Charlotte shook up their D corps in late February when longtime Checker Keegan Lowe was dealt to the Montreal organization in exchange for Philip Samuelsson. In each of the 20 games since that move, the team has rolled out the same six defensemen – Trevor Carrick, Jake Chelios, Haydn Fleury, Samuelsson, Roland McKeown and Dennis Robertson – and seen great success, logging a 14-5-1 record over that span.
“There’s no need to change when they’ve been playing well,” said Checkers assistant coach Peter Andersson. “It’s important to stick with it so they can play together.”
Andersson, oversees the defensemen, has been able to use his new committee to help spread out the workload and avoid burning out any of his key blue liners despite using them every day.
“Since we changed, we’ve just been rolling the defensemen,” said Andersson. “They get around 20 minutes each, where before that some defensemen were up to 23 or 24 minutes. We want to keep them in good shape and keep them fresh so they can jump and join the offense too a little bit more.”
While the group has had its stars over this most recent string of games – Chelios, who ranks fifth on the team in scoring, has consistently created offense while Fleury, at a plus-12 rating, has developed into a cornerstone of the blue line – they are strong from top to bottom. With no real weak links, Andersson is granted a lot of freedom in his decision.
“It makes it a little bit easier,” said Andersson. “It doesn’t matter what pair is out there, they’re all even on defending and so on. We have some pairs that are little more offensively skilled, so they get some extra time on the power play.”
During that 20-game stretch, the team has allowed an average of 2.75 goals per game, a respectable number, but the team defense really hit its stride with the addition of Tom McCollum between the pipes.
Backstopped by the AHL veteran, the Checkers have allowed an average of just 2.00 goals per game over the last 13 games, with McCollum starting all but one of them.
“It’s been good,” said Andersson of his defensemen’s meshing with McCollum. “Tom is very good handling the puck around the net. It’s getting better and better. It’s all about communication out there. It’s important.”
TOUGH DECISIONSWhile the defensive corps has been a consistent bunch, the rest of the Checkers’ lineup has made for some tough decisions.
With players returning from injury, being assigned from the NHL and joining from the junior ranks, the Checkers’ roster up front is a deep as it has been all season. The Checkers currently have 15 healthy options at forward, meaning each night requires some tough decisions from the coaching staff.
“It’s hard,” said head coach Ulf Samuelsson. “It’s the worst part of my job telling guys that they’re not playing. It’s unfortunate for them, but for the team we’re getting more players in so it’s exciting.”
Given the wide range of options the coaching staff has to make a lineup every night, there are going to be times when it’s simply an odd-man out scenario where the player will be counted on to rebound quickly when returned to the lineup. Balancing those emotions from the players is a key part of the process.
“You try to teach them,” said Samuelsson. “We have a sports psychologist that we’re working with to try to encourage everyone to come in every day with a good frame of mind so when they’re called upon they’re ready to go. But it’s definitely one of the hardest parts of our profession.”
While going from a healthy extra to in the lineup is one jump the staff has had to deal with this season, we are at the point of the season when players are getting tastes of the NHL then returning, like Lucas Wallmark and Phil Di Giuseppe recently did.
“It works both ways,” said Samuelsson of players coming back from the NHL. “You have the mental part that sometimes takes a little bit to get over, and then you have that it’s a somewhat different style of hockey from AHL to NHL. Sometimes you get a boost right away, sometimes you need a game or two to get back into the swing of things. But most of the time it brings a lot of positive energy.”
While the number of tough calls has risen as of late when it comes to making a lineup, the bottom line is that the Checkers have an abundance of options, which is never really a bad thing. For Samuelsson, it gives every player the chance to work their way into the lineup, regardless of their status.
“It’s certainly nice to have a deeper lineup on paper,” said Samuelsson. “We’ve had a lot of players come in and do well. Just because you have a few more points to your name doesn’t mean success. It’s hard work that we need.”
BEAN COMES TO CHARLOTTECarolina fans received a jolt of excitement earlier this week when it was announced that the highly-touted defenseman Jake Bean would be joining the Checkers following the conclusion of his WHL season.
The 18-year-old hasn’t been around the team for long, but has enjoyed his stay thus far.
“It’s been really good, all the guys are really nice and welcoming,” said Bean. “It’s been good to get around the guys, get around the trainers and see what it’s all about here.”
A lethal offensive weapon from the back end, Bean was selected in the first round of last summer’s NHL draft after racking up 24 goals and 64 points for the Hitmen in 2015-16. While this marks his first foray into the pro game, the coaching staff has a bit of a familiarity with Bean.
“I saw him up in Traverse City,” said Andersson, referring to the annual NHL prospects tournament that he and Samuelsson coached at this past offseason. “So I know that he’s a good defenseman.”
While he has been able to tear up the WHL during his tenure there, Bean knows that making the jump to the next level will require some tweaks to his game.
“I’ve talked to Glen Wesley and some other coaches and I think the biggest thing is playing hard in the defensive zone and doing the little things right,” said Bean. “I worked on that this season and I want to keep working on that.”
Unfortunately for fans craving the sight of Bean on the ice with Charlotte, they may have to wait a bit, as the young blue liner is currently outfitted with a walking boot on his foot.
“It happened when there were a couple of months left in my season in Calgary,” said Bean. “It’s nothing serious, just precautionary to make sure I can get to 100 percent before I get back out there.”
“He’s not practicing right now, we’ll see if he comes on a little later, but I don’t know,” said Andersson.
But even with his current inability to join the team on the ice, there is plenty for Bean to take in about the pro game during his stay with the Checkers.
“Just be around the players and know how they work off the ice,” said Andersson. “Right now they’re not working a lot on the ice but still you need to take care of your body between the games with stretching and so on. It’s good for him to be here.”
At 18, Bean won’t be eligible to begin a season with the Checkers for two more years, but this taste of the pro game could prove to be wildly beneficial to his development down the road.
“I think just continuing to get to know the players and the staff. Get familiar with the systems,” said Bean. “Obviously it’s a different game here and a different lifestyle, so I’m just trying to understand that before it’s my time to be here.”