If there is one thing that has helped take the minds of Hurricanes fans off the NHL lockout, it is the strong play of the Charlotte Checkers. After last night's win over the Norfolk Admirals, the Checkers have the AHL's best record at 12-3-0-2 and have won five of their last six games, earning points in all of those contests. They have managed to do this despite playing the majority of their schedule on the road, too so the team banking these early wins will certainly go a long way around playoff time. Having the farm team play well is always a good thing, but the most promising aspect from the Checkers start to the season is that most of their production is coming from players who would be battling for roster spots on the Hurricanes.
The AHL has seen a bit of a talent influx thanks to the lockout and there are a lot of players in the league who would be in the NHL right now. These are players who you would expect to thrive in the AHL since they are at a different level than everyone else. The Checkers best player, Justin Faulk, is in this class but just about everyone else who they have received top contributions from are some of their better prospects who were going to be fighting for roster spots during training camp. Guys like Zach Boychuk, Zac Dalpe and Drayson Bowman fit this label the most, as they have been among the Checkers best forwards and have been making the most of their time in the AHL.
There were a lot of people who thought that the lockout would hurt a lot of younger players like Dalpe, Bowman and Boychuk because it would damage their possibility of making the NHL, when it appears to have done the exact opposite. The lockout has allowed them to play in Charlotte without being exposed to re-entry waivers and the three of them, along with a couple others, are making strong cases to be in Raleigh full-time once the NHL resumes. This season was thought to be a "final chance" for players like Boychuk and Bowman to make the Canes full-time and while we will still have to wait for that day, they are doing their best to get the front office and coaching staff's attention by playing lights out hockey in Charlotte.
Take a gander at the AHL's leader boards and in just about every category, you'll see a player from the Checkers and most of them fall in the category mentioned above. Drayson Bowman currently leads the AHL in goals with 11 and Zach Boychuk is right behind him with 10. Boychuk is also 9th in the AHL in points with 16 in 17 games. These two along with Jerome Samson are also among the league leaders in shots on goal, producing over three shots per game. AHL success doesn't always translate over to the next level, so Hurricane fans will have to remember that when looking over these numbers but for the time being, it's great to see some of the Canes more promising young players producing well in the AHL.
Still, it's tough to say whether or not the strong offensive numbers will be enough for Boychuk or Bowman to earn a roster spot on the Hurricanes because the coaching staff is going to choose whomever fits the team the most and that doesn't always correlate to boxcar stats. We know that Muller isn't going to call-up a player like Boychuk or Bowman to plug him in on the fourth line and play 5-8 minutes a night because that isn't playing to their strengths and doesn't do the team much good. This is what Paul Maurice often did with the younger players and most of their stints were over before they even started because of that. A top-six spot is also out of the question with the moves the Hurricanes made over the off-season, so it's more likely that one of the players in Charlotte right now will have to settle into a third line role with the Canes.
With Brandon Sutter out of the picture, it's unknown how the Canes third line will be constructed in the upcoming season, but I think it's fair to say that whoever plays on this line is going to need to have some two-way skill to earn a full-time spot. This would give the edge to Bowman since he has played in this type of role before, can be trusted with killing penalties and has more NHL experience than most of the guys on the Checkers right now. It's still hard to ignore what Boychuk is doing in Charlotte right now and I'm sure the Canes coaching staff has taken notice of it. His size and defensive play have always been the major knocks on his game and that might prevnet him from landing a third-line spot on the Canes, but if his numbers in Charlotte are enough to at least make the coaching staff give him another look, then hopefully he can seize the opportunity as well as he has in the AHL so far.
The last sentence sums up what this is all about, which is making the most of your opportunities. Going into this season, Boychuk knew that he had to really step up his game if he wanted to succeed in the Hurricanes organization and the lockout has given him another chance to show the coaching staff what he can do. He seems to have gotten the message, as he is playing some of the best hockey of his professional career right now and while it may not translate to success at the next level, it might be enough for him to catch the attention of Kirk Muller and the Hurricanes to give him another chance at the NHL. If he can continue to play this well and make a good impression, he might be able to stick around for longer than some thought.
There has been almost nothing but bad news concerning the lockout but outside all of the mudslinging and PR battles, hockey is still being played elsewhere and players like Boychuk, Bowman, Dalpe and Terry are making the most of it.