ROSEMONT, Ill. – We’ve hit the halfway point of the AHL season, and Wolves fans have a few things to be excited about. Just like last season*, the Chicago Wolves have three players who were named as American Hockey League All-Stars. Why the asterisk, do you ask?
While last season, Brandon Pirri was named as the Wolves’ lone All-Star representative, he was unable to attend due to the birth of his first child. Then, Tomas Hyka was named as his replacement, but was forced to withdraw due to injury. Finally, T.J. Tynan was the Wolves player who wound up representing his team during AHL All-Star Weekend.
Pirri, Daniel Carr and Erik Brannstrom were all outright named to the Central Division All-Star team. Though Pirri appears to be permanently with the Vegas Golden Knights of the NHL was therefore unable to attend the AHL’s festivities in Springfield, Massachusetts, Carr and Brannstrom represented Chicago loud and proud. Or however, you say that in Swedish, anyway.
Pacing the team with 53 points (21 goals, 32 assists, +25) in 38 games, Carr notched three points (2 goals, 1 assist) in the three Central Division All-Star games he played in. Eighth on the Wolves in scoring, and leading all Chicago blueliners, Brannstrom currently has 24 points (6 goals, 18 assists) in 24 games and contributed four assists in three All-Star contests.
What a month it’s been for Brannstrom. The young star defenseman represented Sweden as its captain in the 2019 IIHF World Juniors tournament, and while his team made a shockingly early exit, Branny was also named to this tournament’s All-Star team.
Since rejoining the Wolves, Brannstrom has been instrumental in Chicago’s recent uptick in power-play productivity. As the defenseman responsible for piggybacking Rocky’s first power-play unit, he has 3 goals and 11 assists on the man advantage.
Brannstrom was very excited about all of his recent accolades, and he believes they’ve added to his confidence a bit.
“It means that you’re doing something good out there and [I’m] just gonna keep playing my game and have fun out there.”
Carr, meanwhile, continues to have success with linemates Gage Quinney and Brooks Macek who combined have 119 points thus far. They’re one of, if not the, most electric lines in the American Hockey League currently. It would be easy to argue that any of the three is deserving of an All-Star nomination, but Carr leads second-place Macek by 11 points.
Though Carr and Brannstrom had a bit of an abbreviatedAll-Starr Break because of their nominations, the former echoed the young defenseman’s sentiment, saying,
“I’ve never been to this one, so I think it’ll be fun. It works out pretty good. We’re going to see a bunch of my college buddies after, so I think we’re excited.”
While the Wolves were one point shy of having Rocky Thompson as the Central Division’s coach, three outright nominees isn’t too shabby. They’re sitting third in the Central Division halfway through the season, and are one point shy of being tied for second with one game in hand.
Rocky’s very confident about his team’s stamina headed in to the second half of the season, saying,
“We’ve been pretty cognizant of our guys’ rest, so I think from a physical standpoint, it’s been good. I think mentally, it’s nice for the guys to get away. You’ve got four days to do whatever it is you want to do and enjoy your time and rest mentally. So, come back and our guys will be excited for the second half. But, I think our guys really enjoy being with each other all the time, but the mental break will be nice and they’ll be hungry.”
One place the Wolves can improve upon right now is their consistency in play, and in winning. Though they’re sitting third in the division, if you look at their game-by-game record, you’ll notice they’ve been very hot and cold so far this season. Rocky believes they do have room to improve as well.
“I think we’re playing pretty good as well right now. I’m happy where we’re at – I’m never satisfied. I want us to continue to get better and targeting things we can improve on is really important. Every day, we’re trying to get better and that’s what we’ll do.”
An even further improved Chicago Wolves hockey club could be a force to be reckoned with as playoffs creep up. If you look at the AHL statistical leaders, there are Wolves players all over. In fact, Chicago holds the top three plus-minus rankings in the league, and Carr is both on the overall assists leaders page and the power-play points page.
Speaking of power-play success, the Wolves are now clicking away at a 21.4% rate of conversion, good for seventh overall in the AHL. This is a far departure from the beginning of the season, when they struggled to convert anything on the man advantage. Notably, one place for improvement is on the penalty kill, where a 15th placing and 81.2% rate puts Chicago at fifth in the Central Division.
Another place for improvement is in net; no Wolves goaltender appears anywhere on the goaltending leaders section. Goaltending has been frustratingly inconsistent for Chicago at times this season, and the team will need a clear number one heading into playoffs who is healthy and can steal a win or two. Until Max Lagace’s amazing performance in game three of the first round of the playoffs last season, the Wolves struggling to out-dual the impressive Collin Delia in net.
With these things in mind, look for Rocky’s team to come out of the break ready to tighten things up as it stares down a slate of Central Division rival games. Rocky, Brannstrom and co. all have unfinished business on their plates, whether it’s from an early World Juniors exit, or an early Calder Cup Playoffs exit.