As they stand 12 games into the season, the Checkers are looking to get back on the right track.
On one hand, they currently sit near the bottom of the division standings with a .500 record. On the other hand, they have played the fewest games in the conference and are coming off a weekend where they took three of four points from a division rival. But while they appear to be trending in the right direction, there are still some questions facing the team – like how to kickstart the offense.
Twelve games into the season, the Checkers rank 18th in the league with an average of 2.83 goals per game. They have scored more than three goals in a game three times but have gone six straight games without breaking that threshold.
“When we’re in the offensive zone we need to know what we’re doing with the puck,” said head coach Ryan Warsofsky. “We don’t want to just throw it around. We have to hold onto it and make solid plays, not those hope plays.”
The man advantage hasn’t helped spark the offense either, as, despite ranking 11th in the AHL overall, Charlotte’s power play has converted just once on its last 11 opportunities.
“This past weekend our power play was below average,” said Warsofsky. “We couldn’t get the possession time and those scoring chances that we should get with the talent we have on both units.”
The coaching staff is shifting their focus toward answering that offensive question, and has spent the week hammering things home at practice.
“Know what all five guys are doing in the offensive zone, that’s been a big focus this week,” said Warsofsky. “You can show those things in video that happened positively and then the things that happened negatively. Just showing the details and keep harping and teaching.”
Given the sea of roster change, it’s no surprise that this year’s version of the Checkers would differ in terms of offensive strategy. Moving into that new mindset is a key step forward for the team.
“We’re not going to get the same output of goals off the rush that we did last year,” said Sergei Samsonov, Carolina’s head of forward development who has spent lots of time in Charlotte early this season. “But I think overall that our guys work hard and we can exploit that in the offensive zone. We have a lot of guys who can win races and beat guys to pucks and create havoc down low.”
That was on full display Saturday when Max McCormick tied the game in the second period by exemplifying that style of play.
“I think the big thing is playing within our structure,” said Warosfsky. “There are some details in our structure that need to get a little better, but the key is getting traffic in front of goaltenders. You saw that on the McCormick goal. He ties a guy up, beats him to the puck and is right there.”
The belief is that converting on those chances can help spark things in other areas as well.
“When you’re not scoring a lot of goals, the best approach is to maybe simplify it a bit,” said Samsonov. “We talked to the group about having a better net-front presence. You’re going to be able to pop in a few dirty goals and once that gets into your game other things will open up.”
That’s not to say the Checkers don’t have their fair share of skill up front. Far from it, in fact, and getting those high-end players going could go a long way toward kickstarting the offense as a whole.
“When a player is struggling they’re usually squeezing their stick and trying to pick that corner,” said Samsonov. “The reality is that if you just take what is available to you, good things will happen. Part of it is staying consistent and being a threat every time you step on the ice. Don’t over-look, don’t over-pass. I think once that’s in their game everything else slows down and other options open up.”
The Checkers will have some outside help offensively heading into this weekend as well.
Former AHL All-Star Casey Bailey, who has 117 points in 206 career AHL games, joined the team via a PTO this week and will jump right into things this weekend in Hershey.
“He’s a guy who has scored a lot of goals in this league, played in the National Hockey League, he can probably help our top six and our power play a little bit,” said Warsofsky. “He’s a goal scorer who we think can make plays and we’ll give him a look this weekend.”
Then there’s Eetu Luostarinen, who returned from his first NHL stint this week and – pending the injury status of some Hurricanes – will look to return to his strong showings for Charlotte, as he currently holds a share of the team goals lead.
“He boosts us down the middle and deepens us up front,” said Warsofsky. “I thought [Steven] Lorentz did a really good job stepping in for him, but Luostarinen is a guy who has come a long way in a short period of time and had a couple really good NHL games. Hopefully he can build off that.”
Warsofsky harped on the need to get the defense involved in the offensive zone, and the team could get a welcome boost there if Fredrik Claesson is able to make his return in Hershey.
“There’s a good chance we see him this weekend,” said Warsofsky of Claesson, who put up four assists in his first six games before missing the last six due to injury. “He’s had a positive couple of days here so hopefully we get him back this weekend.”
With reinforcements coming, some positive momentum in the standings and 12 games worth of chemistry behind them, this weekend could prove to be a pivotal one in terms of the Checkers reigniting their offense.
“It takes a little bit of time to figure out what you have with so many new guys on the team,” said Samsonov. “Now it’s time to put a gameplan in place to get the most out of those guys.