“It’s unacceptable, really, to continue the way that we’re going.” – Wolves Head Coach Rocky Thompson, after Saturday’s 5-2 loss to the Grand Rapids Griffins.
ROSEMONT, IL – The Chicago Wolves find themselves with a record of 5-11-4-1 about a quarter of the way through the season. For a team that has outshot its opponents by almost 100 shots (711 for and 619 against), SOURCE: https://admin.leaguestat.com/download.php?client_code=ahl&file_path=daily-report/daily-report.html they have not been able to translate this success into goals as they find themselves near the bottom of the league in both goals for and against.
Chicago finds itself 27th in the league in goals for, with 56 on the season, averaging 2.67 per game. The number one team is the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins, with 3.84. The Wolves are also 25th in the league in goals allowed, averaging 3.43 per game. The league leaders? The Toronto Marlies at 1.91.
For a team with so many upsides, what is the problem? Why can they not capitalize on all their shots, and how come they are surrendering so many? What will it finally take for this team to turn around its season?
The Chicago Wolves began the 2017-18 season with the best power play unit in the league, led by now-Vegas Golden Knights players Alex Tuch and Shea Theodore. Tuch played in three games for the Wolves, recording two power-play goals, two even-strength goals and one assist before earning a call-up SOURCE: https://theahl.com/stats/player/6483/alex-tuch. In his eight games with Chicago, Theodore notched 11 points (5G,6A) SOURCE: https://theahl.com/stats/player/5555/57/shea-theodore. Delving further into Theodore’s stats, four goals came at even-strength, one on the power play, one assist at even-strength and five power-play assists. While the loss of these two players in the season hurt Chicago statistically, the team was never .500 to begin with, earning a 3-4-1-0 record during Theodore’s stint with the team.
Pull the Goalie
Injuries to the mother club also caused the team to lose both of its goaltenders early. Max Lagace SOURCE: https://www.chicagowolves.com/team/statistics/ was 2-2 in his four games in Chicago, with a 3.24 GAA and a 0.888 SV%. Oscar Dansk tended the net for one game, suffering an overtime loss and posting an abysmal 5.57 GAA and 0.833 SV%.
To make up for the loss of its two goaltenders, the Chicago Wolves were loaned Kasimir Kaskisuo from the Toronto organization, who in his eleven games has gone 3-7-1 with a 2.72 GAA and 0.909 SV%. C.J. Motte of the ECHL’s Quad City Mallards was given a PTO and saw three games. Motte went 1-1-1 in goal, with a 2.30 GAA and a .922 save percentage. The Wolves were later given an opportunity to receive the AHL’s all-time shutout leader on a loan, so Michael Leighton replaced Motte in Chicago’s lineup. Leighton has backstopped Chicago in four games thus far, with a 4.49 GAA and a .831 save percentage.
On paper, Motte is by far the best goaltender the Wolves have had in net for them this season, but they released him anyway. Aside from Saturday’s game, where Michael Leighton allowed two goals on two goals, the tandem of Leighton and Kaskisuo has posted similar numbers to the Lagace-Dansk duo.
The only goaltender to steal a win for this team has been C.J. Motte. With Lagace’s anticipated return in the next week, it will be interesting to see which of the two goaltenders the Wolves will decide to return from his loan first. Whoever remains will be here a bit, as Dansk has not even begun skating in his recovery from an injury sustained in Vegas.
Hopefully, the stint in the NHL will help Lagace’s play, and he will steal a win or two while this team figures itself out. However, the team in front still needs to play better. The Wolves cannot rely on their goaltenders alone to pull them out of the hole they are facing.
Put Me In, Coach
At this point, the next logical source of Chicago’s woes would be their head coach, correct? If that was your assumption, I could tell you right now you are wrong.
It is hard to explain unless you have seen the dynamic between Rocky Thompson and his players, but he has not lost the locker room. They all still pay more than enough attention, and clearly want to play for him.
Thompson came to Chicago after leading the Windsor Spitfires to a Memorial Cup victory in just his second season as a head coach. SOURCE: https://www.nhl.com/goldenknights/news/rocky-thompson-8-fun-facts/c-289827476. In his first year at the helm, he took a team which had previously finished last in its conference and turned it into one which finished second in its division. His second year saw him take a team which lost out in the first round of playoffs and turn them into a championship team.
Before his stint in Windsor, he led the AHL’s Oklahoma City Barons to the Western Conference Finals twice in four seasons.
Thompson is a coach with a proven record of success, and I do not blame him for his team’s woes. He has always emphasized holding his players accountable, and that is clear during practice. No matter how good a coach is, you cannot force players to play their hearts out. That is something each player decides to do on his own.
If You’re Not First, You’re Last
Circling back to special teams, not only have the Chicago Wolves declined in power play success, dropping from first in the league to 22nd, but their penalty kill has also fallen, dropping from first to 12th.
