Last season was the year of the rookie for the Chicago Wolves, with Brett Sterling, Nathan Oystrick, Jordan LaVallee and Boris Valabik all hitting the AHL. This year, those players are trying to work on their deficiencies and move up to the NHL.
The added experience has benefited the team’s bottom line, 15-2-1-0 on the year. The Wolves pace the American Hockey League with an .861 winning percentage and share the league lead with 31 points.
After a set lineup for the first few weeks, coach John Anderson has recently started to mix things up among the numerous extras his team carries.
“We’re trying to get everyone in the lineup,” he said. “We can’t set them sit for that amount. It’s really hard. We’re gonna continue just to kind of inch around with the lineup a bit so we can get everyone playing and make everyone feel a part of this team.”
Brett Sterling, LW
There’s a saying that you can’t make chicken salad out of chicken shit. When it’s said in hockey, it means players are what they are, there’s no turning a checker into a finesse player. Anderson turned that around in response to a question about Atlanta wanting to see Brett Sterling improve his defense.
“They want to see him a bit on the penalty kill, but he’s a 50-goal scorer. What are we trying to do, make chicken shit out of chicken salad?”
Anderson may not completely buy into the value in making the 5’7 sniper a complete player, but if the 23-year-old is going to make it in the NHL, that’s going to be part of the equation. There’s no point in scoring 50 goals if you’re giving up 60. Rookie Bryan Little may not yet be scoring a lot in the NHL, but he maintains his ice time by being very solid defensively.
Sterling, still playing his natural left wing, is +1 on the year for the Wolves, which is not stellar on what is a fairly plus team. But he is definitely trying to get better, backchecking hard.
Sterling has eight goals and five assists in 10 games. With Atlanta, he had a goal and two assists in 10 games before being sent down on Nov. 5.
Jordan LaVallee, LW
The most newsworthy thing about the 21-year-old sophomore is that he has an A on his sweater this year.
“He’s a hard worker, and that’s the type of thing we want to be emblematic of the Chicago Wolves and a young guy,” Anderson said. “We want to have all of our young players at least to have some type of voice on the team. And he’s one of the leaders in that sense. He’s the first over the boards to talk to the referee. You don’t have to have a letter on your sweater to be a leader, but we wanted to give him a little bone there and hopefully he’ll pick up from there and take it upon himself to lead.”
Anderson’s teams have always been heavy on vets and the captains were likewise, which makes LaVallee’s A something special.
“It is [special], and I think he thinks that too,” Anderson said.
“It’s definitely an honor, but obviously it means that Atlanta’s franchise and Chicago’s here see something in me as a leader, and they want to groom me into that role,” LaVallee said of it.
The winger described the scene with Anderson, which happened a game into the season when captain Darren Haydar was called up to Atlanta.
“He just pulled me into his office and said ‘look, if one of our captains goes down, you’re gonna get the A.’ Haydar got called up, so it was put on my sweater and he just said ‘that’s a big responsibility for a young guy, but we feel you can step up and fill that role.’”
As for his own description of the kind of leader he is, LaVallee said, “I think in my actions I work real hard on the ice. A lot of times I feel when I’m working hard on the ice a lot of guys will follow me.”
One example of LaVallee’s hard work was that he was still going hard at the end of a recent game when the team was being outscored 4-0.
Don’t expect him to do a lot of talking in locker room though. “More on the bench than in the locker room,” he said. “Occasionally I’ll have something to say between periods, but not much.”
LaVallee played on the Wolves top line to start the year, but has now been moved to the second line with Steve Martins and Alexandre Giroux.
“Since Brett came back, it’s been a little bit of an adjustment, a switch in roles for me, but we’re starting to smooth things out,” he said during a time he was playing right wing to Sterling’s left. “It was switching sides and also whereas before my role on that line was to guy in be the guy in front of the net, the guy who was looked to for scoring, now it’s more they guy who’s looked to to go in the corners, get the puck out and try and find those two.”
Now LaVallee is back to crashing the net on the second line. In front of the net is how he scored at least half goals this year. “Right in front of the net in traffic,” he described.
