This past season’s version of the Checkers was made up primarily of players on NHL contracts. That group, made up of draft picks and homegrown talent alike, represented a glimpse into the future of what the Carolina Hurricanes have in the pipeline.
But having that NHL deal isn’t the only way to make an impact.
Josiah Didier was a fourth-round selection by Montreal who spent the two years of his NHL entry-level deal with the organization before hitting free agency last summer. The blue liner then inked a two-way AHL contract with the Checkers and joined them for training camp, where he was one of the last players to be sent to the Florida Everblades.
It was a tough break for someone who had spent the majority of his young career up to that point in the AHL.
“Starting in the coast, it’s part of the game,” said Didier. “You never know what’s going to happen. It was a little frustrating at first but I just took it as a chance to prove myself and better my game. Work hard down there and show them that I can make it to this level.”
Didier kicked off his season with five points in his first eight games with Florida before getting his first call to Charlotte, where he would play four games and then return to the ECHL. Didier would skate in the next four contests for the Everblades before an injury and a heavy slate of games forced the Checkers into recalling him once again.
That would prove to be the blue liner’s last trip out of Florida for the season.
“When I got the opportunity I just tried to make the most of it and not let it slip away,” said Didier.
The 25-year-old seemed to quickly win over the coaching staff and become an everyday player, logging 54 games the rest of the way.
“I think it was just the work ethic, the work I put in every day,” said Didier. “I tried to be the hardest worker on the ice and improve my game every day. I think that’s what helped me prove myself this year.”
Didier took on a physical role for Charlotte, something the coaching staff often lauded, and that play meshed well with the free-wheeling offensive firepower of his blue line counterparts.
“I think you need a little bit of everything on a team,” said Didier. “You can’t have all skilled guys, you need to have guys who are physical and hard to play against defensively. If you get a mixture of those kind of guys you get a really strong D corps, which I think we had this year.”
But Didier wasn’t the only AHL-contracted player to push their way onto the Checkers this season.
After a strong senior season at Ohio State, Nick Schilkey inked a deal with the Checkers last summer and then scored himself an invitation to NHL camp. Somewhere along the way the forward made a lasting impression on the staff, as he would remain in the AHL for the entirety of his rookie season.
“I was just trying to learn every day,” he said. “There’s obviously a transition coming from a lower level. It was great to be a part of a team here that was so good. To learn from that and play with these guys every day was great.”
Then there’s Mike Ferrantino. He signed an AHL deal with Charlotte after wrapping up his college career and spent his whole rookie season in the ECHL, impressing for the Florida Everblades. Ferrantino didn’t have a new deal over this past summer, instead coming back to the Checkers’ training camp on a PTO, but that didn’t stop him as he rode the tryout all the way to a full AHL contract a few months later and spent the entirety of his campaign in Charlotte as well.
“It’s about coming in and working hard every day, bringing positive energy,” said Ferrantino. “You’re either giving something or you’re taking something. So I tried to come in and smile around and have some fun.”
Schilkey was less of a consistent presence in the lineup than Didier, but stayed sharp and proved to be dependable when called upon, registering 12 points in 48 contests.
“It’s hard for anyone to be in and out of the lineup but that’s part of being a pro at this level,” he said. “We’ve got a great staff here that stays on top of it and communicates with us. Coach Vellucci was great with communicating and making sure we were prepared to step in at any moment.”
Ferrantino found himself as a healthy extra more often than not, logging 21 games over the course of the season, but was productive when called upon (3g, 4a, +7).
“You get the feeling when you’re playing with the NHL prospects and the wildly talented players in this league that you’re going to have to fill a role and play a piece,” he said. “For the games that I got in, I felt like I did that. It’s about finding your niche. Not everyone is going to be a goal scorer, not everyone is going to be a fighter or whatever. I tried to be fill in where we needed help.”
Now, as the offseason rolls on and the next campaign approaches, it’s back to square one and those AHL-contracted players are preparing to fight their way back up the organizational ladder once again.
“I want to just stick with my style of play,” said Didier, who signed a new AHL deal with the Checkers earlier this month. “I want to be hard to play against.”
“Make sure you keep getting stronger, keep getting faster,” said Ferrantino, who is slated to become an unrestricted free agent on July 1. “Working on my skill set, especially now as I get older I want to tweak my hands a bit and make sure my feet get quicker too. It’ll be nice having a full summer, I’ll go home and take a little time off and then get right back to training.”
“I think I’m right there and with the right opportunity I can make an impact for sure,” said Schilkey, who also earned another AHL contract with Charlotte earlier this month. “I’m hoping that I can come back and make that next step to become a regular guy. I think it’s just about working hard and staying positive. It’s just a matter of working hard over the summer again and proving myself in camp again.”