Look Ahead — 2019 Coach of the Year: Checkers’ Vellucci grooms players for NHL, keeps winning games

Since taking the reins of the Hurricanes’ AHL affiliate, the longtime coach and executive has developed players and piled up victories

(Gregg Forwerck / Carolina Hurricanes)

With Mike Krzyzewski and Roy Williams roaming the college basketball sidelines on Tobacco Road, North Carolina is never devoid of coaching star power.

While either could be cutting down the nets in Minneapolis in early April — as they have done a combined eight times in 73 seasons of coaching — it’s worth remembering that anything short of a national championship is usually a disappointing outcome for the two Hall of Fame coaches.

So while either Krzyzewski or Williams could win it all this year, the coach who might have the best chance of capturing a championship is the Charlotte Checkers’ Mike Vellucci — North State Journal’s prediction as 2019 Coach of the Year.

The Checkers, the Carolina Hurricanes’ American Hockey League affiliate, have seen a revolving door of coaches in recent years. Jeff Daniels, currently as assistant coach with the Hurricanes, was not brought back for the 2015-16 season, leading to longtime collegiate and AHL coach Mark Morris’ hiring for that year.

But Morris returned to the NCAA after one year in Charlotte, and Ulf Samuelsson — a former NHL teammate of then-Hurricanes GM Ron Francis and one-time Coyotes and Rangers assistant coach — took the reins.

Samuelsson guided the Checkers back to the postseason but lost in the first round. He then exited himself, taking an assistant coaching job with the NHL’s Blackhawks.

Enter Vellucci.

The Hurricanes’ assistant general manager had a long track record of winning in the Ontario Hockey League with the now defunct Plymouth Whalers — a team once owned by Peter Karmanos Jr. — as both a GM and a coach. After a few years in a front office-only role with the Hurricanes, Vellucci was ready to hop back behind the bench.

The results were immediate. The Checkers improved 10 points in the standings in Vellucci’s first year and reached the second round of the playoffs.

This season, the Checkers are a juggernaut under Vellucci, entering the Christmas break with a 23-7-2 record for 48 points in 32 games — a .750 point percentage that puts Charlotte well ahead of the pack in the AHL’s overall standings.

Perhaps most importantly, Vellucci has already groomed some of the Hurricanes’ young talent into contributing NHL players.

Lucas Wallmark, the top point-producer on Vellucci’s Checkers last season, has been an all-situations contributer for the Hurricanes this season. Warren Foegele, who burst on the scene with 28 goals as an AHL rookie last year, has played in all of Carolina’s games so far this season and become a key penalty killer despite having just over a hundred games of pro experience. Injury call-ups like Clark Bishop have proven ready to be role players in Raleigh.

And while Valentin Zykov didn’t work out for the Hurricanes this year — he was waived and subsequently claimed by Edmonton — he led the AHL in goals last year with 33 in just 63 games.

Vellucci, 52, has proven he can combine what is best for a player’s development while winning games, making him the perfect fit for a parent franchise that is trying to establish a winning culture on a budget.

For example, take former first round pick Martin Necas.

The Hurricanes came into the 2018-19 season with the expectation they’d have to lean on Necas and this summer’s second overall pick, Andrei Svechnikov, to be successful. While Svechnikov quickly adapted to the pace of the NHL, the transition wasn’t so smooth for Necas.

Coming from bigger European ice surfaces and facing better players than he had in the Czech Republic, Necas stumbled and managed just two points in his first seven games with the Hurricanes. On Oct. 17 — the day after he scored his first NHL goal — Necas was assigned to Charlotte.

Vellucci’s influence has been evident. Necas, a natural center, has moved to right wing to lessen his defensive responsibilities, and he responded with 22 points in his first 26 games in Charlotte.

Necas will eventually move back to center — and on to Carolina. Such is Vellucci’s reward for successfully preparing young players for the next step in their career.

It’s something he’s been doing consistently since his junior days in the early 2000s, graduating players to the next level while continuing to win games.

His greatest reward is likely seeing the young players he helped mold living their dreams in the NHL. Just don’t be surprised if he gets a little glory himself with a Calder Cup championship this spring.