Should season start, Checkers have a leg up

calexander@newsobserver.comJanuary 6, 2013 

— With speculation swiftly building Saturday the NHL might be on the verge of a labor agreement, the Charlotte Checkers took to the ice at PNC Arena.

Yes, hockey. At PNC Arena.

Initially, the Checkers’ plan was to practice at the arena and then attend the Carolina Hurricanes’ scheduled game Saturday night against the New York Islanders. On Sunday, the Checkers would play the Norfolk Admirals in an American Hockey League game to help promote and showcase the Canes’ top minor-league affiliate.

Those plans changed radically on Sept. 16, when the NHL lockout began. There have been no hockey games in PNC Arena or any other NHL rink as the league and the NHL Players Association squabbled over a new collective bargaining agreement.

But on Saturday, there were media reports – and much internet chatter – saying the unresolved CBA issues, at long last, were close to being settled. The NHL and NHL Players Association held face-to-face negotiations in New York, again aided by federal mediator Scot L. Beckenbaugh, and the vibes coming out of the meetings were mostly positive.

If there is a breakthrough and a CBA is soon approved, the NHL will hold hastily arranged, abbreviated training camps before the start of what could be a 48-game regular-season schedule. Some of the Checkers could be in an advantageous position to earn an NHL roster spot with the Canes.

They’ve played 35 games. They’re in game shape.

“We’re all NHL-hungry and we want to be NHL-ready,” Checkers forward Zac Dalpe said.

Defenseman Justin Faulk is a given with the Canes. He was one of the NHL’s top rookies last season.

But with Canes forward Tuomo Ruutu now out at least four months following recent hip surgery, there’s an opening among Carolina’s top six forwards.

“Obviously, it’s tough to see a guy like that who’s so important to your lineup (injured),” Checkers forward Zach Boychuk said. “He brings not only scoring but that hitting mentality. If the season does end up starting, one of us can move up into that role or grab a roster spot.”

Boychuk, a former first-round draft pick, is the Checkers’ scoring leader with 15 goals and 16 assists. Dalpe scored a pair of goals Friday as the Checkers notched a 4-0 road win over the Lake Erie Monsters.

Forward Drayson Bowman played a career-high 37 games for the Canes last season and could be in the mix again. Jeremy Welsh and Riley Nash could be in the Canes’ training camp at PNC Arena, if it’s held.

Veteran goalie Dan Ellis and Justin Peters have shared the duties in net and both have played exceptionally well for the Checkers (19-11-5), who lead the Western Conference’s South Division.

It’s possible either Peters or Ellis could back up the Canes’ Cam Ward should the NHL season start.

Carolina coach Kirk Muller and assistant coaches John MacLean and Rod Brind’Amour were there Saturday.

“There’s the rumblings of what might happen with this lockout,” Checkers coach Jeff Daniels said. “It’s a chance of a lot of these guys to kind of step up and leave that good impression.”

Alexander: 919-829-8945

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