Eleven games into a grueling 76-game season is probably too early to start drawing steadfast conclusions about a team.
That being said, 10-1-0 and atop the league standings isn’t a bad place to be a month into the season.
The Checkers have roared out of the gates and are in the midst of the best start not just in franchise history, but of any AHL team since 2015-16.
“We’ve had a pretty good start and I think we’ve been gelling pretty quickly,” said alternate captain Trevor Carrick. “Everyone’s on the same page, from goaltending – Ned’s been great – to the D – they’ve been rock solid – and the forwards – they’ve been really good, they’ve had no trouble scoring goals.”
Charlotte saw success down the stretch of last season, going 22-8-1 over the last three months and winning a playoff series for the first time since 2011. The team has been able to keep that momentum rolling into the 2018-19 campaign while also honing in on specific areas of improvement from the offseason.
“We wanted to clean up a couple areas from last year,” said head coach Mike Vellucci. “One was the penalty kill and I think we’re cleaning that up. It didn’t start off that great but now we’re building some momentum and the guys are taking pride in it. [Assistant coach Ryan] Warsofksy has done a good job on it.”
That’s not the only special teams unit thriving for Charlotte, as the team’s power play has once again established itself as one of the league’s best early on.
“We practice it every day, Vellucci is always on us about it,” said Carrick. “He says it’s a privilege to be out there and if we’re not playing well he’s going to change it up. I think hearing that, you want to do well. Everybody’s on the same page. We’ve had some good bounces but I think we’ve been snapping it around pretty well.”
While offense was the Checkers’ bread and butter a season ago, their lockdown defense has been the catalyst behind much of their early success so far. Charlotte has yet to allow more than three goals in any game this season and has the second-ranked defense in the AHL.
“We also wanted to cut down on opponents’ goals and shots from last year and I think we’ve done that too,” said Vellucci. “We’re limiting their chances five-on-five and that’s kept the goals against down low.”
Leading that stifling charge has been Alex Nedeljkovic, who continues to shine between the pipes even with an increased workload.
“Consistency, that’s what I want to see from him,” said Vellucci of his number one netminder. “Playing the same way every night no matter how many games he’s played in a row or back-to-backs or whatever. Our schedule has favored us as far as only playing two every week except for one three-game week, but we’ve got a three-in-three coming up so Boother [Callum Booth] will get an opportunity there. But Ned is our guy, he deserves to play the games. He’s worked for everything he’s gotten and we’ll continue to ride him.”
That’s not to say Charlotte’s offense has been lagging. Far from it, actually. Even without four of their biggest producers from a year ago – Valentin Zykov, Lucas Wallmark, Andrew Miller and Warren Foegele – the Checkers are still boasting a top-10 offense to start the season, utilizing a deep roster of scoring options to replace those missing goals.
“We did rely a lot on that top line last year, but I’ve seen all four of our lines contributing this year,” said Vellucci. “And even defensively, they all play well in their own end so I don’t have to worry about protecting anyone. That’s a big benefit. The other benefit is sharing the ice time. The forwards are getting 16 to 19 minutes on any given night, depending on the special teams situation. Ice time is pretty even so when your shift comes up you can empty the tank and not worry about being overexerted.”
But despite a historically strong start, there’s no denying that the AHL season is a formidable beast, one that will certainly take the Checkers through some ups and downs.
“Things can change so fast in the American League,” said Vellucci. “One day you could lose five players, someone gets called up, someone gets injured. So you just want to play every game and every shift as best you can.”
“Our schedule is pretty [tough], we’ve got a three-in-three coming up here,” said Carrick. “You’ve got to just keep playing your game and not try to think about it. We‘ve got some young guys here and it can be a long season for them so I think it’s our job as some of the older guys who have been through it to keep on them and make sure they’re taking care of their bodies and stuff like that.”
In a league where playoff races are often decided on the season’s last day, racking up 20 points in the standings through the first 11 games can be quite the boost.
“Especially with 13 out of 17 on the road, we wanted to get off to a good start,” said Vellucci. “Every point is important, especially in this conference.”
“It’s been a great start for us confidence-wise,” said Carrick. “Hopefully we can keep it going.”