When the Charlotte Checkers open the AHL Eastern Conference finals Thursday at home, it represents the deepest a Carolina Hurricanes farm team has gone in the playoffs since 1997, when the Springfield Falcons made it to this point in the AHL playoffs.
The Falcons -- coached by Kevin McCarthy -- lost to the Hershey Bears, who went on to win the Calder Cup. Three times since, the Hurricanes’ minor-league affiliate has won one playoff round, but this year’s Checkers are the first to win two.
The Checkers host the Binghamton Senators on Thursday and Friday in Charlotte, then return home for potential Games 6 and 7 on May 23 and 24. (The AHL, to save travel costs, uses a 2-3-2 format instead of the NHL’s 2-2-1-1-1 format.)
The obvious question is, does a minor-league franchise’s playoff success have any impact on the success of its parent club? No, not directly. Too few of the minor-league team’s players will ever see time in the NHL for there to be any direct connection.
But a little playoff experience for a franchise’s prospects, particularly winning a series or two, can pay enormous dividends down the road.
The 1997 Falcons had three players who ended up playing for the Hurricanes in their 1999 first-round series against the Boston Bruins, Kent Manderville, Nolan Pratt and Steve Halko. (The roster also included Jeff Daniels, currently the Checkers’ coach; the goalie was Manny Legace, who would end up playing for the Hurricanes more than a decade later.)
Erik Cole was a playoff rookie in 2000 with the Cincinnati Cyclones, having just turned pro after leaving Clarkson, but the experience he got then showed in 2002, when Cole was a playoff force as a rookie. That was Craig Adams’ first postseason experience as well, and Adams now has two Stanley Cup rings in his career.
David Tanabe, in his first year pro, played more IHL playoff games that season (11) than he would end up playing in his NHL career; he played in all six for the Hurricanes in 2001 and was injured after one game of the 2002 playoffs.
Also from that team: Shane Willis played briefly in the 2001 playoffs for the Hurricanes and Craig MacDonald briefly in the 2002 playoffs. (Byron Ritchie would have to wait six years for his first NHL playoff game, with the Calgary Flames.)
Then there were the 2004-05 Lowell Lock Monsters. With the NHL mired in a lockout, Eric Staal, Cam Ward, Chad LaRose and Mike Commodore all played in the AHL that season, and the Lock Monsters made it to the second round. In any given AHL season, a team with that kind of talent would have considered anything less than the Calder Cup disappointing, but the influx of young talent because of the lockout made it a junior NHL that season.
So as the first pro playoff experience for Staal and Ward, it may have been even more valuable, and a year later, those two played critical parts in the Hurricanes’ run to the Stanley Cup. Staal was already an established NHLer at that point, and being a dominant player in the AHL that season probably helped his career more than the playoff experience, but who knows what role that AHL playoff experience played in Ward’s ability to take over for Martin Gerber and carry the Hurricanes to the Cup?
Ryan Bayda had to wait, but he got his chance during the Hurricanes’ 2009 playoff campaign.That team also included future Carolina playoff opponent Chuck Kobasew, future Stanley Cup winner Mike Zigomanis and MacDonald, again.
Enough with the past. Now, to the present.
There are 11 Hurricanes prospects who were part of the Albany River Rats’ first-round series win a year ago who also have played for Charlotte this time around: Brett Bellemore, Nicolas Blanchard, Casey Borer, Drayson Bowman, Zach Boychuk, Zac Dalpe, Nick Dodge, Zach Fitzgerald, Oskar Osala, Bryan Rodney and Chris Terry.
For five of them, these two years have been their first pro playoff experience. Only time will tell if this experience will help get them ready for playoff hockey at the next level.