The Charlotte Checkers season came to a disappointing end last weekend when they lost their first-round series to the Oklahoma City Barons on the heels of two blowout losses. Disappointing ending aside, it was a great season for Charlotte as the team managed to finish fourth in their conference despite using 42 different skaters and having to deal with numerous roster changes once the NHL season resumed. Developing a strong farm system is a key to success in this league and the Checkers great season should give some fans hope about the future of this organization. However, it's always tough to find out which AHL players have any future at the next level.
There are always players who put up huge numbers at the AHL level and get fans excited about their future only for them to become nothing more than fringe guys at the next level. Carolina found this out the hard way with Zach Boychuk, who looked always performed well in the AHL but ended up not doing much at the next level and ended up being waived by three different teams this past season. You always want your prospects and farm teams to do well but it's important to remember that a player who is able to succeed at the AHL level doesn't mean he will become a full-time NHL-er. Some players have trouble adjusting to the speed and physicality of the NHL or aren't defenisvely sound enough to play a depth role, so they end up being career AHL-ers or go pro with another club.
The tough part is always sorting these players out and it's very tough to do if you can't watch every game. Usually the only way to find out if they are ready or not is to try them out at the NHL level and see how they do. Some players from the Checkers have become regulars in Carolina's lineup (Riley Nash & Drayson Bowman) while others have teetered back and forth for most of their careers (Zach Boychuk & Zac Dalpe). It's also tough to judge how a player performed at the AHL level with just statistics alone becuase the only ones produced by the league are goals, points, penalty minutes, plus/minus and shots on goal. Things such as ice-time and shot/possession data are not available to the public.
In the past, I've discussed how much luck plays a role in goal/point totals and plus/minus and how often they can change from year-to-year, so I'm always iffy with using that to judge a player's performance. Shots on goal, however, can tell you quite a bit about how well a player performed offensively in a given year since that is something he has more control over. Let's say a player gets 150 shots on goal in an 82 game season and scores on 17% of them, giving him 25 goals in a year. The next season, he has 175 shots in five fewer games but scores on 10% of them, which would give him 17-18 goals in a season. Most people will point to his goal total and say that he had a disappointing season offensively when he was actually producing more shots on goal than he did in the previous season. A lack of finishing ability would probably be pointed to as the reason for it, but I think luck has a bigger factor on one's goal total than most believe.
Given that bit of information, I went through the boxcar numbers for every Checkers player and noted who was performing the best in not only scoring, but shots on goal as well. This will give us an idea of who was creating the most offense and who could possibly be ready to make the jump to the NHL next season. To do this, we're going to look at each player's NHL shot equivalency rates which were drawn up by Stephan Cooper of Habs Eyes on the Prize. I've done this analysis in the past so if you want a refresher on what the formula is and how it is drawn up, visit this link or the Habs Eyes on the Prize article linked to earlier.
Top Ten Players
Among players who were on the Checkers for the majority of the season after the lockout, Zac Dalpe was easily the most impressive player. His shot rate was higher than anyone lese on the team and his scoring rate was bested by only Chris Terry and Zach Boychuk. I still think that he should have been in the NHL for the entire season because his offensive game has come around so much in the past year and he did a lot of good things in his 10-game NHL stint this year. The door is still open for him to become a full time NHL-er but I think it has to be next year or else. This probably sounds like a repeat of what I was saying about him last season, but the decision to send him down in February was still kind of ridiculous to me and he has certainly done enough to stand out at the lower level. He also had 20 shots on goal in the Checkers five playoff games but was somehow kept off the scoresheet despite that.
Jeome Samson is another guy who I think could be in the NHL given the right situation. One thing that he has been consistently good at over his career is being able to drive the play forward and get shots on goal but it hasn't translated to him being anything more than a fringe player at the next level. Since Samson is older than most of Carolina's other prospects, I don't think he'll have a career with the Hurricanes but some team in need of forward depth could want him. He was also injured for most of the season and didn't get a chance to be one of the Hurricanes parade of call-ups towards the end of the season.
Zach Boychuk also makes an appearance on this list and I really don't know what to say about him at this point. He has always been impressive in the AHL and even at the next level his underlying numbers were bad this season and yet, he couldn't earn a roster spot with three different teams. I guess this is one of those instances where I should trust the coaching staff more than my own judgement because there has to be something that's keeping him from sticking in the NHL. He is also a restricted free agent after this year so what the Canes do with him is anyone's guess.
Rounding out the top-five is Chris Terry, who finally made his NHL debut after years of tearing up minor leagues. He is one of the players who I would have liked to be given more of a shot with the Canes this year but he only stuck around for three games before being sent back down. The knock on Terry has always been his size and that he wouldn't translate well as a checking-line player in the NHL but I liked what I saw from him during his brief time with the Canes this season. That being said, forwards who make their NHL debut in their mid-20's usually aren't set for great careers but there have been exceptions. Is Terry one of those exceptions? We'll have to see. He was Charlotte's best player for a good chunk of the season and seems to have improved his game a fair bit.
There is no doubt that the Checkers had a great season but the only problem with the team is that many of them aren't pegged to do excel at the NHL level. The only player who has a future as a top-six player is Zac Dalpe while others such as Jeremy Welsh and Brett Sutter have ceilings as checking line players and not much more. Michal Jordan and Brett Bellemore are the only ones other than Dalpe who I think can make the NHL in non-depth roles. As a whole, that is concerning but there are a few things worth keeping in mind. Firstly, the Checkers were one of the teams who benefited from the lockout by having NHL-ready players on their team and a good chunk few of them stayed on the Hurricanes once the season resumed (Nash, Sanguinetti, Wallace, Faulk, etc.). Secondly, the Canes recently signed a few of their junior and NCAA prospects to their entry level deals and Charlotte is going to see a bit of a "youth movement" this fall. Guys like Ryan Murphy, Keegan Lowe, Brock McGinn, Austin Levi, Danny Biega and Victor Rask are all legit prospects and should help re-shape the Checkers next year. Whether or not they turn into anything special remains to be seen, but the Hurricanes farm system is going through a bit of a change right now and hopefully the results will be better than this most recent wave of prospects.