While the coaching staff’s search for a team identity remains, they got glimpses of this squad’s strength through the first four games.
“Our awareness and our hockey sense was pretty evident in some of the games,” said Head Coach Geordie Kinnear. “You look at Truesy’s [Alex True] line, you have a good combination there. With guys like Dalps [Zac Dalpe], Mams [Maxim Mamin], Hepo [Aleksi Heponiemi], our hockey IQ is really good.”
On the flip side, the biggest critique Kinnear could point to is a common one for this point in a season.
“Every team is saying the same thing but we have to become a 60-minute team and get our conditioning up so we’re at that level,” he said.
The Checkers had the added challenge of coming into this campaign with a dual affiliation with Florida and Seattle. After four games of a lineup split between the two NHL clubs, the meshing has continued to progress.
“It’s a little different situation,” said Seattle prospect Luke Henman. “It’s tough, but I think we’ve done a good job so far. We’re all starting to get to know each other pretty well and you can see it out on the ice that we’re getting better every game.”
The sprint that was training camp and the ramp-up to the regular season is now behind them, but the work Kinnear demands from his team is just beginning.
“We still have lots of work to do,” he said. “We’re still working on the identity part. The guys know what the expectations are, now we just have to build off of that.
“I didn’t love today’s practice at the start, so we talked about that, about the work ethic. It has to be every single day so good things happen on the weekend.”
DYNAMIC TRIOCharlotte’s offense has been propelled early on this season by the lights-out play of the line of Alex True, Max McCormick and Logan Hutsko - with the former leading the team in scoring and the latter two tying for second.
“You have True in the middle who has great hockey sense, and then you have Hutsko who has great pace,” said Kinnear after Friday’s win. “McCormick just plays the game the right way. You come back to the bench and they all talk and are on the same page. They’ve obviously been our best line.”
In fact, at least one of that line has factored into eight of the 12 goals that the Checkers have scored this season, and six of those 12 goals have featured at least two-thirds of the line.
“I’m having a lot of fun playing with those guys,” said McCormick after that game. “True is just a big power forward that’s responsible defensively and is always supporting low in the middle and making great plays. (Hutsko) is super fast, works hard and has a lot of skill. I’m just having a lot of fun playing with those two and hopefully we can keep it going.”
While that trio has taken off quickly, the rest of the forward group is still searching for its rhythm offensively - aside from the top line and Heponiemi and Mamin’s two points each, no other forward on the team has more than one point through the first four games.
“It’s tough to score goals,” said Kinnear. “We have to do it the right way. You can’t do it by yourself, you have to do it as a group of five on the ice.”
Kinnear has been quick to point out the depth of talent up front for Charlotte from day one, and he remains confident that production is coming.
“To kick start it, just keep doing the right things and the puck will go in,” said the head coach. “But we have to work on our game too and work on our shots and skills, the rest will take care of itself.”
BETWEEN THE PIPESThe goaltending situation at the AHL level is always susceptible to sudden change, and the Checkers have seen that firsthand early on this season. After seeing Samuel Montembeault claimed on waivers before making it to Charlotte and then spending training camp and the first road trip carrying three netminders, Charlotte whittled the roster down to a tandem of Joey Daccord and Christopher Gibson - only to see Daccord recalled by Seattle almost immediately.
That made for an interesting few days for Antoine Bibeau, who was briefly sent to the ECHL before returning to Charlotte and turning in a strong outing to snag Charlotte a point in Saturday’s overtime loss.
“Bibs was sent down to Allen,” said Kinnear. “So he travelled all the way with his family for two days, missed some practice time, then flew back to us. We call it ‘digging in’ in our room, he had to dig in and he gave us a great performance.”
The other half of the duo is Gibson, who was between the pipes for the team’s season-opening defeat in Hershey and used that as a catalyst for his stellar 33-save win on Friday.
“He was the hardest working guy last week because he wasn’t happy with his performance in the game,” said Kinnear. “It was a whole team effort though, we weren’t good in front of him. If you don’t know where the pucks are coming from and don’t trust anybody, it’s hard to play.
“We’re working on that, but he was the hardest working player all week and hard work always pays off. It’s a pretty simple message - when you work hard, good things happen. He worked extremely hard.”
With Daccord still on the Kraken roster, the tandem of Gibson and Bibeau will man the crease for Charlotte heading into a tough three-in-three road trip.
THREE-IN-THREEThis coming weekend marks the first three-games-in-three-nights scenario for the Checkers this season. It’s a grueling quirk of the AHL schedule, with this particular trip having the added wrinkle of all three contests coming in different cities.
For some players on this young squad, this marks their first taste of the tough AHL schedule.
“Playing in the Quebec league, it’s a 68-game season and you do three-in-threes, so you kind of know what to expect,” said Henman. “But I feel like in junior it’s a lot different, the quality of play obviously isn’t the same. I think rest is really important and what kind of fuel you put into your body. You’re trying to be a pro every day so you can perform like a pro, that’s the approach that we’ve all been taking. Hopefully we can have a good weekend.”
The coaching staff has the team focused narrowed down, though.
“We’re a one shift at a time team,” said Kinnear. “One day at a time. We’ll go into Providence and have a good start.”
INJURY UPDATEThe Checkers were without their captain in Saturday’s overtime loss, as he missed the contest with a lower-body injury. The good news is that Dalpe returned to the ice as a full participant for Wednesday’s practice - though his status for this weekend’s road trip isn’t set in stone.
“We’ll see, I haven’t talked to anyone yet,” said Kinnear on Wednesday when asked whether Dalpe will play this weekend. “Obviously Dalps is an important player for us, but we want to make sure that he’s right early in the season for big picture stuff. He was out there today and he had the typical jump in his step, so that was a good sign.”
Additionally, Karch Bachman was a full participant in practice after being sidelined to start the season.