According to coach Jeff Daniels, the only major pieces of business yet to be done are the addition of a top-six forward and the re-signing of restricted free agent defenseman Rasmus Rissanen, with whom Hurricanes talks are still on-going. Other than that, the current group of two-way players and those on AHL contracts – for the most part a much younger one than in recent years – will closely resemble those available on opening night.
“There’s going to be a lot of new faces and it’ll be sort of a feeling out process,” said Daniels. “This is the AHL, and when you’re an affiliated team there are always cycles where older guys move on and a lot of others turn pro for the first time.”
Already gone from last year’s team are captain Brett Sutter, defensemen Matt Corrente and Mark Flood and goaltender Mike Murphy, who have all signed with other NHL teams or with European clubs. Daniels said that he also expects all of the team’s remaining unrestricted free agents to sign elsewhere, including 27-year-old forward Nicolas Blanchard, who entered the offseason as the longest-tenured member of the Hurricanes organization in terms of draft year behind only Cam Ward, Eric Staal and Justin Peters. Aaron Palushaj, who the Hurricanes did not qualify as a restricted free agent, and AHL signees Philippe Cornet, Sean Dolan and Matt Marquardt are also likely to move on.
There’s also the matter of longtime high scorers Zach Boychuk and Chris Terry possibly making the jump to the NHL – something that seems to be much more likely than in previous years based on the current Hurricanes roster and positive public support for both players from the team’s new management and coaching staff.
“For them, the opportunity is now,” said Daniels. “You’re planning for life without them, so to speak, but every year there’s always injuries or some kind of surprise.”
Where does that leave the Checkers? With voids to fill in top-line positions and leadership, which is where the summer’s already-completed signings and those yet to come will help.
“You look at Suttsy and Blanch moving on and Terry might make the big club, and even guys that didn’t wear a letter last year like Matt Corrente and Mark Flood were respected in that locker room as leaders,” said Daniels. “We wanted to make sure that if we were going to be a young team that we added some older guys with leadership qualities.”
Daniels called Ben Holmstrom, the recent Adirondack Phantoms captain who signed a two-way deal with Carolina on July 4, a player in the “Brett Sutter mold.”
“He’s a good character guy that can chip in goals and get his nose dirty,” he said, adding that Holmstrom will be a candidate for an NHL role.
Kyle Hagel, a 29-year-old projected fourth-liner who joined the Checkers on an AHL contract, also fits the character need.
“He can help us replace what some of Blanchard and Corrente had,” said Daniels of Hagel, who has 635 penalty minutes in 201 career AHL games. “(New Hurricanes coach) Bill Peters spoke very highly of him as a player and as a person from when he coached him in Rockford. He can skate well and get in on the forecheck but also has a history of being there to protect his teammates.”
In goal, Drew MacIntyre, a workhorse for the Toronto Marlies last season, and returnee John Muse should form a formidable tandem – at least to start.
“As we all saw last year, it’s very unpredictable,” said Daniels. “We thought Justin Peters was going to be real good for us last year and then we had him for three or four games. This time we have some experience with MacIntyre and Muse and when you add (rookie Daniel) Altshuller, there’s some depth there. Last year we end up using nine goalies and it has a shakeup on your team.”
The Checkers know what they’re getting in Muse, who became the franchise’s all-time wins leader last season. Their own personal observations and scouting reports also have them excited about what the 31-year-old MacIntyre will bring.
“We saw him a few times last year and he was rock solid,” said Daniels of MacIntyre, who posted a 2.08 goals-against average and .941 save percentage in the 2014 playoffs, taking the eventual Calder Cup champion Texas Stars to seven games in the Western finals. “Just talking to people around the league and coaches who played against him in the playoffs, they said he was really impressive. He’s an experienced guy but he’s also still hungry. As good as he was last year, he’s pushing himself to get to that next level.”
The rest of the roster will be filled in part by returning players looking to take the next step, provided they don’t do that immediately with impressive training camps. Fifth-year defenseman Michal Jordan could be the longest-tenured Checker on the roster, while Victor Rask, Justin Shugg, Brody Sutter, Brendan Woods, Danny Biega and others aim for bigger roles. Equally important to the team’s success will be the contributions of rookies like Brock McGinn and Phil Di Giuseppe up front and Trevor Carrick on defense.
Daniels is currently watching those first-year players at the Hurricanes’ development camp in Raleigh, though he stressed that his scouting will be kept to a minimum.
“You don’t put too much into the evaluation because guys are at different stages for how much they’ve been skating and it’s a long day of off-ice training and physicals before they get on the ice,” he said. “They’re not going to make the team based on what they do this week.”
Daniels is also familiarizing himself with Bill Peters and his new staff, with the two head coaches meeting for the first time earlier this week.
“We’ll use the same system that Carolina uses, so right now I’m just listening and seeing what he needs from me,” said Daniels.
More info on potential Checkers at the development camp will be posted here in the coming days.