The Checkers are one of the AHL’s top teams, and for all their improvements this season, the offense is front and center.
Through 16 games, the Checkers scored more goals than any other team (50) and rank third in goals per game (3.63). It’s not as if one or two blowouts are skewing the numbers, either. They’ve scored fewer than three goals in just three games, and have scored four or more 11 times.
That’s translated into a lot of goal horns (in the rare event that they’re playing at Time Warner Cable Arena), and, more importantly, wins. It’s also quite a turnaround for a team that often struggled to find the back of the net last season, finishing slightly below the league average with 2.75 goals per outing, which never quite made sense given the players on the roster.
“I don’t think the guys we have up front are getting more chances than they did last year,” said coach Jeff Daniels, referring to a returning cast that includes Bowman, Boychuk, Zac Dalpe and Chris Terry, all of whom have already broken the double-digit mark in points and are well ahead of last season’s pace. “They’re just making them count.”
All of the aforementioned players are close to a point-per-game pace coming off disappointing seasons that contributed to the team’s narrow playoff miss in 2011-12. Bowman and Boychuk are part of a four-way tie for first in AHL goal scoring with 10 apiece, with Boychuk ranking tied for 10th in overall scoring with 15 points.
“We have a lot of guys that can shoot - I think just about everyone on this team has a bomb of a wrist shot – but we did last year too,” said Dalpe. “If you look at our goals this year, none of them are that cute. Getting pucks at the net is always the best way to score. Sometimes you get away from that, but we’ve been doing a good job of that this year.”
Amidst those apparent rebounds, new additions can’t be counted out. Defenseman Justin Faulk, still just 20 years old, only needed 12 games of AHL experience before graduating to the NHL full-time last season. All he did once he got there was lead the Carolina Hurricanes in ice time and make the league’s All-Rookie Team. Now that the NHL’s work stoppage has him back in the AHL, he’s showing everyone why he left in the first place, scoring 15 points in 13 games with a plus-7 rating.
“For him to come down here and play the way he’s played is sort of what we expected, but it shows you the character he has to go along with that talent,” said Ron Francis, the Hurricanes’ vice president of hockey operations. “This kid is a special defenseman. “
Faulk’s return is big enough on its own. Adding Marc-Andre Gragnani, named the AHL’s best defenseman two seasons ago before spending all of last season in the NHL, to the mix to further lighten the load of Bobby Sanguinetti gives the team three elite puck-moving defensemen.
Even though all three of them have missed at least one game this season for one reason or another, they’ve made the Checkers the only team in the league to have three defensemen with at least nine points each. Many teams – 14, to be exact – don’t have a single defenseman with nine points.
When asked about the turnaround his offense has undergone this season, the addition of skilled players to his defense was the first thing Daniels mentioned. In addition to helping the team score a league-leading 19 goals on the power play, which has converted on 26.4 percent of its opportunities, those three have been helping in all situations.
“We’re fortunate to have those guys,” said Daniels, following the team’s 4-1 win over Chicago earlier this month. “If our forwards are open, they’ll find them.”
Ask the players, any many will point to the team’s new style of play, which was designed to roughly mirror the one of Hurricanes’ coach Kirk Muller used in Raleigh last season. Muller is approaching his one-year anniversary in charge after taking over for Paul Maurice last season.
While most Checkers got the chance to learn that new system at this year’s training camp, Faulk had to learn it on the fly with the rest of his Hurricanes teammates in the middle of last season.
“It’s quite a bit different,” said Faulk. “It’s a little more up-tempo and it gives guys a chance to use their legs, and I think that’s really helped us when you look at the guys we have up front that can really skate. It’s not the same (as Carolina’s) to the tee because that’s always going to be hard to do with different coaches, but they’re pretty similar. Jeff’s doing a really good job of implementing it here.”
“I think the guys like it,” said Daniels. “We’re skating more and have created some goals off turnovers that way.”
With a handful of players on pace for career years, there’s naturally a lot to like. As long as they’re producing offense as part of their overall game plan, which they’ve done remarkably well for most of this season, they should be in good shape in terms of their wins and losses and their prospects of eventually moving up in the ranks once the NHL reopens for business.
After all, all eyes are on them.
“The numbers are nice, but I find that if you’re doing all the little things right those will come anyway,” said Francis.