience to a young defensive corps. Roy, 28 and entering his ninth pro season is the the second-oldest member of the team after Durno.
In addition to brining back 22-year-old Mike Murphy, who took over the starting role during last season's playoff run, the Checkers have added 25-year-old Justin Peters, who spent all of last season in the NHL with the Hurricanes. The two are expected to share time in net throughout the season, including this weekend, with each scheduled to make one start against the Admirals.
The two goaltenders also formed a tandem with the AHL's Albany River Rats two seaons ago, with Peters earning an AHL All-Star nod that season.