Regular season champions? Check. Calder Cup champions? Check. The 2018-19 AHL campaign will go down as the Year of the Charlotte Checkers.
Heading into Game 5 of the Calder Cup final possessing a 3-1 series lead over the Chicago Wolves, the Checkers put a stamp on their remarkable season with a 5-3 victory Saturday night that saw the franchise capture its first AHL crown. Morgan Geekie had a goal and two points, Andrew Poturalski scored twice and Alex Nedeljkovic stopped 26 of the 29 shots he faced to help the Checkers secure the championship.
For Charlotte, this season signified the next step in what has been a period of continued growth for the organization. Only three seasons removed from missing the post-season for a third-consecutive campaign, the Checkers have gone from a first-round exit to a two-round run all the way to league champions in the span of three seasons, the past two of which have been led by coach Mike Vellucci.
Charlotte’s season was truly remarkable in that there was little wavering from their position as the league’s top team. At the culmination of the regular season, the Checkers boasted an incredible 51-17-8 record and 110 points, putting them eight points clear of the second-place Syracuse Crunch. Charlotte finished the campaign second in goals for (255) and third in goals-against (189), all the while boasting the league’s best penalty kill percentage (86.6). The Checkers showcased much of the same in the post-season, winning the Calder Cup on the strength of a post-season best 4.05 goals per game that went along with 2.32 goals-against per game rate that ranked second among all playoff teams but first among clubs that played beyond the first round.
Undoubtedly, much of the success in Charlotte is the result of the foundation that has been put in place by their NHL affiliate, the Carolina Hurricanes, whose drafting record in recent years has stocked the Checkers with some bright young talent. During the regular season, five of Charlotte’s 10-highest scoring players were players selected in either the first, second or third round in one of the past three NHL drafts. Included in that group are 2017 first-round pick Martin Necas, who posted 16 goals and 52 points this season, as well as 2016 first-rounders Jake Bean and Julien Gauthier, who finished sixth and seventh in regular season scoring with 44 and 41 points, respectively.
As much as stocking the AHL club with high-caliber prospects – Necas, Bean and Janne Kuokkanen, who finished eighth in regular season scoring, were ranked fourth, 42nd and 86th in The Hockey News’ Future Watch 2019, respectively – powered the Checkers to the win, though, no player was more influential in Charlotte’s regular season or playoff run to the Calder Cup than Poturalski, who captured the Jack A. Butterfield Trophy as post-season MVP despite playing on a broken foot.
During the regular season, Poturalski built upon the rock-solid numbers he had posted over the past two seasons with career-bests across the board, recording 23 goals, 47 assists and 70 points to lead the Checkers in scoring. His playoff encore was even better than his regular season performance, however, as his 12 goals and 23 points led all players in the post-season. It was Poturalski, who wore an ‘A’ for the Charlotte this season, who potted the empty-netter stood as the game- and Calder Cup-winning goal, as well.
Unlike others who were part of this Checkers juggernaut, though, Poturalski didn’t land in Carolina by way of the draft. Instead, his standout play at University of New Hampshire put him on the Hurricanes’ radar, leading him to an two-year entry-level deal in 2016-17 and a one-year extension this past season. Now, however, Poturalski enters the off-season with options. His contract is up, and as a Group 6 unrestricted free agent, he can decide his next step. One would imagine the Hurricanes, given their ample cap space, are going to make a pitch, but Poturalski will have suitors, to be sure.
But even if Poturalski heads for potentially greener pastures in an effort to chase his big-league dreams, the Checkers have the opportunity to return next season with many of the same pieces in place. A few – namely Necas and Bean, and quite possibly Aleksi Saarela, who scored 30 goals and 54 points in the regular season before a 15-point post-season – have potential to land full-time spots with the Hurricanes in 2019-20, but the Geekies and Gauthiers and Kuokkanens, not to mention others such as Nicolas Roy and Stelio Mattheos, are safe bets to be back for another go-round in the AHL next season.
There will be plenty of time to think about next season in the weeks and months that come, however. For now, the Checkers will have other plans, because after winning the regular season, they’ve gone out and secured the real prize: the Calder Cup. And now it’s time to celebrate.
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