The Charlotte Checkers were defined last season by their youth and a place near the bottom of the American Hockey League standings.
When the 2015-16 campaign begins Saturday in Des Moines, Iowa, the average age on the roster will be higher, and the Checkers expect more wins to follow.
“Last year wasn’t fun,” veteran goaltender Drew MacIntyre said. “It is an amazing city and my family loved it, but it was a frustrating year. No way around that. But I’m really thankful for the moves they’ve made, and it shows the commitment to winning.”
Six of the seven names most frequently on former coach Jeff Daniels’ lineup card were not yet 23 years old and 11 players 22 or younger played at least 44 games. The results weren’t pretty.
One of the first steps forward was convincing the 32-year-old MacIntyre to return. The Checkers are still going to be relatively young on defense, so retaining a steady goaltender like MacIntyre was critical.
Up front, the Hurricanes signed 28-year-old Derek Ryan, the Swedish Hockey League MVP this past season, and 29-year-old T.J. Hensick, who has five 60-point seasons in the AHL and 112 NHL games on his resume.
“How many rookies did we have last year? Five or six, at least? Not many veterans, either. I think last year we were kind of a rebuilding team and at the wrong end of the standings, but we’re coming in with a different game plan this year.”
They should bolster the offense, while also providing valuable mentorship to the players the Hurricanes want to see develop.
“Young teams end up chasing their tail,” new Checkers coach Mark Morris said. “That’s the way it is. I’ve had those teams. Experience is something we can’t teach. It’s important that our guys use that experience to help steer the ship.”
Finding a balance between trying to win and trying to develop young players is always a theme in the AHL. MacIntyre has spent a decade at this level, and he doesn’t see it as an either/or proposition.
“I’m a firm believer if you have older guys and you’re winning, it is a lot better for the kids and their development,” MacIntyre said. “I played with Mike Keane in Manitoba when he was 42 years old and he had three Stanley Cups, and he wanted to win more than anybody and he didn’t accept anything else. Whenever we have situations with younger guys, I’ve often thought ‘what would [Kenane] do here?’ ”
Many of those young players from a year ago are back, but they are buoyed by a year of professional experience. They will also have a new coach and a couple of new veterans to turn to.
“I’m sure a big commitment they want from me is to make sure the young guys feel comfortable and to guide them and help them in any way possible,” Hensick said. “It can help them become better players and ultimately make us a better team.”