Monday, February 10, 2014

Checkers prospects update

Two weeks ago the Checkers were playing their best hockey of the season. After a dreadful month of November (2-9-0; 4 points), Charlotte had climbed back into the playoff race -- reaching as high as seventh place in the Western Conference -- by winning eight of its previous 10 games.

A 9-3 win over the Oklahoma City Barons on Jan. 24 that featured six fights and a franchise-record five power-play goals marked the high-point of the season. Unfortunately for the Checkers, it also marked an end to their hot streak.

Since the win over the Barons, the Checkers have gone 1-3-1 in their last five games. With Cam Ward joining the team for a two-game conditioning stint, Charlotte split a pair of games in Lake Erie and then went on to be swept in a two-game series by the Abbotsford Heat. 

A trip back to Time Warner Cable Arena to, again, host Oklahoma City was supposed to allow Charlotte to get back on track, but the Barons had other ideas, winning the first matchup on Friday, 8-5, and the second, 4-3, in overtime on Sunday afternoon.

John Muse (16-10-1, 2.71 gaa, .913 save percentage) has been pulled from the net in each of his last two starts and was on the bench in Sunday's loss with Mike Murphy (3-7-0, 3.86 gaa, .883 save percentage) getting the nod in net.

The Checkers (22-23-2), who now sit six points out of the eighth playoff spot in the Western Conference, will be back in action on Friday where they'll host the Heat at PNC Arena in Raleigh.

"We're tired, but we'll use the break to regroup," said Checkers second-line center Brody Sutter. "We need to be a lot better as a team. Obviously, everyone knows what the standings are like right now. We need to go on a big run. We'll use this time to get our legs back and make sure that we're ready to go in Raleigh."

Prospect Updates:


Zach Boychuk
The 14th overall pick in 2008 has put together a career-year. His 22 goals (.55 per game) this season rank fourth in the AHL and have him one shy of tying his career-high set in 2012-13. In his last seven games, Boychuk has seven goals, including the second and third hat tricks of his career on Jan. 24 and Feb. 1. Although he hasn't yet developed into the player the Hurricanes hoped they were getting in '08, he's been remarkably steady on the offensive end with four consecutive 20-goal seasons in Charlotte.

Aaron Palushaj
It doesn't matter what it is, Palushaj does it quickly. His pre-game ritual of running laps around the arena before taking the ice in his underwear and shoes has become famous among those who work at the rink. I've had more than a few employees ask me, "who is that crazy guy on the ice?"

Peculiar pre-game routines aside, Palushaj has had an excellent season for the Checkers and has twice earned one-game promotions to play with the Hurricanes. He leads the team in points (42) and assists (25), while ranking second in goals with 17. The knock you'll hear from scouts on Palushaj is that he can try to get too fine and overpass at times. Scouts would also like to see his on-ice vision improve. As the season has gone on, the 44th overall pick in 2008 (20 behind his roommate Boychuk), has only gotten stronger, through the first two months Palushaj had six goals and eight assists. In the past two, he's had 11 and 17.

Chris Terry
Terry's season has been tough to figure out. He's battled through some injuries and still managed to score 14 goals and dish out 23 assists. He's not going to be able to consistently beat NHL players with his speed, but there's no denying his offensive skill.

It feels like the 24-year-old has been a bit overlooked at times this season. Terry's defense has continued to improve to the point where he's become a regular on the PK. In Sunday's game, Checkers coach Jeff Daniels dropped him off the top line for the first time this season. It's been 12 games since Terry last scored, his longest drought of the season.


Brett Sutter 
Sutter plays with a ton of energy. He's great on the forecheck, but likely lacks the scoring touch required to play on a top line in the NHL. The 26-year-old has five goals and 19 assists this season and is currently on a three-game point-streak (1g, 4a). 

Victor Rask 
Last week a scout mentioned that Rask's game seems to have "faded" as the season's gone along. Much was expected out of the 2011 second-round selection (42nd overall) and early on this season it looked like he might deliver, with 10 points (5g, 5a) in his first 10 games. For the season, Rask has eight goals and 15 assists. However, after beginning the year as the Checkers top-line center, Rask has dropped down to the third line. As a result, he's been forced to create a lot of his own opportunities. A 24-game scoreless drought (Nov. 3 - Jan. 10) seemed to do a number on his confidence.

The same scout that said Rask has faded this season, mentioned that he'd like to see the 20-year-old get some time back on the top line. "I don't feel like he's in a position to succeed on the third line," he added.


Ryan Murphy 
After registering two goals and nine assists in 39 games with the Hurricanes this season, Murphy was reassigned to Charlotte where he's recorded six assists in seven games. The 20-year-old is fun to watch. He's got a surprisingly heavy shot for his size and the ability to skate past most AHL defenders. However, he needs some work on the defensive end and to cut down on his giveaways.

Charlotte coach Jeff Daniels on Murphy following Sunday's game: "He's getting his feet wet. He gets in trouble when he tries to do too much. He's got to simplify his game. You like that he wants the puck and to be a difference maker, but sometimes less is more."

Danny Biega 
One of four rookies currently on the Checkers roster, Biega -- who was drafted in the third round (67th overall) out of Harvard in 2010 -- went 38 games this season without registering a goal before netting the first two goals of his AHL career in Wednesday's loss to Abbotsford. After missing a little over a week with an undisclosed injury, Biega (2g, 9a) has played well, joining Michal Jordan as Charlotte's top defensive paring.