They may not have come as a huge surprise given the depth at this year’s training camp, but that doesn’t mean they were easy.
The Checkers aren’t used to dealing with the headaches caused by this year’s cuts. Just as the NHL’s work stoppage has resulted in increased talent in the AHL for the time being, the same will also be true of lower leagues, with only so many jobs to go around.
This time around, players who would be in the AHL to start any other season and were on track to do so as recently as a month ago, fell victim.
“It’s a trickle-down effect, and it’s unfortunate,” said Checkers coach Jeff Daniels. “You have a guy like (John) Muse who played really well for us last year, and that was a tough one. Then there’s (Justin) Shugg , a skilled guy that can score that also showed us something last year.
“The rest of them are just young guys that need to play, and this is the best thing for their development. When the lockout ends, we’ll want them to be ready to come up and help us.”
On the other side of the situation, a few players left standing after the Checkers trimmed their roster by seven players on Monday are also quite notable. First is goalie Dan Ellis, an NHL veteran who joined camp at the last minute on a tryout contract, and Victor Rask, a young but talented offensive prospect.
Ellis, 32, has won a position on the opening-night roster for the time being. Together with Justin Peters, he’ll form a tandem with experience at both the AHL and NHL levels. However, with no immediate change to his contract status, he’s not feeling a great deal different than he did prior to becoming one of the last two netminders on the roster.
“The first step is to make the team out of camp, but overall nothing’s changed,” said Ellis, who stopped all 20 shots he faced in roughly 30 minutes of exhibition play on Sunday. “It’s still a tryout contract, and those are pretty easy to rip up.”
That will be a new situation for Ellis, who’s had a standard contract ever since leaving the University of Nebraska-Omaha in 2003. While there’s naturally some added pressure, he said that could actually be a good thing.
“There’s no security to it, but it has a weird way of preparing you in a way a regular contract doesn’t,” said Ellis, who was unable to find another NHL team after the Anaheim Ducks allowed him to depart following an injury-riddled season. “It forces you to do all the little things right, and there’s actually a lot of good benefits to it. It makes you be a better athlete, and could be what I need to kick start my career.”
Ellis can at least go through the week knowing he’ll be on a plane headed toward Houston for the regular-season opener this Saturday, which isn’t something Rask can say. The 19-year-old center, who was the youngest player at this year’s camp, knows that, despite making the final 24, he could be headed back to his junior team in Calgary at any time.
“I have no idea what’s going to happen,” said Rask, who scored in the second red-white scrimmage last week and added another in Sunday’s exhibition win over Norfolk. “Since I came here it’s been like that, and it’s just something I have to learn to live with.
“It’s been a good ride so far, and I just have to keep working hard and doing my best.”
Given the depth at this year’s camp, particularly at center, Rask said he didn’t have firm expectations to stick around this long, but has adjusted well with the help of teammates, particularly another young European in defenseman Rasmus Rissanen. Beginning at Sunday’s game and continuing to Tuesday’s practice, he was in what should be a prominent scoring spot between returning veterans Drayson Bowman and Jerome Samson.
“You always have goals and my goal was to make the team,” said Rask. “There are still a lot of guys here, and I’m just going to keep doing my best.”
Daniels said that a decision on Rask and perhaps others would be made in the coming days.
“It’s a free look at him,” said Daniels of the Carolina Hurricanes’ second-round pick in 2011. “There’s no real deadline on when we have to do anything, so we’ll take it day-by-day.”
In the meantime, Daniels said his team will continue to work after what he described as an “OK” performance in Norfolk over the weekend. The team split two games with the Admirals and by all accounts played much better in Sunday’s 4-3 win than in Saturday’s 3-0 loss.
“It’s a process,” said Daniels. “There were some good things and some bad things. We threw a lot at these guys in terms of learning new systems last week, and we’ll spend more time hammering that home and working on power play and penalty kill.”