The Checkers might be done with cuts for the time being, but the competition hasn’t ended.
Just three days before they begin their regular season in Houston on Saturday night, the team still has 24 players on its roster – four more than it will use in game action. With the exception of rookie centers Victor Rask and Jeremy Welsh, every one of those players is an established pro that’s more or less used to being in the lineup every night.
It’s still possible that the Checkers could assign more players to their junior teams or to the ECHL’s Florida Everblades, but that’s a call that might not be made for some time.
“We’ll have some extras because everyone that’s still here has shown they deserve to be here, but it’ll be tough,” said coach Jeff Daniels. “I think everyone is feeling the effects of the (NHL) lockout, and we’ll talk as a team about how we’re going to do what we think gives us the best chance to win.”
With a few practices remaining, Daniels said that he had not decided on which players he’ll use Saturday. Part of that could be by design, as a little internal rivalry, ironically set against the backdrop of Wednesday’s annual team-building event, may not be a bad thing.
“Every day will be a competition,” said Daniels. “Injuries will pop up and guys in the lineup might not play well, so it should help guys stay on their toes.”
With the NHL’s top young players now at the AHL’s disposal, inexperience isn’t necessarily a bad thing. For instance, Rask and Welsh have been practicing on lines with some of the team’s best offensive players this week
, which could perhaps be an indication of where they’ll start Saturday. Meanwhile, Justin Soryal, A.J. Jenks and Jared Staal, who have a combined eight pro seasons between them, appear to have formed a fifth forward line.
If that is indeed an indication of the current hierarchy, each player currently on the outside would have a case to play. Soryal, the team’s penalty minutes leader from last season, brings an element of toughness that the team might otherwise lack, but is that enough to sit a bigger offensive threat? Jenks, one of the most versatile players on the team, can play all three forward positions and showed some scoring ability from the fourth line last season, but could that spot be used for a more established penalty killer? Staal reported to camp in the best shape he’s ever been in as a professional and could be primed to make a step forward, but is that added potential enough?
The defensive situation is a bit murkier, with the current odd number (seven) not lending itself to established practice pairings. That being said, earlier sessions saw three experienced pairings featuring players still on the roster, with fourth-year pro Brett Bellemore skating with rookies who have since moved on to lower leagues.
Tough calls will still need to be made, but that’s a good problem to have. It’s one being faced around the league, particularly in the Checkers’ new home in the South Division, which features some of the league’s deepest teams on paper. Oklahoma City looks set to have the Edmonton Oilers’ top three scorers from last season, while Houston boasts a host of high draft picks who recently moved on from their junior, college or overseas teams.
“There’s not going to be an easy game no matter what division or conference you’re in,” said Daniels. “Oklahoma City is stacked, and we saw them eight times last year and they were already a tough team. Houston is a team with a lot of top prospects that turned pro this year, and Texas and San Antonio have some good young kids as well.
“It’ll be interesting. Every team in the league has two or three guys that will probably be in the NHL once that comes back.”