“There were some areas that needed improvement,” says Vellucci, whose team opens the 2017-18 AHL season Friday night at Hartford. “But I think we might have addressed those.”
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There is optimism around this Checkers squad, and around the entire organization, starting with Charlotte’s NHL parent squad, the Carolina Hurricanes. Carolina hasn’t made the Stanley Cup playoffs in nine years but is being picked by ESPN and many others to end the drought this season.
The Hurricanes have loaded up on young talent in recent years, and the stockpile stretches down to Charlotte.
The Checkers have their top seven scorers back from last season, have added several high-scoring young players, and have a goalkeeping tandem that is highly regarded by scouts.
And this is on a team that finished the season 26-9-6, reaching the AHL’s Calder Cup playoffs for the first time in four years.
“I felt like we needed to improve on our special teams and our scoring,” says Vellucci, who enters his fourth season as the Hurricanes’ assistant general manager and is adding Checkers’ head coach to his job description.
In hockey, “special teams” means penalty-killing and the power play. The Checkers killed penalties (prevented a goal) about 80 percent of the time last season, but they were the AHL’s worst on the power play, converting less than 10 percent of their chances.
Vellucci, who coached in the Ontario Hockey League for 14 years with developing young players, hopes Charlotte has fixed its power-play problems.
“We scored on four of our six chances last weekend,” he said, referring to the Checkers’ 8-1 and 5-2 routs of Lehigh Valley in a pair of exhibition games.
Back this year is Charlotte’s first line of Valentin Zykov, Lucas Wallmark and Andrew Miller, along with high-scoring Phil Di Giuseppe. Wallmark and Di Giuseppe spent much of the preseason with the Hurricanes but were sent down to Charlotte on Tuesday.
“But we brought in some young guys who can really score,” Vellucci says. “I think we have a lot more depth this season.”
Among the newcomers is forward Nick Schilkey, who went untouched in the NHL draft last season despite scoring 27 goals in 35 games for Ohio State. Schilkey scored four goals in last weekend’s exhibitions.
Goalkeeping duties will be split between 20-year-old Alex Nedeljkovic and 28-year-old Jeremy Smith. Nedeljkovic played well at times last season but had some shaky moments.
“Ned was a rookie last year,” Vellucci says, referring to Nedeljkovic by his nickname. “He did well, but I’d expect more from him this year with the added experience.”
Smith is a veteran of eight AHL seasons and some limited NHL duty in the Colorado Avalanche organization. “He and Ned have worked really hard, and I think they’re both ready,” Vellucci says.