For the Checkers, a historic season came to an abrupt end last weekend as they were eliminated from the Atlantic Division Finals in five games by the Lehigh Valley Phantoms.
“It was tough, obviously,” said head coach Mike Vellucci. “We all wanted to win and we thought we had the team to do it. We just ran out of time and opportunity.”
But despite the second-round exit, this season was hardly a waste for Charlotte.
“Everyone was disappointed that we didn’t put up a better fight and get back to Lehigh for those last two games,” said defenseman Dennis Robertson. “But we all learned a lot from it.”
“My message after Game 5 was that I was proud of them,” said Vellucci. “We had one of the youngest teams in the league and we came together and accomplished a lot. We wanted to get better as the season went on and peak at the right time and I thought we did that.”
Upon being introduced as head coach last summer, Vellucci had laid out a very clear plan of what he hoped to accomplish with this team this year.
“Our goals were to improve the power play, improve the penalty kill, score more goals and be peaking at the right time and making the playoffs and having a chance to win a championship. I think we accomplished all those goals this year.”
The team left no doubt about that first goal, taking a power play that ranked dead last in the AHL a season ago at 13.1 percent and elevating it to 20.4 percent, the third-best mark league-wide. For Vellucci, the talent was there, it was just a matter of tweaking things.
“That top unit was the same players last year,” he said. “I knew they were capable of doing it. So it was a matter of putting in a different system and working on it. In our meetings today, every one of those players were very happy with the way that the power play worked this year.”
Charlotte’s overall offense wasn’t in as dire of a situation a season ago but the team managed to get that metric to skyrocket as well, leading the league with a franchise-best 3.45 goals-per-game average. Even the penalty kill, the weakest of the team’s units, was boosted from last year.
The final goal was both the loftiest and the most open-ended, but the Checkers can find solace in their success this season.
“We did not win the championship but we did have one of the youngest teams in the league and we went a long way,” said Vellucci. “We made it exciting for the fans to come to games.”
For the players who have been around the team in years past, it was clear that this group had something special.
“I think it started in the locker room,” said defenseman Trevor Carrick. “Everyone jelled right away. We had a pretty young group and everybody got along. And then on the ice we had some really skilled guys who were hungry to make the NHL and that paid off.”
“It was just a fun group,” said defenseman Philip Samuelsson. “A lot of young energy out there. Skill up front, solid on the back end and great goaltending. Everything just kind of clicked the right way for us.”
That dichotomy of experience and youthfulness helped propel this Checkers squad to the best regular season Charlotte has ever seen.
“We just had an awesome group of guys,” said team captain Patrick Brown. “Leaders at every position at every age. We had a great corps of veterans who led by example we had a great group of rookies who came in and pushed the pace every day. I see guys like [Janne] Kuokkanen and [Warren] Foegele do things I’ve never seen before so they’re showing the older guys and then the older guys are showing them how to be good pros. I think it was a great back and forth and it was great seeing guys lead from all over.”
“I think the first year guys from last year had some more experience under our belts,” said forward Andrew Poturalski. “We were able to kind of transfer that to the new rookies we had this year. When you get that from everybody and then Ned has the year he had, it’s pretty easy to do what we did.”
This campaign represented another step in the right direction for the Checkers. In 2014-15, the team was out of playoff contention by the All-Star break. In 2015-16, the team missed the playoffs on the last day of the season. In 2016-17, the team made the playoffs and lost in the first round. This season the team made it to the second round of the playoffs and set the tone for that upward trajectory to continue on in the future.
“We’re making strides and that’s the key,” said Vellucci. “We want to make another stride this summer. We talked about getting in better shape and working on things. Playoffs last year, second round this year, hopefully we can take it further next year.”