The first round of Stanley Cup playoffs started on Wednesday, and – oh, would you look at that, the Carolina Hurricanes aren’t in it. What a surprise. (Nothing jades a hockey fan like nine years without playoffs, and nobody knows that better than a Canes fan.) But there’s more than enough time to talk about what went wrong this season. It’s time for some optimism as we watch from the outside yet again.
The Charlotte Checkers are going to the playoffs! The AHL season doesn’t end until Sunday, April 15, so match-ups aren’t set in stone yet. However, if the Calder Cup playoffs started today, the Checkers (fourth seed in the Atlantic Division) would be playing the Lehigh Valley Phantoms (first seed in the Atlantic). I’m not here to talk about playoff match-ups, though, but to look at specific players who could be making their debut in the next few years, if they haven’t already.
Without any further ado (the first draft of this article also had a “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” singalong), here are some players to keep an eye on while we wait for the Canes to do something:
Drafted in the third round of the 2014 draft, left winger Warren Foegele was well-known during his junior career as a master of shorthanded chances. He scored three shorthanded goals in 33 games in his final season for the Erie Otters and one more during the OHL playoffs. This hasn’t changed with Foegele’s jump to the pros – he has four shorthanded scores in 71 games this season, tied for second in the AHL. He’s also the top rookie scorer on the Checkers with 44 points in those same 71 games. Foegele’s performance was more than enough to garner a call-up towards the end of the season, and he scored his first NHL goal on his first shot on March 26 against the Ottawa Senators. He also earned an assist on his second shot and topped the night off by getting named first star of the game. Foegele only stayed up for two games, playing on Derek Ryan’s wing on the fourth line, but those two appearances were enough to give Caniacs hope.
Drafted in the first round in 2016 at 21st overall via a pick from the Andrej Sekera trade, right winger Julien Gauthier is still young, but he’s already got his size on his side. The 20-year-old stands at 6-4 and 225 pounds, his large frame belying his also-impressive skating ability. While he hasn’t been called up yet to the big leagues, this was only his first pro season, and he still has much more time to grow. Gauthier’s juniors career was full of accolades. He was the only draft-eligible player named to Canada’s 2016 World Juniors team, and he won a silver medal the next year at the 2017 tournament. He was traded from the Val-d’Or Foreurs (where he had an A) to the Saint John Sea Dogs during his final year in juniors, where he scored 51 points in 43 games. In Gauthier’s first pro year, he’s scored 15 goals in 63 games and accumulated a total of 23 points.
Julien Gauthier skates through the Rimouski defence in the latest @WawanesaCanada @QMJHL Plays of the Week: https://t.co/lafPGFpM6c pic.twitter.com/zg2EKdAhr1
— Saint John Sea Dogs (@SJSeaDogs) March 28, 2017
Finnish forward Janne Kuokkanen started out the 2017-2018 season with the Canes, but after four scoreless games, was reassigned to the Checkers, where he went on to have a stellar rookie season. When the Canes picked Kuokkanen in 2016 at 43rd overall, they had seen him play at over a point-per-game production rate in Finland’s highest junior league. He then came to North America to play for the London Knights in the OHL, putting up similar numbers with them. This season his production slowed down a bit, as was expected when he made the leap to the pros, but even in Charlotte he put up 40 points in 58 games. As a matter of fact, in early April Kuokkanen scored a hat trick against the Hershey Bears, with the second and third goals happening just 12 seconds apart. He finished that game with five points on the night.
A personal favorite of mine (mostly due to his name), the Canes obtained center Greg McKegg from the Pittsburgh Penguins at the 2018 trade deadline for Josh Jooris. In Pittsburgh, McKegg was a bubble player who slotted in whenever one of Pittsburgh’s slew of injuries reared its ugly head. His stats in the NHL weren’t the best – 4 points in 26 games with Pittsburgh this season – but he hit the Charlotte ice running and hasn’t stopped since. In 17 games with the Checkers, McKegg has 21 points and has been shooting a ridiculous 28.1 percent. This rate, of course, isn’t sustainable in the long run, but McKegg’s definitely a player to watch during the 2018 Calder Cup playoffs.
ICYMI relive last night’s third period comeback here!
Brought to Carolina from the Los Angeles Kings in the Sekera trade, defenseman Roland McKeown’s history of leadership has translated well to the big stage so far. Drafted in 2014 at 50th overall, McKeown wore the C for the OHL’s Kingston Frontenacs for the 2014-15 and 15-16 seasons, leading the Fronts to a regular season conference title in 2016. In 2014, he also captained the Canadian under-18 national team and was named to the World Juniors team in 2016. More recently, McKeown gained the hearts of many Canes fans when he fought the Florida Panthers’ MacKenzie Weegar after Weegar laid a heavy hit on Brock McGinn. On the scoresheet, McKeown has the second highest +/- on the Checkers with +35. His 23 points in 63 games are nothing to sneeze at for a defenseman, either.
This is the first of a two-part series, previewing ten prospects currently playing for the Checkers. No criteria were used to pick these players beyond name recognition and basic stats. Players are ordered alphabetically.
- Canes majority owner Tom Dundon made some interesting comments at the end-of-season presser on Monday. The one that stood out the most to me was, “either the players have to be tougher or you have to bring in tougher players.” Many people interpreted this as, “we need to get players who will hit harder and fight more.” However, Dundon also said that Sebastian Aho was untouchable, and Aho doesn’t really fit the traditional NHL definition of tough. Maybe Dundon was speaking about mental toughness, in which case I agree wholeheartedly. If the Hurricanes have cultivated a culture of losing, then players are going to grow complacent. We’ve seen it all over the Buffalo Sabres; it only seems less prominent in Carolina because they are always so close to making playoffs. Mediocrity doesn’t pay off.
- Justin Williams also had some things to say during locker cleanout. Since getting traded to Los Angeles in 2009, this has only been his third playoff-less season, and it shows. One has to wonder if they might give him a letter next season.
“It’s going to sting. It’s going to hurt. And I hope it hurts for everybody,” -Justin Williams on watching playoff hockey this season and not making it to the postseason. #Redvolution pic.twitter.com/N0do05Kcj7
— FOX Sports Carolinas (@CanesOnFSCR) April 9, 2018