When the Florida Panthers were forced to find a new partner in the American Hockey League, it only made sense for them to pair up with the Charlotte Checkers.
Charlotte, after all, needed a new partner as well.
Although it took a little longer than anyone expected when the move was first announced in 2020, the Panthers and Checkers hit the ice for the first time Saturday night in Hershey, Pa., as they kick off a new season.
The Checkers decided to opt out of the 2021 season due to Covid-19 concerns.
In another twist, the Seattle Kraken will share the team with the Panthers meaning some of the top prospects of two NHL teams will be playing in Charlotte.
Dan Bylsma, who won the Stanley Cup as head coach of the Penguins, will coach Seattle’s AHL team in Palm Springs next year and will be an assistant coach in Charlotte. Leo Luongo is the team’s goalie coach.
“It has been a long time since we have played with fans in the building so it is going to be great to be back,’’ coach Geordie Kinnear told FHN last week. “Everyone is excited. But I am excited about the next game, the next practice. That’s just how I am. I love the process, getting everyone better. We’re trying to build this thing and do it right.”
Said Florida coach Joel Quenneville: “Geordie’s going to have a nice group down there. We’ve got some guys that we know can play. Guys that are young, we want them playing.”
Following the end of the 2019-20 season, there was a big shakeup in the AHL.
It all started when the Vegas Golden Knights bought the San Antonio Rampage (a former Florida affiliate) and moved it to the Vegas suburbs.
That left St. Louis without a team.
Florida lost its affiliation when Springfield partnered up with the Blues.
The Carolina Hurricanes left Charlotte, which is only a 2 1/2 hour drive west from Raleigh, to take over for Vegas in Chicago.
So, it wasn’t too hard to figure out that the Panthers and Checkers would join forces.
“It’s going to be an unbelievable place for players to grow up both as players and as people. Charlotte is a wonderful city,’’ Eric Joyce, Florida’s assistant GM at the time of the move, said. “We’re very fortunate to have this come together.’’
Joyce is now with Toronto, but the Panthers have plenty of ties to Charlotte.
Kinnear, who has been Florida’s AHL coach since Tom Rowe was promoted to the team’s front office in 2015, was a long-time assistant for the Checkers when they were affiliated with the Hurricanes.
Kinnear has often talked about his love of the Charlotte area and was pretty happy to be going back as the team’s new head coach.
“This was the first American League team I was an assistant coach with so I am really excited to be coming back. It’s pretty neat,” said Kinnear, who was an assistant coach for the Checkers from their inaugural AHL season in 2009 until joining Rowe in Portland in 2015.
”In a roundabout way, I always wanted to be the coach of the Charlotte Checkers and I took a real long and looping road to get here. I don’t even know how it all happened, but it happened. I’m a big believer in things happen for a reason and if you work hard, positive things will evolve. I am very excited to be back.”
Florida hired Paul Krepelka to replace Joyce after he spent the previous two seasons as senior VP of hockey operations for the Hurricanes.
Defenseman Chase Priskie also played for the Checkers during the 2019-20 season before he was part of the Vincent Trocheck trade. The Checkers also signed former Florida forward Scott Wilson.
This Charlotte team appears to be pretty loaded as Quenneville alluded to with a number of the Panthers’ top young players lining up in North Carolina.
Aside from Priskie, Florida also has defensemen Max Gildon, John Ludvig and Lucas Carlsson. Matt Kiersted was assigned to Charlotte but was recalled by the Panthers when Markus Nutivaara got hurt on Wednesday.
At forward, Florida assigned 2018 first-round pick Grigori Denisenko as well as former Boston College standout Logan Hutsko to Charlotte.
— Charlotte Checkers (@CheckersHockey) October 7, 2021
Aleksi Heponiemi and Serron Noel are also in Charlotte after strong training camps with the Panthers with Zac Dalpe named the team’s captain.
Maxim Mamin was sent down on Friday.
Christopher Gibson also had an impressive camp with the Panthers and is Florida’s goalie assigned to the Checkers.
“You saw the group we have from Florida and what they did in camp,” Kinnear said. “They did a good job, all came in shape and had strong rookie camps as well. They have come here with an unbelievable attitude.
“The work they have put in … there has been zero drop off. I have been part of the AHL for a long time and a lot of players come down after being in NHL camp and kind of take their foot off the gas a little. I can assure you, no one here has done that and that is pretty impressive.”
Charlotte is used to having success on the ice lately with the Checkers winning the last Calder Cup awarded in 2019.
That was the first time the Checkers made the Cup finals.
This season should find the Checkers back in the postseason as the AHL has expanded its playoff system with all but eight of the league’s 31 teams qualifying for the postseason.
The new setup will see just two teams in each of the four divisions be left out. The first round will be a best-of-3 brining the playoffs back to 16 teams.
Kinnear is just excited to be back on the ice and coaching his team again.
When Charlotte opted out of playing last year, Bill Zito made a deal with Tampa Bay to have Florida prospects play with the Lightning’s AHL team in Syracuse.
Kinnear spent a lot of time in Syracuse, but he also spent a lot of time with Florida’s ECHL team in Greenville, S.C.
Since Covid shutdown Springfield’s season in 2020, Kinnear has bounced around between the Panthers coaching staff to visiting other teams.
He said it has been a good learning experience.
“It was great to be around the Panthers organization as much as I was,” said Kinnear, who will coach in his third city (Portland, Springfield) as Florida’s AHL coach. “And I got to go into another organization and see how they run things, meet new people. I did a lot of studying the game last year, a lot of reflection. Now I want to be able to apply it all and have a positive impact to the kids on our team.”
For the players, as well, being on a team they know is their own can also be helpful. A good number of players last year either did not get to play — or did not get to play much. Florida’s players were also being shuttled back-and-forth from the Syracuse team to the Panthers’ taxi squad.
”It’s all about relationships,’’ Kinnear said. “When you’re developing someone, you really care about them and there’s a lot of positive energy. A lot of them went to another team last year and had to work through it together or worked on the taxi squad.
“They did it all together. I think there has been a real positive focus from them because they have really developed a relationship. The sky is the limit.”
FLORIDA PANTHERS AHL HISTORY
Cincinnati Cyclones (1993-95 – IHL)
Carolina Monarchs (1995-97)
New Haven Beast (1997-99)
Kentucky Thoroughblades (1998-99)
Louisville Panthers (1999-2001)
San Antonio Rampage (2002-05)
Rochester Americans (2005-11)
San Antonio Rampage (2011-15)
Portland Pirates (2015-16)
Springfield Thunderbirds (2016-20)
Charlotte Checkers (2020-present)