August 01, 2012 8:08 AM
Checkers fans will recognize many of the names on next season’s team, but there should also be a handful of new ones.
A mixture of proven veterans and first-year players are expected to complement returning stars on the 2012-13 squad, which has the potential to make it a deeper group than last season’s team that narrowly missed the playoffs on the last day of the regular season.
Though they’ll be aiming to start the campaign in the NHL, where they spent the majority of last season, forward Tim Wallace and defenseman Marc-Andre Gragnani highlight the new additions. Each signed two-way contracts with Carolina, making them ready replacements for Chris Durno and Mathieu Roy, who did the same last summer but have since moved on.
Wallace, 27, is a six-year veteran with 73 games of NHL experience. He started last season in the AHL with Bridgeport, where he scored 20 points (9g, 11a) in 24 games before spending the rest of the campaign with the New York Islanders and Tampa Bay Lightning. He found a niche in Tampa, scoring six points in his last 10 games, but nonetheless hit the free agent market.
“He’s a guy that we saw a lot of in Albany and in our first year in Charlotte when he was with Wilkes-Barre,” said Checkers head coach Jeff Daniels, who makes annual recommendations to Hurricanes’ management. “He’s a big, strong guy who can score goals.”
Though Wallace did not face Charlotte last season, he’s had notable games against them in the past. In 2010-11, he scored six goals in seven meetings with the Checkers. He’s also been known to drop the gloves on occasion, as he demonstrated while recording a Gordie Howe Hat Trick (a goal, assist and fight in the same game) while with Bridgeport on Nov. 27.
A similar story could be told about Gragnani, who also made an impression on Daniels (and the rest of the league) when the two faced each other in the AHL’s Eastern Conference. The 25-year-old earned the Eddie Shore Award as the league’s top defenseman after a 2010-11 campaign that saw him record 60 points in 64 games with Portland before going on to lead the Buffalo Sabres in playoff scoring with seven points in seven outings.
Having spent all of last season in the NHL with Buffalo and Vancouver, Gragnani is a serious threat to do so again, although he’ll have to compete with a host of players including the Checkers’ Bobby Sanguinetti. Together, those two are easily the best puck-moving blueliners among a group of players who could play in Charlotte, though Daniels thinks other could fill the void.
“Sanguinetti and Gragnani will both be pushing for jobs in Carolina, but then you’ve got a guy Beau Schmitz who can move the puck even though he’s a first-year player who will still have to learn the pro game,” said Daniels. “We used (Michal) Jordan on the power play toward the end of the last year and he’ll probably have a bigger role, and even (Rasmus) Rissanen could get some power play time.”
Schmitz, a 21-year-old who recently completed his fourth year of junior hockey with Plymouth, will compete with Whalers teammate Austin Levi for a spot on the Checkers’ blue line. Along with returning sophomore Joe Sova, they could provide depth or feature prominently in the top six, depending on what happens with older players when it comes to making the team or having to go through waivers.
A big question mark will be the status of center Victor Rask, whom the Hurricanes chose in the second round (42nd overall) in the 2011 draft. Though he was eligible to play for Charlotte last season, the native of Sweden instead enjoyed a successful first year of junior hockey with the Calgary Hitmen, where he recorded 33 goals and 30 assists in 63 games. He may have joined the Checkers at the end of last season if not for an injury.
Rask may be ready to take the next step to either the NHL or AHL, but his performance at camp – or, just as importantly, the performance of his competition – will dictate his destination. Center is among the deepest positions in the organization, meaning he would need to outperform more experienced players in either league.
“It’s going to be a decision where the team looks at where he is and what kind of ice time he would get and makes whatever decision they feel is best for him,” said Daniels.
The last addition is goalie Rob Madore, who signed an AHL contract with the Checkers. If the season were to start today, the 22-year-old University of Vermont product would provide backup for John Muse in Charlotte.