ROSEMONT, Ill. – Three hundred and thirty-four days have gone by since the last time the Chicago Wolves have taken the ice, and finally, on Friday night, they return to action. The almost calendar year in between contests has been a roller coaster for all of us, and the Wolves aren’t an exception from that.
Since their overtime win over Rockford in March of 2020, the Wolves have seen the loss of their affiliation with the Vegas Golden Knights, the gain of affiliation with the Carolina Hurricanes, and a temporary dual affiliation with the Nashville Predators during this tumultuous 2020-21 season. For months we waited, and it almost didn’t seem possible until the morning of Opening Day that hockey would be returning to the American Hockey League.
Here we are. All the questions. All the uncertainty. The players, the coaches, and the staff are ready to make this season happen. Let us begin by looking at what to see from the Wolves over the next four months.
2/5 vs. Grand Rapids
2/6 at Rockford
2/11 vs. Grand Rapids
2/20 vs. Iowa
2/21 vs. Iowa
2/26 at Grand Rapids
2/28 vs. Grand Rapids
3/5 vs. Cleveland
3/6 vs. Cleveland
Ryan Warsofsky – First year as Wolves coach. 34-22 in first season coaching Charlotte
As of the publishing time, the Wolves have not named their leadership group for the 2020-21 season.
27-26-5 – 4th place in Central Division
2019-20 Season Summary
In their third season under coach Rocky Thompson and their last as the Vegas Golden Knights’ affiliate, the Wolves struggled to keep above a .500 record in defense of their Western Conference title. They sported a negative goal differential for the first time since the 2015-16 season – coincidentally the last season that the Wolves missed the playoffs. Three players shared the goal-scoring lead for the team at the time of the stoppage, including assistant captain Curtis McKenzie, while Lucas Elvenes led the team in points in his first season in North America. In net, Oscar Dansk led the way with 18 victories. Following three straight Central Division titles, the Wolves found themselves sitting at 4th place in the division by the shutdown, and in September, would announce their affiliation with the Carolina Hurricanes.
Hot or Not?
The COVID protocols and their influence on how the rosters are allowed to be built have presented a unique scenario for the Wolves. For one, they have a greater pool of players to build around with the partnership with the Nashville Predators following Milwaukee’s opting out of the 2020-2021 season.
Their forward core boasts four first-round picks – Dominik Bokk (2018), Seth Jarvis (2020), Ryan Suzuki (2019) and Philip Tomasino (2019) – which should see increased firepower brought to a Wolves team that finished last in the Central Division in goal scoring in 2020. The extra depth up front should allow the team to score at a heightened pace and compete for a top spot in the division.
A question mark for the team does rest in their goaltending – Antoine Bibeau is coming off injuries that kept him to just four games in 2019-2020, while Jeremy Helvig and Beck Warm are both making their full-time AHL debuts this season.
Disclaimer – with the affiliation change, this will reflect more of key players coming over from Charlotte than returning to the Wolves.
- Stelio Mattheos: After a four-year career with the Brandon Wheat Kings and two seasons of at least 90 points and a Calder Cup championship with Charlotte in 2019, Mattheos will add his own offensive skill set to a Wolves team with talent to spare. Most importantly, Mattheos is a cancer survivor and hopes to springboard his recovery from a 2019-20 campaign that saw him in action for only 16 games into a strong showing in 2020-21.
- Cavan Fitzgerald: Championship teams are built with sturdy, dependable stay-at-home defensemen, and Fitzgerald will bring his defensive acumen from Charlotte into Chicago. A reliable penalty killer that will help anchor the blue line with several preseason names on defense now on Carolina’s taxi squad.
- David Gust: A local Illinois product, Gust will be returning home after spending last season with Charlotte. As a steady middle-six forward that set a career-high in plus/minus (+11) last season, he will be depended on to provide reliable depth in the forward lines once more in a new home with familiar faces.
The entire 2019-2020 roster will be absent from this season. This is the unfortunate reality of the affiliation change, as the playmaking of up and coming star Elvenes and the backstopping of Dansk will now be situated in Henderson, Nevada.
- Antoine Bibeau: Entering his seventh year in the AHL, Bibeau will be expected to hold down the #1 goaltending spot for the Wolves this season. Injuries have limited him the last year to just four games, though he has Coach Warsofsky’s confidence in leading the team from the crease this season.
- Drew Shore: After five seasons in Europe between the Swiss League and the KHL, Shore will be bringing over 200 games of AHL experience to a roster filled with many young and fresh faces. In recently celebrating his 30th birthday, he will be the oldest skater on the roster.
What to Watch For?:
First-Round Picks: In the light of a COVID-stricken world, the delayed startup of major junior leagues in North America has allowed for three of the four first-round talents listed earlier to showcase their skills. The youth should be exciting to watch for fans of the Wolves and Hurricanes (or Predators) alike, and Coach Warsofsky has stated clearly his intention not to protect them in the lineup and, instead, provide them with ample opportunity to contribute to the teams.
Bokk has been playing in Sweden’s top league already this season, which should allow for an easier transition to the AHL game. He has an NHL caliber shot and has the creativity to help open up space on the power play and even strength.
Suzuki will look to elevate his play with the Wolves, bringing the smooth hands and speed that made him a pick for a loaded Team Canada in December’s World Junior tournament. He will be joined by his teammate Tomasino, with Jarvis as the most recent draftee to fill out an incredibly talented forward group.
Wolves fans, however, should remember that despite their draft stock, these are still young players working out their games, and all players other than Bokk will return to their respective junior teams when these leagues start back up. At the moment, however, they should take the time to learn these names – they won’t be going anywhere but up.
Goaltending: In a perfect world, the Wolves would likely be starting with 2019 Calder Cup champion Alex Nedeljkovic in their crease with a familiar face in Kasimir Kaskisuo to back him up. Both of these goalies instead find themselves on Carolina and Nashville’s taxi squads, respectively, which leaves Bibeau, Helvig and Warm as the goaltenders on the roster.
Bibeau gives the Wolves a solid veteran presence in net, but it’s very difficult for goaltenders to return to form following such hip injuries that Bibeau’s suffered. Behind Bibeau is newcomer Helvig with only two games’ worth of experience and Warm coming off a four-year career with the Tri-City Americans and Edmonton Oil Kings in the WHL. Helvig went 14-12-3 with Greenville in the ECHL in 2019-2020, while Warm compiled 71 victories over his major junior career, and so the bodies of work remain there despite the AHL experience.
With the uncertainty of the times, the Wolves could easily find themselves relying on the young bucks to backstop them into a quest for another Central Division title.