Wolves Primed for Central Division Three-Peat

The 2017-18 Chicago Wolves were the only division champion from the previous season to successfully defend their crown. This season’s team has itself in position to win its third straight Central Division title, but that has not been the main focus nor is it serving as motivation.

The Wolves have three things that have them near the top of the Central and will make them a tough out in the Calder Cup Playoffs this spring: scoring depth, talented young defensemen and the right man behind the bench.

Wolves Can Score From Anywhere on the Ice

Roster turnover is a huge issue for all teams in the American Hockey League and it makes sustained success difficult. Six of the Wolves’ top-10 scorers from a season ago were not on the roster when the 2018-19 season began in October. That has not slowed them down, in fact, they are scoring at a better clip this season.

Last season, the Wolves scored 244 goals, seventh most in the league, and averaged 3.21 goals-per-game (GF/GP). They are currently third in the AHL and tops in the Western Conference with 163 goals. If they keep up their 3.54 GF/GP pace over the final 30 games, they will finish the regular season with 269 goals.

Obviously, you don’t finish near the top of the league in goals scored by being a one-line team. The Wolves have had incredible scoring depth all season. They have five forwards with at least 10 goals on the season and seven players with at least 27 points.

They can score all kinds of goals, too. Be it a pretty individual effort by Tomas Hyka, a one-timer from Brook Macek, a greasy goal from Keegan Kolesar or Curtis McKenzie or a blast from the blue line, the Wolves can beat you many different ways.

“It’s a simple game for us,” second-year head coach Rocky Thompson explained. “It’s not like we don’t score goals when we play simple. That’s actually when do score goals. It’s when we get away from simplicity, it kind of goes the opposite direction.”

Early in the season, newcomer Macek was the hottest player in the league when he scored 14 goals in the first 12 games of the season. Then Brandon Pirri took over as he put up 13 goals and 28 points in a stretch of 16 games between Nov. 10 and Dec. 12.

When Pirri was recalled for good by the Vegas Golden Knights, Daniel Carr began to drive the offense. Since his return from a brief stint in the NHL on Dec. 15, Carr has 12 goals and 29 points in 21 games. He leads the AHL with 34 assists and 57 points and is just one goal behind league-leaders Chris Terry of the Grand Rapids Griffins and Joel L’Esperance of the Texas Stars.

In a short playoff series, opposing coaches are going to have many sleepless nights wondering how to stop this high-powered offense that can attack from many angles.

Depth Not Just Limited to the Forwards

The Wolves are benefiting that the Golden Knights are not your typical expansion team. They made it all the way to the Stanley Cup Final in the first season and are in a “win now” mode. This means there are some talented young players being developed in Chicago that would likely be in the NHL on your expansion teams of the past.

This can be seen within the Wolves’ defensive corps. Young players like Jake Bischoff (currently in Vegas), Erik Brannstrom, Dylan Coghlan, Nic Hague and Zach Whitecloud are enjoying successful seasons in the AHL.

Erik Brannstrom Chicago Wolves
Erik Brannstrom was an All-Star as an AHL rookie and leads an exciting crop of young defensemen. (Jenae Anderson / The Hockey Writers)

This group are all excellent puck movers and add to the offensive attack on a nightly basis. They can have the inevitable growing pains in their own zone that all young blueliners go through at the AHL level instead of being exposed in the NHL. The Golden Knights have a bright future on the back end or, at the very least, have plenty of assets if they need to add pieces for another crack at the Cup.

Chicago’s defense has a veteran element to it, as well, with Zac Leslie and Griffin Reinhart in the mix. These two bring a more-responsible approach to the game with their combined 434 games of AHL experience. The Wolves defensemen have combined for 28 goals and 101 points on the season while allowing 136 goals, the 11th fewest in the league.

The Winning Attitude Begins Behind the Bench

In his first season as head coach in Chicago, Thompson led the Wolves to their second-straight Central Division title with 95 points and a .625 points percentage (P%). However, the season came to a disappointing end as they were swept in the first round of the Calder Cup Playoffs by the Rockford IceHogs.

The team is currently in second place, just three points behind the Griffins. Their current .605 P% has them on-pace to finish with 93 points this season. However, the idea of a three-peat within the Central is not a big motivator for Thompson.

“It’s not a motivation for us,” he said. “It’s just trying to be the best we can be as individuals and then as a team. And how do you do that? You stick to the game plan on a daily basis; whether it’s practice, you put your best foot forward every day to make yourself better. When you do that you give yourself opportunities to have accolades like that. That’s not the measure of success for me. It’s trying to get the most out of yourself on a daily basis and everything else falls into place.”

Rocky Thompson is a rising star in the coaching ranks. (Terry Wilson / CHL Images.)

Thompson preaches a simple game. He excels in putting his players in positions to succeed, which is exactly what is needed at this level. In a league where development is key and turnover is high, a simple plan of attack usually works the best.

“We just continue to reinforce it,” Thompson said of coaching philosophy. “When we get away from it, we are pretty hard on the guys. We don’t let them get away with it. We are constantly reminding them on the bench. We encourage them to do it – the way we need to play. It’s a process, like it is for any team, as you move forward.”

We have been covering just how competitive the Central Division is all season. Thompson knows that you have to tackle each day as they come not to get too far ahead of yourselves or else this division will blow past you.

“When you look at our division and the teams that we play, every night is such a tough night with a tough team,” he said. “Our guys have been sticking to the plan more nights than not and when you do, you continue to get rewarded. You inch closer to the playoffs and keep yourself in a position where you have the opportunity to play for a Calder Cup. That’s a long-term thing, but what we do is just worry about every day and try to get a little bit better and improve our game.”

The Wolves have the right mix of exciting young talent and experienced veterans to be a dangerous team in the postseason. However, they are not counting their eggs before they hatch because there is plenty of work still to do to in order to clinch a playoff berth.