The Vegas Golden Knights completely took over the Chicago Wolves of the AHL in the 2018-19 season. Previously, the team was comprised of Vegas and St. Louis Blues prospects, but when the AHL expanded with a 31st franchise, this allowed every NHL team to have their own development system.
The Wolves have been one of the most consistent teams in their 18-year history, missing the playoffs only five times and capturing two Calder Cups with a total of four appearances to the finals. With the 2018-19 season being their inaugural season under the Golden Knights, they continued that success but unfortunately suffered the same heartache their parent club felt in their first season by the end of it.
However, the season as a whole was a success and the development of Vegas’ prospects together cannot be understated. They won a division title, represented their conference for the Calder Cup, and will all be battling for one another again next season.
With the Golden Knights in a cap crunch for the 2019-20 season, they will start to rely on their younger guys on entry-level deals that have cheaper cap hits. Guys like Cody Glass, Nicolas Hague, and Oscar Dansk are all options to make the big club after what they accomplished this season.
Wolves’ Regular Season
The Wolves had a terrific regular season. They won the Central Division with a 44-22-6-4 record, good for 98 points. Head coach Rocky Thompson kept his group structured and defensively sound, as they were only one of five teams to surrender less than 200 goals.
Forward Daniel Carr won the Les Cunningham Award as the AHL’s most valuable player. He led the team with 30 goals and was tied with T.J. Tynan for 71 points, but Carr did it in only 52 games. The team also had a few impactful rookies make their debut, which added to the team’s depth and gave Vegas management the opportunity to upgrade the Golden Knights main roster throughout the season.
At the NHL trade deadline, the Golden Knights made a trade with the Ottawa Senators to acquire the highly coveted Mark Stone. In order to receive, you need to give and Vegas gave up their top defensive prospect, Erik Brannstrom. Dubbed as the next Erik Karlsson, this was a big hit to the Wolves in the locker room and on the ice.
However, with the emergence of Hague, Zach Whitecloud, and Dylan Coghlan, it made Brannstrom available because management knew that Thompson and his coaching staff would be able to adjust the roles of his breakout defensemen.
Going in as the top seed in the West, they matched up against the Grand Rapids Griffins, the Detroit Red Wings farm team. On the brink of elimination and being outscored in their two losses 11-3, Chicago took the last two games of the series to move on to the next round.
In the second round, the Wolves faced off against the Minnesota Wild’s AHL team, the Iowa Wild. The series was tied 2-2 after four games, but Chicago pulled away with the series after outscoring them 10-5 in Games 5 and 6.
The San Diego Gulls, the Anaheim Ducks’ farm team, would be their final foe in the Western Conference. The Wolves would go down 2-1 in the series but rifled off three straight wins to advance to the Calder Cup.
There was history made in this series, as Chicago’s backup goalie Maxime Legace was credited with a playoff goal. A delayed penalty was being called on the Wolves and San Diego pulled their goalie for an extra attacker. Isac Lundestrom had the puck at center and sent it back to a defender to regroup, but it took an unfortunate hop and went into the empty net.
This goal ultimately took the wind out of the Gulls sails and Chicago took the series in Game 6 on their home ice.
The Calder Cup Final took place between both number one seeds as the Charlotte Checkers finished with the best record in the East and in the entire AHL during the regular season.
Much like Vegas last season in the Stanley Cup Final, the Wolves took Game 1 of the series and had all the momentum going into Game 2. However, the rest of the series did not go their way. Chicago lost four straight games and the Checkers took home the Calder Cup, much like the Washington Capitals did last summer to Vegas.
The Future of the Wolves
The Wolves always seem to have a competitive team and George McPhee, Kelly McCrimmon, and the entire Vegas scouting department has done a wonderful job at finding players in the draft and signing free agents who have been late bloomers.
Guys like Daniel Carr, T.J. Tyran, and Brooks Macek are pending free agents, but if they cannot be re-signed, they have plenty of options to fill the void. Upcoming youngsters like Glass, Lucas Elvenes, and Jake Leschyshyn are just a few of the names that the Golden Knights have in the pipeline for the future.
They also have nine draft picks in the 2019 NHL Draft and another eight in the 2020 Draft so the Vegas scouting staff will have plenty of options to help both clubs experience continued success.
Thompson has done an outstanding job coaching the Wolves the past two seasons and is garnering a lot of attention from NHL general managers as a possible coaching option.
Thompson hopes to follow in the footsteps of Travis Green, Dallas Eakins, and Bruce Cassidy, just to name a few, in becoming a head coach of an NHL team after experiencing success in the minors.
There is constant change at the AHL level due to injury call ups, parent club agreements changing, and the fact that it is a development league, but one thing that has been consistent is the success of the Wolves. If they lose a player or a coach, they are always able to rebound and find a way to compete.