AHL Central News: Catching Up With Thompson & King

The American Hockey League officially pulled the plug on the 2019-20 season Monday morning. “After a lengthy review process, the American Hockey League has determined that the resumption and completion of the 2019-20 season is not feasible in light of current conditions,” the league said in an official statement. The league standings, as of March 12, will go down as the final and official standings and this will be the first season in 83 years where the Calder Cup will not be awarded.

A Big Let Down in the Central

The AHL Central Division had the top two teams in the league with the Milwaukee Admirals (90 points) and Iowa Wild (82 points). Both teams were going to be a force in the Calder Cup playoffs and were likely headed towards an epic postseason showdown. Unfortunately, we will never know how just how that would have played out.

Yakov Trenin Milwaukee Admirals
Yakov Trenin and the Admirals were the AHL’s top team in 2019-20. (Jenae Anderson / The Hockey Writers)

The fans in San Antonio will never get to give the Rampage a proper sendoff. The team was purchased by the Vegas Golden Knights and will be relocated to Nevada next year. Although they only had four playoff appearances in 17 seasons, the fan base in San Antonio was very supportive and they deserved better than this. The St. Louis Blues, who were partnered with the Rampage, will switch affiliations to the Springfield Falcons next season.

The Chicago Wolves, who were the Golden Knights’ affiliate, are currently without an NHL partner. While it has not been officially announced, it appears they will be the new affiliate for the Carolina Hurricanes next season. This will leave the Florida Panthers and the Charlotte Checkers to work together. With the cancellation, the current Wolves’ roster and staff’s time in Chicago has come to an unceremonious end.

Keegan Kolesar Chicago Wolves
Keegan Kolesar and the rest of the Golden Knights’ prospects will head west. (Jenae Anderson / The Hockey Writers)

When the season was paused on March 12, five teams were within five points of each other to earn the final two playoff spots behind the Admirals and Milwaukee. The COVID-19 pandemic has robbed us a conclusion this great race.

Wolves and IceHogs Left Wondering

The Wolves and Rockford IceHogs ended the season tied with 62 points, but Chicago had the tiebreaker for the fourth and final playoff spot by .016 point-percentage points. I was able to speak to the head coaches of both teams shortly after the league’s announcement was made.

“It makes sense, obviously,” the now-former Wolves head coach Rocky Thompson said of the decision. ‘It felt like we were waiting for the inevitable to happen and waiting to move forward with the next step. Just to hear it brings some closure and that was needed for everyone involved.”

Rocky Thompson Chicago Wolves
Thompson agrees with the AHL’s decision. (Courtesy Chicago Wolves)

The IceHogs somehow kept afloat after a season full of key players being lost to either injury or being recalled to the NHL. The team was finally getting healthy and ready to make a serious run at the postseason when the season went on hiatus.

“As this went longer and longer, I had a feeling that this wasn’t going to work out,” head coach Derek King revealed on a conference call. “I thought maybe they would try to salvage a playoff out of it, but as the NHL continued to hold out, I figured we were done for the year.

“It’s disappointing. I like where we were at coming into the stretch there. We still had our heads above water. A playoff spot was within our reach and it was up to us. Overall, I was happy with the way our guys performed.”

Derek King Rockford Icehogs
King had the Icehogs right in the thick of things. (Jenae Anderson / The Hockey Writers)

Both Thompson and King had lengthy playing careers before moving behind the bench, so they know they emotion of a season coming to an end short of the ultimate finishing line. They both expressed sadness and disappointment for their players, who put in so much hard work during the regular season.

“It’s tough,” Thompson said. “These guys were warriors. They battled. The older guys had a history of success. I really felt the younger guys were improving themselves and getting better as the season had been wearing on.

“It was a good group of guys that really cared about each other. That makes it even more difficult when that closure happens at the end. As we know, every year, especially in the American League, your team is never going to be the same the following year. It makes it sad. I’ve gone through it, every year for 25 years. It’s tough, whether you’re a coach or a player, and that was a special group. “

King couldn’t say enough good things about his team when looking back on the challenging season.

“I’m really proud of our guys,” he said. “We had a lot of injuries and call ups. We had key guys missing for a long stretch of time. For our guys to battle and stay where we were, in the division, hats off to them. These guys never quit.”

A Season Full of Challenges

This was King’s first “full season” as IceHogs head coach after taking over for Jeremy Colliton in November of 2019 when he was promoted to the Chicago Blackhawks bench. King never got to get comfortable with any lineup as the roster was in constant flux.

“It was challenging as a staff,” he said of the season. “You’re preparing for a game. You’ve got all your special teams worked out the day before. Then, all of a sudden, a guy shows up sick, or hurts himself in the morning skate or gets called up and now you have to juggle the lines. As a staff, I thought we handled it pretty well. It’s not always fun. It’s nice to have a team that you worked with in practice, but this is the AHL and that happens.”

Thompson and the Wolves had to deal with plenty of roster movement too. As the Golden Knights dealt with injuries, key players were left making multiple trips back and from Chicago. Some key players from 2019’s run to the Calder Cup Finals, like Nic Hague and Cody Glass, spent much of the season in the NHL.

“I can’t tell you how many times, right before a game, I had my game card filled out and had to scratch because our roster had changed,” he said. “That was actually a great learning experience. Our guys were able to adjust and adapt.

“I’ve got to give our guys a ton of credit. They never really let those things affect them in a negative way. They took it the right way and were learning from these things. They would have fun with it, which is really important. That is a big reason why they were able to persevere through these situations.”

The Pain of No Postseason

The AHL walks a fine line between results and development. While everyone in the locker room while settle for nothing less than a Calder Cup championship, the main goal is to get players ready for their NHL careers. Missing out on the playoff experience is going to hurt for both prospects and veterans alike.

Luckily for both the Wolves and IceHogs, the Central Division standings were so tight for the final postseason berths, that playoff-style hockey was the norm for weeks.

Philipp Kurashev Rockford Icehogs
Philipp Kurashev will have to wait for his first tasted of AHL playoff hockey. (Jenae Anderson / The Hockey Writers)

“After January, we were going into playoff hockey because we wanted to stay alive for the last stretch there,” said King. “It would have been nice to see them down the stretch – and who knows what they could have done – to get into the playoffs and get a round, or a few games under their belts, so they could see the difference coming from college or juniors. The only nice thing was that our playoffs started a little earlier than the rest of the teams. They got a little taste of what it feels like.”

Thompson put his own unique spin on the same idea of not having a playoff run this season.

“I think it would hurt more if other teams were experiencing the playoffs and you weren’t,” he said. “Every game, after November, really was playoff hockey and we treated it as such. That was a good learning experience for our guys. Not being in the playoffs does hurt development, but because things are equal across the league, it doesn’t hurt quite as bad as it would normally.”

Gage Quinney Chicago Wolves
Gage Quinney and the Wolves will not get a chance to defend their Western Conference crown. (Courtesy Chicago Wolves)

Whenever the AHL returns next season, things will be different. Thompson and his roster will no longer be in Chicago. King will have new faces and prospects to work with as the Blackhawks make more difficult decisions about the franchise’s future. It is a shame to be left wondering what might have been, but those things are out of our control.