The Checkers begin their third season in the American Hockey League with tonight's match-up against the Houston Aeros, one of their new rivals in the new South Division.
The game marks the start of Charlotte's nine-game road swing that ties a team record set last season. The first leg starts tonight and concludes with a Saturday night date against the Texas Stars.
Tonight's game is the first of eight between the Checkers and Houston, with the Aeros next heading to Charlotte for back-to-back meetings on Dec. 14 and 15. The squads met four times last season, with Houston winning the series with a record of 3-0-1.
Like many other AHL teams, the Checkers boast an unprecedented amount of depth due to the NHL's work stoppage. Forwards Tim Wallace, defensemen Justin Faulk and Marc-Andre Gragnani and goalie Dan Ellis all spent most, if not all, of last season in the NHL, while others, such as rookie Jeremy Welsh, didn't get the chance to compete for jobs with Carolina as expected.
"Right away you look at our defense and see a few guys that are pretty offensive," said coach Jeff Daniels when asked to identify changes that occurred during the offseason. "Last year a lot of that fell on (Bobby Sanguinetti) and Chris Terry on the power play.
"Up front we're bigger and we have more grit with guys like Tim Wallace and Jeremy Welsh who can make things happen down low. We do have a lot of familiar faces, but we also have a few new guys that give us a good mix."
Speaking of those familiar faces, nearly all of the team's key players from last season return by default. Headlining that group are forwards Drayson Bowman, Zach Boychuk, Riley Nash, Jerome Samson and Terry, Sanguinetti on defense and goalie Justin Peters. The leadership group also remains intact, with captain Brett Sutter and alternate captain Nicolas Blanchard each returning for their sixth professional seasons.
Those returning players are still motivated by the disappointing finish to last season, which saw tonight's opponent edge them out by one point for the final playoff spot in the Western Conference at the last possible minute.
"There a lot of guys that, I don't want to say had off years, but we didn't have success as a team," said Sutter. "We were so disappointed in the way we finished, but this year we really feel like we can be a top tier team."
In addition to a handful of new players, the Checkers will also be employing a new system designed by Carolina coach Kirk Muller.
"With our systems change happening we'll be a lot more aggressive and be more of a puck-possession team," said Daniels.
"We're going to try to be a more aggressive team in all three zones and try to push the pace," said Sutter. "It's an adjustment, and in the preseason games we were really just scratching the surface. This week I feel like we've found our way and we'll be ready this weekend."
The Checkers are expected to use both Peters and Ellis this weekend, though they have not announced who will play which game. Due to the size of the team's roster, four players will be healthy scratches on Saturday â€“ three at forward and one on defense.
Along with Charlotte, which could potentially add NHL All-Star Jeff Skinner at any time, Houston is one of the AHL teams that benefited most greatly from their parent clubs' work stoppage.
Mikael Granlund, a forward chosen two spots behind Skinner in the 2010 draft, would likely be with the parent Minnesota Wild after spending the previous two seasons in Finland's top division. All he did in his most recent preseason game was score five points, including four goals. The other two tallies in the team's 6-2 win over Oklahoma City belonged to Charlie Coyle, the 28th overall pick in that same draft.
The Aeros also boast two first-round picks from the 2011 draft in forward Zack Phillips (28th overall) and defenseman Jonas Brodin (10th), who are set to begin their first pro seasons in North America. Additionally, the team has three players , forwards Brett Bulmer, Johan Larsson and Jason Zucker, who were second-rounders in 2010. Bulmer and Zucker have already played a handful of games at the NHL level with the Wild after completing their junior and college seasons this past spring.
Houston will complement the additions of those top rookies with the return of six of their top eight scorers from last season, including Justin Fontaine, Chay Genoway and Chad Rau. Additionally, veteran Brian Connelly, who ranked second among all AHL defenseman in scoring last season, joined the team as a free agent this summer. Though still young themselves, Steven Kampfer and Marco Scandella add NHL experience to the Aeros' blue line, which also features 2008 first-round pick Tyler Cuma.
In goal, Matt Hackett and Darcy Kuemper return from last season's team. Hackett carried the bulk of the load last season, posting a 2.38 goals-against average and .917 save percentage in 44 games. He also did well in his first taste of NHL action, posting near-identical numbers in 12 games with the Wild.
Prior to Granlund's explosion last Saturday, the Aeros were 0-2 in preseason action, including a 7-2 loss to Texas and a 4-0 shutout against the Barons.
Of the 24 players on the Checkers' opening-night roster, five players (forwards Victor Rask, Tim Wallace and Jeremy Welsh, defenseman Marc-Andre Gragnani and goalie Dan Ellis) have yet to make their Checkers debuts. Tonight would be the AHL debut for two of those players (Rask and Welsh), while Gragnani and Ellis have not played in the AHL since March 26, 2011, and May 12, 2007, respectively.
The Checkers have yet to win a regular-season opener in two AHL seasons. They fell 4-2 at Connecticut in their inaugural AHL contest on Oct. 9, 2010, before losing a 6-5 overtime decision in Norfolk on Oct. 7, 2011. Tonight marks the third consecutive season that the Checkers will play their first game of the season on the road.
Beginning with games this weekend in Houston and Texas, each of the Checkers' first four games will mark the home openers for the opposing team. That continues next week, when Charlotte visits Milwaukee (Friday) and Rockford (Saturday). The Checkers' home opener on Nov. 4 is the latest of any AHL team, with the next-latest coming two weeks earlier on Oct. 20 when Hershey, Wilkes-Barre/Scranton and Worcester all play at home for the first time.
The Checkers start the 2012-13 campaign with a nine-game road swing that ties a team record set in October and November of last season. They finished that trip with a record of 5-4-0 en route to a 20-13-5 record for the entire season.
(All streaks date back to last season)
- (D) Bobby Sanguinetti has assists and points in each of his last five games (April 8-15; 1g, 7a)
- (G) Justin Peters has started each of the last four games (April 10-15; 3-1-0)