Now with seven goals and six assists in 18 games, LaVallee is on pace to surpass last year’s figures by far. He plays a physical style without taking many penalties, just .56 minutes per game on average.
LaVallee can still stand to work on his defense, at jjust +1 on the year. Defense will be the key to him earning an NHL roster spot, as his game is best suited for a checking role, from which he can chip in some scoring. At 21, he has plenty of time to develop.
Joey Crabb, F
Crabb’s output this year has been impressive given that it’s come mostly from fourth-line minutes. He has 10 points in 18 games, making him the seventh-leading scoring forward on the team. Compare this to Colin Stuart, who has just three points in 18 games from the third line. Crabb is no worse defensively than Stuart, and has a +5 plus/minus rating on the year.
The 6’1, 190-pound 24-year-old saw some time on the top line in the early going, but it’s not a great fit for the forward, who seems to respond better from a less pressurized role.
Crabb has been penalty killing all year, and since Andre Deveaux’s suspension, has moved onto the third line. Crabb is effective virtually everywhere. His versitility extends to his position as well, he can play center as well as wing.
Tomas Pospisil, RW
Pospisil has struggled out of the gate this year as a 20-year-old rookie, with just two points in 11 games and a -1 rating for Chicago.
“And his defense,” Anderson noted as an issue. “We put him on the power play to start off with. He was still kind of figuring things out. He played much better defensively [later].”
Pospsil said it’s been tough being out of the lineup in Chicago. “Yeah of course, you want to play every game,” he said this weekend, when he was assigned to the Gwinnett Gladiators. “But there’s a lot of guys in Chicago so there’s nothing you can do but play hard and hope you’re gonna get a chance to play.”
As for what he was told by Anderson, “He said ‘don’t worry, you’re playing well, just keep working hard.’”
The Czech native had just moved into an apartment with Scott Lehman this past week, after living in a hotel for over two months. When in the lineup, he played on a line mostly with Matt Anderson and Crabb.
The 6’0 winger reports weighing 188 now. “I put on more weight,” he said. “I feel stronger than last year.”
Next on the agenda is to actually use the weight he’s gained to go into the corners and get the puck. More time in Gwinnett is not out of the question for Pospisil and may do him a lot of good.
Desbiens has had trouble getting into the lineup in his second year with the team, playing just five games out of 18. The 6’2, 210-pound 22-year-old has one goal and four penalty minutes during that time and is seeing time on the penalty kill.
Chad Painchaud, RW
Painchaud is a rookie in the AHL after spending last year with the Gladiators. The 21-year-old has seen just three games of action, with one assist, but was playing harder than in the past so that’s a good sign.
The 6’1, 185-pounder has also played two games for the Gladiators this year, scoring one goal.
Valabik recently missed three games with an ankle sprain. While this is the same type of injury that kept him to just 50 games last year, it was the opposite leg from last year, and not nearly as severe.
Anderson said of the decision to hold Valabik out, “He had a bit of an issue last year where he came back too early and then we had problems, so we want to make sure he’s completely healthy before we give him the OK to play.”
Valabik was working out downstairs during the Wolves game last Sunday, and talked about it during an intermission.
“It’s nothing major,” he said. “It’s just early in the season and we have such a good record. I don’t want to ruin anything. I’m skating, I just didn’t want to put too much pressure on it in a game situation. It was unfortunate it happened late in the week.”
The injury happened in practice. “I collided and kind of twisted it again,” he said.
Last year, Valabik mentioned “bad skates” as having contributed to his ankle injury. He’s learned from that experience, and will change them more often to keep a stiffer boot.
“I like old skates because I don’t like getting used to new ones,” he said. “I like when a skate feels more like a shoe, it’s comfortable and stuff. My skates did that last year, but when they’re old, they’re not too hard, stiff, they break down easily. Especially for a guy my weight. This year I have new skates. This [injury] is nothing to do with skates. It’s just a regular grade 1 sprain, not even that. I’m gonna keep an eye on my skates this year and get new ones every three or four months. I’ve just realized that’s the way it will have to be.”
The 6’7, 240-pounder is now using is Bauer Vapor 30’s.
