With some big names gone and even more on board, here’s a breakdown of Charlotte’s outlook on the new campaign that begins Saturday in Hartford.
GOALIESIt makes sense to start with what is shaping up to be the Checkers’ biggest strength. The addition of James Reimer as Petr Mrazek’s backup in Carolina has inflated an already staggeringly deep pool of goaltending for the organization, as evidenced by Charlotte’s duo of Alex Nedeljkovic and Anton Forsberg.
Nedeljkovic is coming off a dominant season in which he established himself as the league’s top netminder, while newcomer Forsberg is another former Calder Cup winner who is a proven commodity at this level. Together they give the Checkers’ one of the most intimidating tandems across the league.
“You could say we have two number ones at this level and two guys who probably belong in the NHL,” said head coach Ryan Warsofsky. “That’s a great piece of our team because we know we have guys who can stop the puck and we have full confidence in both guys. We’ll probably rotate to start but we have full confidence in both of them.”
The goaltending depth extends beyond just Charlotte, as Callum Booth and Jeremy Helvig – both of whom are Carolina draft picks on NHL contracts – are manning the crease for the ECHL affiliate in Greenville.
DEFENSEAfter a year in which they boasted the AHL’s second-best goals-against average, the Checkers are again poised to be stingy on defense.
One of the biggest returning pieces among a sea of change on the roster is Roland McKeown, a consistently strong presence over the years who can contribute in a variety of ways.
“Roland McKeown is a guy who has come a long way in the last year,” said Warsofsky. “He kind of put his name back on the map with earning an NHL call up.”
Alongside McKeown on the blue line is a cast with a diverse set of skills.
“Freddy Claesson is going to be a great defensive defenseman and a guy that has been in the NHL and been through all these different situations and can be a leader,” said Warsofsky. “Then [Jake] Bean and [Chase] Priskie are two high-end threats, [Gustav] Forsling is a guy who can move pucks. So we have a little bit of everything.”
Add to that group the offensive prowess of newcomer Kyle Wood, the physicality of Derek Sheppard and fresh starts for Alex Lintuniemi and Cavan Fitzgerald, and Charlotte’s defensive group looks to be a well-rounded group that the team will lean on.
“I’m happy with what we have,” said Warsofsky. “We’re going to continue to work and get better and be a five-man unit on the ice, but our D-corps is definitely a strength of ours.”
FORWARDSThe biggest change between last year and this year can be seen up front. The corps of forwards went through a big turnover this past summer, with several key contributors departing via free agency and trades.
“We’re probably going to have a little different forward group than last year,” said Warsofsky. “We have some depth in that area but I think it’s going to be a little different than last year as far as the scoring throughout the lineup. It will likely be more focused on our top two lines.”
Highlighting that top six are plenty of high-end threats, whether they be incoming scorers like Brian Gibbons and Eetu Luostarinen or returning stars like Janne Kuokkanen, Morgan Geekie and Julien Gauthier.
“Our first two lines are going to look to carry the load offensively,” said Warsofsky. “There’s Geekie, who we’re hoping he takes another step in his development, we’re hoping Goat can finish those grade-A chances, a guy like Dave Gust we think has a really high upside coming over from Bakersfield, Anthony Louis, same thing.”
That’s only half of the equation up front though, as the bottom two lines will go a long way toward establishing Charlotte’s identity. Returners like Clark Bishop and Steven Lorentz have proven more than capable of filling those roles, while the additions of an experienced vet like Max McCormick will help flesh things out, as will the potential upside of a full year of Jacob Pritchard, who looked strong in his time with the team during the playoffs.
“I think we’re going to have a third line that’s really hard to play against,” said Warsofsky. “Hopefully they chip in offensively but that’s a bonus for me. The third and fourth lines will really set the tone for how we play.”