CHICAGO – We’re about halfway through the season, and the Chicago Wolves happily find themselves in a playoff spot with 46 points in 37 games, good for fifth in the American Hockey League. Three players – Brandon Pirri, Daniel Carr and Erik Brannstrom – were named as AHL All Stars.
Last year, the Chicago Wolves began the season on a troubling note, and I wrote a piece entitled, “What’s Wrong with the Wolves.” This year?
It’s as promising of a season as Chicago may have had in a few years, and there are two main things which separate this iteration of the Wolves from past ones – physicality and scoring depth, especially coming from the blue line.
Last season, Chicago was out-bodied and out-worked often. Though the Wolves were able to overcome this during the regular season en route to a first place Central Division title, the lack of physicality was a big part of them being swept in the first round by the Rockford IceHogs who were notorious for besting Chicago whenever conduct became involved in a play.
This year? Chicago has stepped up its physicality, and has done so by committee. The additions of Curtis McKenzie and Alex Gallant have led to 118 penalty minutes combined, and the latter is tied for second in the AHL in major penalties with seven. Though fighting is not always a point of bragging, in a league as physical as the AHL, there is certainly a need for policemen who are able to step in when needed to help out a teammate.
Simply put, you need guys on a roster who can step up and protect your skilled assets. Even the Vegas Golden Knights recognized the need for this, and signed Ryan Reeves prior to making their impressive cup run.
Last season, the Stars had McKenzie with his 74 PIMs, and five other players who finished above 50 PIMs. Texas out-battling and out-nosed its opponents while making its Calder Cup run. The more-skilled Marlies had three players above 50 PIMs, showing that while they were a more skill-driven team, Kyle Dubas recognized the importance of being able to protect his players on the ice and hold opponents accountable.
The issue in Chicago? Most of the physical play was by its captain, Paul Thompson, who led the team with 108 penalty minutes. Thompson was also sixth on the team in scoring, so while he was a rather well-rounded asset for Chicago, when he was not on the ice, players weren’t protected. Yes, Chicago was a quick team last year, but speed can only take you so far especially when you have a roster which would prove reliant on having every single player healthy and available at all times.
Spoiler – when Beau Bennett would go down in game one of the playoffs, Chicago proved unable to rebound and make up for his offensive production. While I’m not asserting that having another policeman-type on the roster would have prevented Bennett’s injury, there’s certainly something to be said about having a deterrent.
This tide of stepping up and stepping in has clearly been contagious this season, with the normally less-than-physical Pirri even dropping the mitts Saturday to defend Brannstrom after he was popped in the head.
“I think I was thinking that every other guy on the team would have stepped up that exact same way,” noted Pirri, “whether it was Brannstrom, whether it was Gallant, who usually is the one doing it, or whether it was me. It’s just, I was the guy there; it’s my turn.”
The Wolves are finally being seen as more than just the scoring threat they were last season. They’re a team you cannot expect to toss around without repercussions, and that is important for any team who is looking to make a run.
As for scoring, Rocky Thompson’s team finally has a point-per-game player. In fact, they have three in Tomas Hyka, Carr and Pirri, with three additional players right below this rate. There are even four defensemen in the top 11 of scoring for Chicago, when they only had two in the top 12 last year.
When you get into the playoffs, the more scoring depth you have, the better. Your first line may get the shutdown match up, so it’s only expected that the rest of your roster can pick up the offensive workload. This was the other weapon missing in Chicago’s arsenal, and it became clear during the mini-slumps it encountered when key players became injured, and was none more apparent than during the first round of playoffs.
Now, it looks like the Vegas Golden Knights’ AHL affiliate may have things figured out. They’re scoring by committee, and all players on the roster – minus the goaltenders – have at least one goal on the season. That’s right, Gallant even got his first goal of the season, and third of his career, this weekend against the San Antonio Rampage.
The youthful blue line might be the most pleasant surprise for Wolves fans this season, with rookies Brannstrom (4 goals, 16 assists, 20 points – 25 games), Dylan Coghlan (6 G, 12 A, 18 Pts – 28 GP), Nic Hague (9G, 8A, 17 Pts – 37 GP) and Zach Whitecloud (4G, 13A, 17 Pts – 35 games) pacing the blueline scoring. This is proof of the Wolves’ ability to have success on both the cycle and breakout, and alludes to the defensemen joining the rush as well.
All four have found success quarterbacking the power play at different times, and inconsistent special teams proved one of the rough points for Rocky’s team last year. Now, even the more defensively-minded player of Whitecloud is in on rushes, taking advantage of holes one the ice and pushing to improve an aspect of his play he might not be the most well-known for. Though this certainly benefits his development personally, it also gives Rocky Thompson and co. at least one high-scoring defenseman on each one of his defensive pairings.
The Chicago Wolves 2018-19 iteration may differ significantly from that of 17-18, especially when you compare the rosters, but this version is much better built to make a sustained playoff run, something Rocky’s team regretfully was not able to do last season. It’s halfway through the season, and Wolves fans have about 25 different reasons to be excited and confident in their team.