“Most of the guys use them,” he explained. “A lot of the heavier guys are in the CCMs or Reebok. Brian Sipotz has I think the Reeboks right now. He likes them.”
Getting new skates that often will mean having two pairs going and continually breaking one in at practice.
“Yeah, that’s something I worked out with my equipment manager,” he agreed. “We’ll definitely keep an eye on it. It’s not fun to be out. This year I’m a lot more relaxed and less concerned about the ankle because of the way it feels.”
This relatively small bump in the road aside, Valabik thinks his season is going well so far.
“Really well, actually,” he assessed. “I think I’m more confident out there and after last season I just wanted to forget about the injury and stuff. Last season I started out well too and then the ankle injury kind of messed things up. But I feel a lot more confident out there and I worked really hard in the summer. So far this season was really good until this point and the team’s playing really well too.”
Valabik stayed a long time in Thrashers training camp this fall, playing in four games, going -2 with 17 penalty minutes. He played just 12 seconds in his last game, the result of a game misconduct for not having his fight strap tied down. He was sent down shortly after that. He was thoughtful when asked how he thought his preseason in Atlanta went.
“It’s a tough question,” he said. “It was a tough break that I got out so early in my last game. Some guy jumps me right off the opening faceoff. I didn’t expect that. But you keep learning and next time I guess I’m gonna be ready. Until that point I thought it went pretty well. There were some better games and some worse games, but overall I think I progressed since last season. I feel like I’m getting better every week now, and that’s what really matters to me – to know I’m not stuck, or standing still.”
He said he got good feedback from the organization on his training camp, though ultimately it wasn’t what he wanted to hear.
“They said they were excited about my play, but obviously there are a lot of defensemen and I was the youngest one by far. I don’t like that age kind of thing because if you’re ready you’re ready, but I’ll definitely work hard this season to get called back up. Nothing’s lost, I’m only 21 years old, and I have a lot of time, but the sooner the better for me. Everyone says ‘don’t rush it, it’s gonna come, but I’m not the most patient guy in the world (laughing), obviously, but I’m definitely excited about this season and just focusing on the Wolves for now and see what happens. If I get called up, great, if not I’ll just work hard in the summer and come back ready next year.”
Valabik has reduced his penalty minutes per game from 3.68 to 3.33 this year with the Wolves. He’s a solid +7, which ranks him third on the team behind defenseman Joel Kwiatkowski and forward Jesse Schultz.
Lewis is the highest-scoring rookie on the team, with three points in nine games from the backline. He’s +2 on the year and is blocking lots of shots.
“It’s definitely faster and bigger than NCAA hockey, which is as expected,” he said. “So far we’ve had great success, a great team, a lot of older guys are really putting the puck in the net – a lot of guys to look up to for us young guys.”
The 22-year-old’s issues hinge around performing more quickly.
“Yeah, at the beginning of the season when I was getting in [the lineup], I was making decisions quickly, but they weren’t smart,” he said. “I was a little nervous, gripping my stick too tight and thinking too much instead of going with gut instinct. As time went on, I started making better decisions with the puck and still making the quick decisions. My confidence right now is going up and down so when it’s high, I feel like I’m playing better and when it’s low I’m not playing as well. So hopefully I can get it up to a level and stay consistent throughout the year.”
“I think he knows what to do, he’s just not doing it quick enough,” Anderson said of Lewis. “A couple times tonight, he takes a look, sees a guy coming and where he needs to go, but isn’t getting to the puck quick enough. From college to this level is another step faster, and he’s struggling with that a little bit, but once he gets control, he does make good plays. We’re happy with his progress, too.”
The 6’3, 200-pounder has been in and out of lineup. With two veteran defensemen, Kwiatkowski and Karel Pilar, not to mention sophomores Valabik and Nathan Oystrick, and Brian Fahey, it’s tough for young guys to break in.
“I started in because of the vet rule,” he explained. “But Haydar went up so there was room for another veteran. Yeah, it was tough in the beginning not playing and stuff when I’m used to playing all the time. But I want to try and keep my confidence up and work hard at practice every day and be ready whenever they give me my shot.”
