CHICAGO – With Chicago Wolves training camp opening today, it’s only fair to take a look back at one of the most underrated players for the Wolves last season, who, luckily for Wolves fans, was one of the first offseason player signings this summer.
Any guesses? How about a few hints?
The Kanata, Ontario native may have only recorded 10 points last season (3 G, 7A) in 45 games played, but the addition of the speedy defenseman to Chicago’s blue line more than coincided with the team’s “started from the bottom, now we’re here” resurgence in December.
That’s right – it’s Kevin Lough.
The defenseman was signed to a Standard Player Contract on June 25th for the 2018-19 season. Simply put, Lough is the real unsung hero of the Chicago Wolves’ past season, and General Manager Wendell Young made a smart decision in moving to lock him down as swiftly as possible.
With Petteri Lindbohm’s season-ending injury in December and the early recall of Shea Theodore to the Vegas Golden Knights, the Wolves sorely needed another body on the back end after going 1-11 in their 12 previous games. On December 4th, Young worked his magic and snatched the young puck-moving defenseman from the ECHL’s Adirondack Thunder, which was, at the time, coached by previous Chicago Wolves’ Assistant Coach Brad Tapper.
The funniest part? Young stumbled upon Lough by accident. Though the defenseman had recorded 14 points (2G, 12A) through 21 games with Adirondack:
“I was scouting a game in Manchester and they were playing Adirondack. I saw Kevin playing – I went there to scout some other players and Kevin stood out for me,” Young said. “We got to the point where we needed a defenseman that could skate the puck and move with the puck and that was kind of the request of the coaches. I go, ‘I’m pretty sure I got a guy.’…
Young described the phone call with Tapper, which landed Lough in Chicago:
“I called Tapper and I said, ‘Taps, you’ve gotta help me out here. I’ve seen him play, he was unbelievable for you, did this, this and this,’ and he goes, ‘No, he’s 100% an American Hockey League defenseman. He can play and everything, you saw he does every night,’ and that’s how I ended up bringing him in.”
In his very first game with Chicago, Lough recorded two assists in the team’s 3-1 victory over the San Diego Gulls. Though the Wolves would drop the next game, they rebounded in a huge way winning the next six and outscoring their opponents by a combined score of 28-14.
Lough discredits his addition as being part of the reason the Wolves transformed their season, saying,
“I think, obviously, the team was struggling before I came in, but in no way am I saying I turned it around,” Lough Said. “You look at the lineup and the talent we have on our team is second to none. It’s top in the league. It was just everyone knew we had capabilities of doing great things, but it wasn’t clicking and it seemed like as soon as it clicked – after my first five games here, I was like, how has this team lost 12 in a row. I was shocked because the first five games, I say five but it was more like 20, I was like, I didn’t think there was a team that could beat us. And even when we would lose, I would be like, well, we should’ve won. I think it was more of a wake up call, and once guys got that mindset back into their games, there was no chance we were stopping.”
But Young begs to differ:
“We did not have our d moving very much, and I think that was a big thing early in the year. We talked about this, that we didn’t have a guy that could skate the puck up. As a team, our defense moved up, but I think with Kevin coming in, that changed the dynamic of our team, especially on the back end…,” Young said. “I think just by what Kevin did, I think other defensemen followed, They became part of the rush. I don’t think the first part of the season they were part of the offense, and the way the game is now, your defense has to be a part of your offense. I think Kevin led the way with that.”
Before the addition of Lough, Wolves defensemen had recorded only 10 goals and 22 assists (1.52 points per game) in the team’s first 21 games, with five of the goals and six of the assists belong to Theodore. After Lough joined, the blue line would put up two goals and 16 assists in just its next six games improving to 1.88 points-per-game on the season and 2.02 points-per-game in the remaining 55 games.
It’s hard to argue with such a significant statistical improvement, but the blue line’s improved play showed up on more than the scoreboard as the team’s overall record saw the Wolves move from dead last in the Central Division to its eventual first-place finish.
Though T.J. Tynan was the recipient of the team’s Unsung Hero award, he was also named an All-Star. Lough flew much more under the radar, which makes him the team’s real unsung hero and someone to watch during training camp.
If you’re still wondering about the blueliner, maybe Young’s description of his play will sway you.
“He moves the puck so well. He skates the puck. He skates himself out of trouble. That’s his biggest asset. He’s competitive. He plays hard, he wants it, so all those things combine in Kevin and I don’t know where it’s gonna stop, whether it’s the American League or the NHL, but he has a chance to go further.”
That’s right, Wendell thinks he has a chance of improving upon his already impressive growth from a bottom-pairing defenseman in Adirondack to an AHL mainstay or even the NHL. It’s certainly hard to pin down where Lough’s growth will stop since he’s seemingly elevated his play entirely since turning professional after recording just 31 points in his four years at Colgate University.
Lough credits the chances given to him by Cail MacLean [now head coach of the Stockton Heat] and Brad Tapper [now an assistant with Grand Rapids] with helping him find a new gear.
“In college, it was very structured and at some times, maybe my style of game – I wouldn’t say it wasn’t necessarily suited for college hockey, but the way I was asked to play, I was more of a defensive defenseman,” Lough recalled. “When I first got to pro, I was given these opportunities on the power play and whatnot, and I never thought of myself as that type of player. Deep down in my mind, I always tell myself I’m an offensive defenseman, but I wasn’t putting up points, so I started to doubt myself. When I hit pro and I started putting up some points, I got that confidence back and I was given all these opportunities in Adirondack and in Chicago, and that was a bit of a change of mindset. Then it happened.”
During every practice, Kevin is one of the first guys on the ice and one of the last to leave, often staying behind to get in some extra work. Even when he was an extra body during the playoffs, he worked every single practice as if he’s about to suit up for the next game, which says a lot about his mindset as a player.
They say success is 10% skill and 90% work ethic, and though Lough clocks in at just 5’11”, he’ll sacrifice anything for this team including taking a stick to the face in his first game and eventually suffering his first broken nose as the season wore on.
If there’s any sleeper player you should keep an eye on during training camp, it’s Kevin Lough, the Chicago Wolves’ real unsung hero for the 2017-18 season. Expect him to use training camp to pick up right where he left off, showing Wolves head coach Rocky Thompson just why he deserves a spot on the team’s opening night roster.