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5 questions to ponder in wake of Checkers’ playoff loss to Lehigh Valley

It’s golf season now for the Charlotte Checkers, whose hockey campaign ended with Saturday night’s 5-1 loss to the visiting Lehigh Valley Phantoms in the second round of the American Hockey League playoffs.

The Phantoms move on to the Calder Cup semifinals and a best-of-seven series against the Toronto Marlies.

For the Checkers, it’s time to enjoy summer and then begin preparations for the start of training camp in September.

Here are five questions off the end of the Checkers’ season:

What went wrong against Lehigh Valley?

That’s easy. The Checkers ran into a hot goalie. Actually, the Checkers ran into a goalie who had their number all season. In seven regular-season and playoff games this season against Phantoms’ goalie Alex Lyon, the Checkers scored only 10 goals.

“He was definitely in the zone,” Checkers’ coach Mike Vellucci said of Lyon after Saturday’s loss. “I’ve got to give him a lot of credit.”

And as Charlotte captain Patrick Brown added, “Credit to that team (Lehigh Valley), because they played well, but, man, that goalie played awesome!”

What do we take from this season?

The Checkers were younger and improved. They played well under Vellucci in his first season as Charlotte’s coach. They were explosive offensively, and they played smart, usually avoiding penalties. The Carolina Hurricanes have beefed up their farm system, and as the Hurricanes’ AAA-level club, the Checkers are benefitting.

And besides, if nothing else, the Checkers are in the AHL record book with that five-overtime loss Wednesday night and Thursday morning.

Who’s the coach next season?

It certainly should be Vellucci’s job, if he wants it. But Vellucci could move up. He was considered seriously for the Hurricanes’ coaching position that eventually went to Rod Brind’Amour. One scout watching the first playoff series, against Wilkes-Barre/Scranton, said Vellucci is now on some NHL teams’ radar as a coaching prospect.

Who comes back from this team?

The roster included 10 regularly-used players who are 22 or younger, and there’s only room for so many young players on the Hurricanes’ roster. Centers Janne Kuokkanen, Clark Bishop and Aleksi Saarela, wingers Julien Gauthier and Warren Foegele and defensemen Hayden Fleury and Roland McKeown are in that youth category. The Checkers should be strong again next season.

Who might move up?

Valentin Zykov, who turns 23 Tuesday and led the AHL in goals this season, figures to get a long look by the Hurricanes. Ditto for goalkeeper Alex Nedeljkovic. And it’s safe to assume some of those younger players will spend at least part of next season in Raleigh.

But it’s a long summer, and the Hurricanes probably will do some wheeling and dealing in the offseason. And their storehouse of young prospects will be attractive to other NHL teams.

Steve Lyttle on Twitter: @slyttle

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