“Our first power play unit, I’m extremely disappointed in. That’s why I mixed it up midway through the second period right near the end, because you can’t continue to get the opportunity that you get and not have some kind of payoff. They should be disappointed in themselves as a unit and as individuals,”
On November 11th, he cited the team needing to improve at the faceoff dot. While faceoff play has become better since, the Wolves are still not capitalizing on the man advantage. The majority of the power play shots have come from setting up Teemu Pulkkinen or Brandon Pirri for one-timers on the power play. If I can predict Chicago’s strategy from the press box, then surely it has come up in its opponents’ pregame preparations.
While Chicago’s aggressive penalty kill led to their early success, it seems to be working against them recently. This team is allowing the opposition to tee up shot after shot from the outside as the Wolves continuously find themselves being drawn into screening their own goaltender.
The additions of Jason Garrison and Griffin Reinhart to the Wolves’ back end helped initially on the kill, but Reinhart was injured and has missed eight games. Just when it appeared Chicago’s defensive corps would return to full health, which would greatly aid special teams, Petteri Lindbohm joined Chicago’s injured list, as he left Friday’s game in the first period.
“[It’s] a really big loss. We really felt it [Friday] night early in the game. You don’t see him with a lot of points, but he plays and he competes so hard. He’s constantly up against the opposition’s good players, and they know when he’s on the ice every second. So, that is a very tough loss for us. We really felt it last night, for sure, and obviously every game that he is out, it will leave a little bit of a void – I shouldn’t say a little bit, a pretty big one – on our back end,” Thompson said.
Obviously, special teams need to improve on all ends, but the special teams struggles are just a symptom of the real reason behind Chicago’s woes.
Something’s Gotta Give
What is the biggest issue facing the Wolves?
“Our top six hasn’t really generated enough offense with the exception of two players, truthfully. And that obviously has to improve because they’ve done that. But it’s not to say that our bottom six can’t actually contribute as well. And they do have to start to,” thompson said.
He is right. Before scoring Saturday, it had been 11 games since Beau Bennett scored a goal. Pulkkinen went ten games before scoring against Iowa, but he recorded numerous assists in the meantime. Wade Megan, the reigning AHL goal-scoring champion, SOURCE: https://theahl.com/stats/player/4843 did not record a goal until his 14th game of the season. In his past 13 games, Ivan Barbashev has one goal. SOURCE: https://theahl.com/stats/player/5979/ivan-barbashev
Chicago is not getting the scoring it needs from its defensemen, either. In his 13 games with the team, Garrison leads all defensemen with six, yes SIX, points (2G, 4A). Jake Walman is second, with 1G, 5A in twenty games. Jake Bischoff has just five assists in 21 games.
With the exception of Brandon Pirri, this team as a whole needs to start producing consistently, plain and simple.
P. (Y.) T.
The brightest spot for this team has been its captain, Paul Thompson.
“Paul Thompson is a good leader. You could see his competitiveness and it’s contagious. It wasn’t me being a cheerleader by any stretch of the imagination. I give all the credit to Thompson because he went out there. You could see him battle. He got into a fight there. He scored a big goal for us. He’s constantly encouraging his teammates on the bench, and a few of those guys have gotta do what he’s doing. And I don’t mean the physicality. His competitiveness and his wanting to win the game. Like I said, it’s contagious and there’s a reason he wears the ‘C’ and I’m proud of him,” the Wolves coach said.
“Being one of the leaders on the team, it’s just trying to set an example of how – like I said before, if I’m going to hold guys accountable, I need to be doing the right things and playing hard and getting pucks to the net and playing my game, the things that make me effective. If I’m not doing that, if I’m not working my absolute hardest, I can’t hold guys accountable,” paul thompson said
The player Thompson continues to grind every shift and do whatever he can to pump up his team, whether it’s scoring goals or defending his teammates. If the rest of the team follows his example, they should be able to string together a few wins eventually.
Should I Stay or Should I Go?
Wednesday’s game at home against the San Diego Gulls will be a trial-by-fire for this team. San Diego will be on its second of back-to-back games, traveling to Milwaukee the night before it treks to Chicago. The Wolves bench boss echoed the importance of this game Saturday, saying,
“Well it’s a huge opportunity, without a doubt. There’s no way a team can be 100% at that situation and we should be. It’s a great opportunity for us to make a stand and to turn the ship around right then. It’s going to be very important. We’re going to get a day off tomorrow and then we’ve got two days of preparation for one team, and you can view it like a playoff game. That’s how I will.”
If Chicago loses Wednesday’s game, I would expect significant changes to be coming to this team. I do not think Thompson’s in danger of losing his job, but instead believe some player personnel would be moved. Apparently, having so many players on NHL contracts means the Vegas Golden Knights and St. Louis Blues have final say over those player movements, but these agreements do not prevent him from healthy scratching major players to send a message.
Saturday was the first time all season the door to the locker room was still closed when the media arrived for media availability, and most, if not all, of the hockey operations personnel were in the room for the postgame speech. Clearly, the season is hitting a make-or-break point for this team.
Paul Thompson summarized this point in the season better than anyone else possibly could after Saturday’s loss, saying,
“I think we need belief and pride in our team and pride in the way we work every night and that’s a challenge to our team right now is, ‘How do we respond?’ Is it more of the same? Or do we finally step up and answer the bell here?”