The Chicago Wolves are team still searching for an identity a month into the 2019-20 season. The three-time defending Central Division champions went through a plethora of roster changes over the summer and are adjusting to a different style of play because of it. Fortunately for them, they have the right man behind the bench to get things figured out.
Turnover & Injuries Forcing Change
Last season, the Wolves had the fourth-ranked offense in the entire American Hockey League with 250 goals scored. Their roster boasted both elite goal-scoring and incredible depth. Through the first 15 games of the season, the Wolves are 24th in scoring with 36 goals. They are currently scoring nearly one fewer goal per game this season than they did on their way to the 2019 Calder Cup Finals.
The biggest reason for such a dip in offensive production was losing their top three scorers from last season. League MVP Daniel Carr, T.J. Tynan and Brooks Macek scored 68 goals and 202 points and they are all now on different teams. In addition to losing their three best offensive players, a total of 15 of the 24 skaters who dressed for a playoff game last spring were no longer with the team when the Wolves took the ice on opening night.
The offseason roster turnover hasn’t been the only thing to affect the Wolves so far. There have been a handful of talented players who have been in the National Hockey League with the Vegas Golden Knights. Cody Glass, who had 15 points in the playoffs, made the Golden Knights right out of training camp. Defenseman Nic Hague and forward Nicolas Roy have been going back-and-forth between the AHL and NHL for much of the season as well. Not having this talented trio available has hurt the Wolves.
“We lost a few guys, so we’ve just got to come together,” said Curtis McKenzie, the leading scorer remaining from last season’s team. “You want to see guys go to the NHL, but, at the end of the day, it puts some holes in the lineup here. We’ve had a few injuries too, so you’ve got to work through that.”
Injuries have not been kind to the Wolves of late either. Their leading scorer and top-line center Gage Quinney has missed the last three games with an injury. Keegan Kolesar, who scored 20 goals last season, is expected to be out at least a month after suffering an upper-body injury last Thursday.
Even with all of this, the Wolves are currently holding down the fourth and final playoff spot in the Central Division. Hockey is not a sport where you can feel sorry for yourself about turnover and injuries as every team goes through it. Nobody understands that more than head coach Rocky Thompson.
From Dynamic to Grinders
Thompson, who was rumored to be offered a job on Mike Babcock’s coaching staff with the Toronto Maple Leafs last summer, is one of the best young coaches in the game today. He has won the Central Division in each of his first two seasons in Chicago, but he has his toughest challenge with this year’s team.
He has had to go from a dynamic team to a team that has to grind out every single shift in order to earn points in the standings. He recognized this need for a change in philosophy right out of the gates and it has been a learning process through 15 games.
“I don’t know that we are a super offensive team, even healthy, but hurt, no,” Thompson said after Sunday’s loss to the Rockford IceHogs. “We’ve got to play a heavy game. If you play in the offensive zone and grind teams out, you’ll fatigue them, they’ll make mistakes and you’ll get scoring chances. We are not going to skill our way through a team. We’ve got to grind them. Like I said, tire them out and take advantage of that.”
The Wolves currently have 10 AHL rookies on their roster, which presents a whole different challenge. Thompson knows that his veterans have to play a large role in getting the younger players up to snuff.
“We’ve got to play a certain way from the start of the game until the end of the game,” he said. “Guys are getting opportunities early because of the situation and those players need to take advantage of it. I think the older players have got to step up too. Play better and help strengthen those younger players by their performance.”
Defenseman Dylan Coghlan is in his second full season with the Wolves. He benefitted from last season’s roster as his game fits well into an offensive-minded team, but he realizes the style of play needed to change.
“We’re just a hard-working team,” he said. “We’re not the most skilled team or anything like that, but I think we have some guys that can do some damage down low and that can work towards our success.”
Coghlan currently leads all Chicago defensemen with 30 shots on goal. He knows that the Wolves are going to generate most of their goals by getting traffic in front of the net and benefitting from rebounds and/or redirections. He is doing his part from the blue line.
Discipline Will Lead to Success
Thompson knows that when you don’t have the most skilled team, you have to excel on special teams. While he preaches about playing a hard game, he knows his team has to stay out of the penalty box while being hard to play against.
“When you’re undisciplined, a big toll,” he said about how spending too much time on the penalty kill can take its toll. “Especially when it’s the guys who are on both special teams that are taking the penalties too. That’s why I was it’s impressive that we were able to actually do a good job on the special teams. But it comes at a cost. It kills your 5v5 play. We have to be a much more disciplined team.”
I asked Thompson if there is a fine line between playing a grinding style of hockey and staying out of penalty trouble.
“Our penalties aren’t coming from physical play,” he replied. “Our penalties are coming from hooking and little things like that. We don’t play dirty, so we aren’t head hunting guys or anything. We are a plus-to-minus ratio this year, I think we’re plus-9, penalties to power plays, so we’re doing good.
“We’ve got to do even better with the way our team is built right now. We have to do even better than that to get an advantage is my point. So, the hooking, the holding and the careless stick penalties that are completely useless – we have to do away with those and we’ll be much better for it.”
Life for a head coach in the AHL is not an easy one. Your roster is in constant flux because you never know when a key player is going to be called upon to contribute to the NHL club. You have to ready to adjust on the fly and never fall in love with a particular line because they might not be there the next time you take the ice.
Thompson has shown that he can get his team to play a wide-open style and a hard and heavy brand of hockey, as well as every style in between. No matter what the game plan for a particular night is, when you watch a Thompson-coached team, you never question its effort. These are the reasons why he is the best hockey coach in Chicago right now and will have a long career in the NHL.