Chicago Wolves head coach Ryan Warsofsky takes his job seriously. He has a calm intensity, behind the bench and during his postgame media sessions. He never lets himself or his team get too high after a win or too low after a tough loss, though there have not been many of those this season. The 34-year-old head coach is always focused on whatever the next day brings, whether it’s another game or a chance to get better at practice. It’s hard to argue with his philosophy as he has the Wolves atop the American Hockey League’s (AHL) Central Division with a 20-4-1-1 record.
However, when I recently asked Warsofsky about forward Spencer Smallman, a brief smile came to his face, and his intensity switched to admiration and respect. He was quick to shower the winger with praise and commend him for his work ethic and commitment. It was easy to tell that I had asked him about one of his favorite players.
Smallman Back on Track
When you’re a prospect in the Carolina Hurricanes pipeline, it is easy to be overlooked. This system has produced a handful of young stars like Sebastian Aho, Andrei Svechnikov, Martin Necas, and Seth Jarvis, to name a few. Recently, Smallman’s Wolves teammate and 2018 second-round draft pick, Jack Drury, made his NHL debut and scored a goal in each of his two games with the Hurricanes.
Many Hurricanes fans may have forgotten that Smallman is still in their system. He was taken in the fifth round (138th overall) of the 2015 NHL Entry Draft. He signed his entry-level contract with the Hurricanes in 2017, following a career season with the Saint John Sea Dogs of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League (QMJHL), where he scored 30 goals and 79 points.
However, since leaving the QMJHL, Smallman has had to fight through a ton of adversity. His first pro season with the Charlotte Checkers was delayed due to a shoulder injury. This was just a sign of things to come as the injury bug was tough to avoid for the young winger. Heading into this season, he played in just 90 games between the AHL and ECHL in his first four professional seasons. However, the Hurricanes still brought him back on a one-year contract because they believed in him. For the first time in his pro career, Smallman is entirely healthy and is showing why the organization remained high on him.
“I knew he had it in him – he just needed to play and shake off his injuries,” Warsofsky said. “He’s had some bad injuries that he’s worked so hard to overcome. He’s earned this ice time. We haven’t given it to him; he’s earned it.
“He went down the to ECHL last year. He played well and didn’t complain or say boo. He came back, worked hard, and then had another injury. So, what he’s doing right now, is one of the greatest stories in my nine years of coaching.”
Every Championship Team Needs a Smallman
The Wolves aren’t sitting atop the Central Division just because of one or two players. Sure, they have the AHL’s leading scorer in Andrew Poturalski, but you must have all 18 skaters pulling their weight to have sustained success. Smallman is one of those players that will never contend for a league MVP, but he is exactly the type of guy every championship team needs.
“He’s a smart kid,” Warsofsky said of him. “He’s a smart player that can play all situations. He’s getting the chance now, and he’s taking the opportunity. This kid is going to play in the NHL; he’s that good. He does the small details and whatever you ask as a coach. He’s a great teammate and person. I had him in Charlotte, and I loved the kid. I wish we had 15 Smallmans. He’s that special.”
Last week, the Hurricanes dealt with a rash of positive COVID cases and needed reinforcements from Chicago. In fact, they recalled the Wolves’ top five scorers to dress a full team. That didn’t stop the Wolves, as they won all three of their games to extend their franchise-record-tying winning streak to 12 games.
“We lost a lot of good players to the Hurricanes,” Smallman said after the team’s 12th straight victory. “They’re lucky to have them up there. But there are still a lot of good players left here in the room. We have the belief every night that we have a chance to win if we play hard, and that’s what we’ve been doing.”
Warsofsky needed some of his remaining veterans to step up, and that’s precisely what happened. Smallman had his role elevated with increased ice time at 5-on-5 and a promotion to the top power-play unit to go with his normal penalty-killing duties. He responded by playing his type of game and helping Chicago to three wins in three days.
“It’s good to have the confidence of the coaching staff,” Smallman said when asked about his increased playing time. “I try to keep playing my game – playing hard every night. I think if everyone in the room does that, then we have a good chance to win.
“We have such a belief in our coaches and systems, and our work ethic, that we feel we can win every night.”
One of the first things that jump out when talking to Smallman is his humility. He never wants to talk about himself, just the team. In the Wolves’ 4-2 win over the Milwaukee Admirals on Dec. 18, he had the primary assist on the game-winning goal and iced the game with an empty-netter. The goal was his fourth of the season, setting a new AHL career-high. When I pointed this out to him, he had no idea.
“I’m not much of a stats guy,” he admitted with a grin. “I just try to do the little things to help the team win.”
That’s what he has been doing all season long. Yes, the Wolves have benefitted from Poturalski leading their high-powered top line, but Smallman’s hard work in the defensive zone, on forecheck, and killing penalties has been just as vital to the team’s success. He has the work ethic and attitude to take him to the highest level of the game. If the Hurricanes become the championship team they strive to be over the next few seasons, it will be because of guys like Smallman doing the things that don’t garner the spotlight while their stars get all the attention.
Greg Boysen has been writing about the Chicago Blackhawks since 2010 and has been a site manager for both FanSided and SB Nation. He has been published in The Hockey News and was fully credentialed for the 2013 Stanley Cup Final. Among his various roles with The Hockey Writers are covering the Blackhawks, the AHL, writing the daily “Today in Hockey History” column, serving as a copy editor, and appearing and hosting multiple YouTube shows, including Blackhawks Banter. He is credentialed with the Chicago Wolves, Rockford IceHogs, and Milwaukee Admirals, while also being a regional scout for the NAHL. And, just because his plate isn’t full enough, Greg hosts trivia in the Chicago area two nights a week. For interview requests or to provide topic suggestions, follow Greg on Twitter and reach out.