CHICAGO – Same, same, but different. That’s the motto for head coach Rocky Thompson’s team as it pushes for its third-consecutive Central Division title, and second under the Vegas affiliation. The difference between last year’s roster and this one is that Rocky finally has a team which isn’t going to spend the first two months of the season developing chemistry and feeling one another out. There are 14 familiar faces who will once again be donning a Wolves sweater for the team’s 25th season, and they all plan on avenging last season’s abrupt end.
Wolves fans should not just be excited about the familiar faces returning to the lineup. The addition of veteran Curtis McKenzie, who captained the Texas Stars to the Calder Cup Finals, should help replace some of the scoring lost by Teemu Pulkkinen and Beau Bennett going overseas. Bennett also surprised and provided Chicago with some much-needed depth in the middle of the ice. When he went down with an injury, the Wolves found themselves scrambling to find a body to not just play center, but to have some success in it. To fill this hole, Vegas brought in 2018 Olympic Silver Medalist Brooks Macek, who should provide some much-needed center depth. The addition of Zach Fucale gives the Vegas/Chicago organization depth in goal, which was plainly absent when Marc-Andre Fleury, Malcolm Subban and Oscar Dansk were all injured at the same time.
Simply put, this Chicago Wolves team is built to perform at the high level last year’s team did, but all season, and they are bolstered in all ends of the ice by finally having bodies to fill out the depth chart.
Nuts and Bolts:
Division/Conference Finish: 1st in Central/2nd in the West
Playoff Finish: Swept in three games by the Rockford IceHogs
Record vs. Division: 32-17-4-3
Record vs. Conference: 42-23-7-4
Goals For Per Game: 3.21, 6th in the AHL
Goals Against Per Game: 2.74, 6th in the AHL
Power Play: 18.6%, 62 goals on 334 attempts, 11th in the AHL
Penalty Kill: 83.4%, 49 goals allowed on 295 attempts, 12th in the AHL
Stats acquired from theahl.com
Youth in Revolt
With the additions of Erik Brannstrom, Zach Whitecloud, Dylan Coghlan and Nicolas Hague full time to the Chicago Wolves blueline, it’s clear Vegas has development on its mind for its American Hockey League affiliate. Brannstrom is the pride and joy of VGK, and is the first real prospect Golden Knights fans can name off the top of their head. Hague quickly became a shutdown defenseman for the Wolves during the playoffs, and it will be interesting to see how he’s able to further develop his offensive skills. Whitecloud and Coghlan make up the final pairing of the young Chicago defense, but their youth and speed could easily be an asset in the quick system favored by Rocky. With Jake Bischoff making the Vegas Golden Knights roster out of training camp, this means at least one spot on both the power play and penalty kill has opened up for one of the young defensemen to step into.
After sharing the net for the majority of last season, it seemed as though Oscar Dansk had earned the starting job. However, in the playoffs, it was Maxime Lagace who gave his team the best chance to win, making 72 saves in triple overtime and doing whatever he could to stave off elimination for his team. While Rocky refuses to comment on which goalie, if any, has earned the starting job as of now, do not be surprised if stalwart Lagace gets the nod over Dansk, who at times can get in his own head. A more hot take, but not completely out of the question, would be to predict that Zach Fucale will eventually earn his shot in Chicago from the ECHL’s Fort Wayne Komets.
Leadership Up for Grabs?
With the loss of captain Paul Thompson and defensive role model Jason Garrison, the Wolves will need a few players to step up, especially since this team is possibly the youngest one Chicago has ever iced. Stefan Matteau has fingered T.J. Tynan as the leader this season, and added that both him (Matteau) and Macek will help develop the youth of tomorrow on this team. Rocky also believes Griffin Reinhart will be an asset for the leadership group on the blueline, as he is the team’s veteran on the back end now with Garrison joining the Oilers.
On how Hague looks to begin the season:
“I think he looks really good. He did a really good job in Las Vegas playing to his strengths. He made a lot of really good plays with the puck, he was producing offensively, and I think the biggest thing we can do is to strengthen his game without the puck and we’re excited about doing that with him.”
If there’s one thing Rocky’s teams are known for, it’s their conditioning, and this year appears to be no different:
“I think our test scores have been better this year than they were last year. That’s something that if you’re going to play the way that we play, you’re going to have to be conditioned. If you don’t, you’re going to fall by the wayside, so I’m happy with where it’s at right now.”
