Much has been said of the new players in town due to the NHL lockout, but the Checkers’ returning core hopes to make some noise of their own.
Unlike some of their fresh-faced teammates, that particular group is still stinging from last season. Its culmination – missing the playoffs on the last day – is enough to make them feel that way. Add in personal disappointment from a handful of players, and it’s easy to see why the pace at camp has been so high out of the gate.
“It was pretty shocking how it ended,” said forward Zach Boychuk. “To be one of the top two teams all year and then miss the playoffs by one point, it was a bit of a collapse and we’re all still disappointed by it.”
Though he wasn’t alone by any means, Boychuk, Charlotte’s leading scorer two seasons ago, also saw his personal scoring totals dip from the previous season, going from 65 in 60 games to 44 in 64.
“For me, I had a bit of a step back in my development, didn’t get as many games up top and didn’t perform when I was in Charlotte,” he said. “A lot of us are looking to take that hunger and use it to help us going forward.”
After acknowledging those factors faced by his returning stars, coach Jeff Daniels was able to find even more.
“On top of that, you’ve got a new coach (at the NHL level) who doesn’t know all of these guys very well, and I’m sure they’re looking at it as a fresh start,” he said.
Kirk Muller, who took over the Carolina Hurricanes’ top job in November of last season, did get to work briefly with the likes of Boychuk, Zac Dalpe and others from time to time, but not like he would have been able to at this year’s training camp. Though disappointed the NHL’s work stoppage didn’t give them that chance, the current crop of Checkers know that what they do here will be important.
“There’s still hockey here, and he’ll be watching,” said Boychuk.
As will others, should the lockout continue.
“We’d be the only game around,” said Daniels. “Guys will be betting scouted by other teams like they always do, but now coaches and general managers will be watching too.”
Despite not being terribly well-acquainted with the players, it sounds as though Muller would be able to see some familiarities if he does end up watching the Checkers more closely this season. The team has already started implementing his preferred playing style at camp after choosing to delay it upon his hire last season to avoid mid-season confusion at the AHL level.
“The forecheck is more aggressive, and even the neutral zone is more aggressive,” said Boychuk, who has worked with three NHL head coaches since the Hurricanes drafted him in the first round in 2008. “Hopefully that will help the transition when guys get called up.”
For now, that’s not something that players like Boychuk have to concern themselves with, which could relieve some day-to-day angst.
“It’ll definitely help,” said Daniels. “All of the sudden you’re not worrying about why you weren’t called up and another guy was.”
That isn’t to say there won’t be pressure, particularly for players who hoped to be higher in the organizational depth chart than they are right now.
“It’s just different,” said Boychuk. “Even without the NHL, there’s going to be a lot of competition and pressure amongst ourselves.
“After my entry-level contract ended, you learn that it’s not just a game and it is a business. I’m looking to be more businesslike in my approach.”