Hurricanes' Skinner and Faulk get set for the AHL, Charlotte

With lockout lingering, influx of young talent sent to Charlotte

calexander@newsobserver.comSeptember 19, 2012 

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The Carolina Hurricanes' Eric Staal (12) celebrates his goal with teammates Jeff Skinner (53) and Justin Faulk (28)during the second period of an NHL game played between the Carolina Hurricanes and the Nashville Predators at the RBC Center in Raleigh, N.C. on Feb. 28, 2012. Skinner and Faulk will continue to play in world competitions later this year; Staal decided to stay home with his new son.

CHRIS SEWARD — cseward@newsobserver.com

— Carolina Hurricanes defenseman Justin Faulk has played in the American Hockey League, but he didn’t expect to this season.

Neither did the Canes’ Jeff Skinner, the 2011 Calder Trophy winner as the NHL’s top first-year player.

But an NHL lockout will have ripple effects, and one is the influx of talent that may be coming to the AHL.

Last week, with a lockout underway looming and moribund collective bargaining talks threatening the start of the NHL season, teams made a flood of AHL assignments. The Canes assigned 28 players to the Charlotte Checkers, their AHL affiliate, including Skinner and Faulk.

Ryan Nugent-Hopkins of the Edmonton Oilers and Adam Henrique of the New Jersey Devils were among the other young standouts assigned to the AHL, which is not affected by the NHL lockout and could see ticket sales spike if NHL games are cancelled.

“That should really upgrade that league,” Hurricanes general manager Jim Rutherford said Tuesday. “There may be a lot of good players in it that otherwise would not be there.”

Rutherford said Skinner and Faulk, both 20, would attend Checkers training camp and play in the AHL should the lockout linger. Forwards Zac Dalpe and Jeremy Welsh, and defenseman Bobby Sanguinetti, who could have competed for NHL roster spots in the Canes’ training camp, were also assigned to Charlotte.

“There’s not much I can do to control what happens,” Faulk said last week, with a lockout pending. “I’ll just prepare as if there’s a (NHL) season. If not, if I’m told to go to Charlotte, then that’s what’s next.”

After winning an NCAA championship as a freshman at Minnesota-Duluth in 2011, Faulk joined the Checkers during the AHL playoffs. Last season, he played 12 games for the Checkers before becoming a regular on the back line for the Canes and being named to the NHL all-rookie team.

Skinner was the Canes’ first-round draft pick in 2010 and has not spent a day in the minors. He has played 146 games for Carolina the past two seasons and established himself in the league.

Skinner also suffered a concussion last season, missing 16 games.

Why send him to the AHL?

“It’s good experience for any young player,” Rutherford said. “At the NHL level, with the tempo and speed of the game, young players are not in the position to try different things. They can’t develop different parts of their skill level. So if they can take this in-between step, and the AHL is a very good league, they can spend more time working on their skills.”

That’s what the Eric Staal did. Like Skinner, he was a first-round pick and immediately made the jump to the NHL at age 18, playing 81 games as a rookie in 2003-04.

When the 2004-05 NHL season was canceled after a new labor agreement could not be reached, Staal was sent to the Lowell Lock Monsters, the Canes’ former affiliate, and had 26 goals and 51 assists in 77 games. A year later, he was a 100-point scorer for the Hurricanes in the regular season, and backed it up by being the leading scorer in the playoffs as the Canes won the 2006 Stanley Cup.

“You have to make the most of it and that’s what I tried to do,” Staal said. “Looking back, it benefited me. It was being put in situations where I could succeed – being put on the power play, penalty kill, first-line minutes. Just that pressure to succeed, that pressure to be counted on every game.

“I’m not sure what I would have been like as an NHL player at 19 years old or what the expectations would have been that year. But down there I was put in that role and when I came back that next year I was given that role, as well, and it turned out pretty good for us.”

And good for Cam Ward. The Canes’ first-round draft pick in 2002, he played his first season of professional hockey in Lowell in 2004-05. A year later, as an NHL rookie, Ward won the Conn Smythe Trophy as the playoffs’ most valuable player during the Cup run.

“For me, it was a jump going from junior (hockey) to the pro level,” Ward said. “Looking back, it was probably very beneficial for my development to play in that league and especially with the players there. Because of the lockout, there was a lot of high-quality players there.”

“Our young guys, with their potential to keep getting better, if they keep playing well it will only help them in the long run.”

Alexander: 919-829-8945

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