In general, Rocky is excited and ready to get the season started.
“Even though it’s young, I’m really excited about working with the guys that we have. They had good camps, Nicolas Hague being one of them in the NHL. I think we’re looking good they way our team is being made up. We’ve got some new faces that have played pro elsewhere. Brooks Macek is a guy who’s been on another team. Gage Quinney is another centerman that was brought in from Wilkes-Barre on an American League deal last year and he did such a good job, he ended up getting an NHL contract this year. We’re excited about these players we haven’t seen and we’re excited about the players we know.”
The Brannwagon makes its first North American stop in Chicago, and brings with it a mass of VGK fans just drooling at the thought of him. During his draft year, Jeff Marek described the defenseman as,
“NHL teams who favour a smart possession game will love Brannstrom. Undersized by traditional standards (5-foot-10, 179 pounds), but moves the puck great. At the Five Nations Tournament he played like every shift was his last and tried to make something happen every time he was out there. Scouts noticed.”
Will Brannstrom be Vegas-bound this season? More than likely, no, unless he impresses in his first month. Vegas has shown it is willing to wait for a prospect to develop in Chicago, and Gerard Gallant clearly believes Brannstrom will benefit more from playing every night with the Wolves.
Born in Winnipeg, the German-Canadian hockey player was drafted in the sixth round by the Detroit Red Wings in 2010, but opted to turn pro in Europe after juniors, signing in Deutsche Eishockey Liga where he has remained his entire career. Until this season. In the free agent flurry after the Olympics, the Vegas Golden Knights finally gave the Olympic Silver Medalist a reason to continue his pro career in North America. Macek has won the DEL Championship the past two seasons, and he also recorded the most goals in 2017-18. It will be interesting to see how the powerful center adjusts both to North American ice and the longer season, but he has the potential to be the star center the Wolves were lacking last season.
The 27 year old veteran of the Dallas Stars organization is getting a fresh start with the Vegas Golden Knights. In five professional seasons, the winger has notched 99 NHL games and 223 AHL games, being almost a career point-per-game player in the latter. Signing the former captain of the Texas Stars will benefit both Vegas, as it gives them more physical scoring depth, and Chicago, as it gives them someone who is fresh off a Calder Cup Final appearance and who knows what it takes to succeed in the AHL. He’ll serve both as a mentor for the younger guys while helping to replace some of the offensive firepower the Wolves lost this offseason.
Gone But Not Forgotten:
There is only one way to describe Garrison, he is a true professional. The defenseman who filled any role Rocky Thompson asked of him last season, from mentoring the young defensemen in Bischoff and Hague, to scoring on the power play, signed a contract with the Edmonton Oilers on October 2nd after joining the team on a Professional Tryout in preseason. Garrison brought consistency and dependability to a young Wolves blueline which has only gotten younger, and his 28 points (8 goals, 20 assists) will be hard to replace. Most likely, this will be a replacement-by-committee task since filling the hole left by a veteran like Garrison is a daunting task.
With 57 points (12 goals, 45 assists), Bennett was one of the top point guys, and point-per-game guys in the American Hockey League this past season. A natural wing, he adapted to the center position and bolstered a team which lacked centers all season. Rocky Thompson fingered losing Bennett to injury early in the playoffs as an unfortunate turning point for his team this spring, and losing two of its top three scorers, and in the league, leaves room for many Wolves players to step up.
Sixth in scoring in the AHL with 65 points (29 goals and 36 assists) the quick-skating Finnish winger joined Bennett in jumping to the KHL this offseason. The loss of Pulkkinen leaves another scoring hole for the Wolves, but Pulkkinen was a very streaky scorer, going games without recording a point. Chicago could benefit from having a cast of scorers who can contribute more consistently than Pulkkinen, but 65 points will be difficult to replace.
Sin Bin Swami Sez:
You can already pencil the Wolves in for a playoff spot, but in the tough Central Division, where there is a loaded Grand Rapids Griffins team, they could struggle to win their third-consecutive division title. If there’s one thing you can be certain of, it’s that Rocky Thompson’s teams are impossible to predict. He turned a team who everyone had counted out of playoffs in November of last into a division champion, surpassing any expectations levied for that motley first-year affiliate. Rocky is known for doing just this, having won the Memorial Cup in just his second year as a head coach in major juniors. The Chicago Wolves have the speed to play with any team in the AHL, but it is yet to be seen if they can score with them.
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