It’s normal for a rookie to have confidence issues, but staying positive is a Grant Lewis specialty. He’s easily the most positive in outlook of all the Thrashers prospects.
“I try to [stay positive],” he said. “It ruins a lot of careers. I’m experiencing a little more [fluctuation] than I usually do right now with my confidence up and down. But I’m happy to be here and as long as I keep working hard, build my confidence, I stay positive.”
Lewis has played mostly with Kwiatkowski as his partner, and a few games with Oystrick. Kwiatkowski, a veteran of 264 NHL games, has helped Lewis in his transition.
“He’s a player who I’d like to see myself model my game after,” Lewis said. “He’s been pretty good offensively and defensively this season. He’s been a good role model for me and it’s good to have him on the other side. He’s always talking, always trying to keep my confidence up, keep my head up.”
Assistant coach Todd Nelson works with the team’s defensemen, and has seemed to key on Lewis in particular.
“Nelly’s been great,” Lewis said. “He’s been helping me out in every aspect of the game. He doesn’t shy away from telling me what I’m doing wrong, which is good – me being a rookie I’m trying to learn.”
One thing Lewis is missing from college is the full cage on his helmet. Last weekend he sported a cut above his eye.
“It was one of the smaller guys last night, he kind of jumped up into me when I hit him and got underneath [my visor]. It was unlucky, but it looks good – hopefully the girls will like it,” he said laughing.
The rookie has a lot more free time now that there’s no school work every day like at Dartmouth.
“I just moved into an apartment a couple weeks ago and that’s been keeping me busy,” he said. “Then we were on the road for seven games. And I’m starting to learn how to cook, that’s a new experience for me.”
Some players were only recently told to find a place to live, but Lewis didn’t have to wait.
“They actually did tell me at first [to get an apartment], but I wasn’t sure who I was going to room with. A lot of the younger guys were still at the hotel. The older guys were living downtown and I realized I didn’t want to do that. A lot of guys are married and have separate lives outside of hockey. Right now for me, it’s mostly hockey. I ended up moving out of the hotel and into a different hotel for a little while, and then I ended up getting an apartment with Matt Anderson and we live down in Arlington Heights.”
After coming in third in defensive scoring last year in the AHL with 47 points, this year there are two defensemen on his own team ahead of Oystrick in scoring. But scoring isn’t what this year needs to be all about for him. After a shaky preseason with Atlanta, Oystrick needs to demonstrate that he is reliable in his own end, and has the mental fortitude to keep playing hard when the going gets tough.
The 6’0, 215-pounder is +3 on the year, to go along with two goals and eight assists in 18 games. He’s a regular on the power play. Turning 25 in a few weeks, it’s basically a make or break year for him already.
Lehman trails the Wolves in plus/minus, having played only four games. He has no points in that time.
The 6’1, 200-pounder has also played three games for the Gladiators, with one assist. The 21-year-old will probably see more time in Gwinnett his season, maybe as soon as this weekend.
One thing working in both Lewis and Lehman’s favor is that the Wolves may be trying to keep Brian Sipotz under 55 games played this season so that he still qualifies as a non-vet next year. It could help other defensemen get some ice time.
Pavelec hasn’t played many games for the Wolves yet this year, but he’ll be an important part of the team going forward and into the playoffs. In two games before his recall to Atlanta, Pavelec had a 2-0 record, .935 save percentage (the best of the three goaltenders this year) and a 1.49 GAA.
Before he was called up, the Czech found a townhouse with Slovak Boris Valabik. Pavelec is still a big part of that household, even from Atlanta. “I have to pay too. I don’t know why,” he joked.
Pavelec would have liked to wear #1 in Chicago, but the number has been retired for Wendall Young. He took #31 as the closest to it, with the added benefit that his birthday is the 31st of August, so it’s meaningful to him. He said he might eventually move to #31 in Atlanta as well.
The 20-year-old former QMJHLer obviously knew he would spend most of his season in Chicago, ordering a Chicago-themed mask during training camp. A couple months in, he’s still not too familiar with the items painted on it because he’s been many states away. Pavelec claims the Chicago Cubs as his favorite baseball team, but could barely name Harry Carey’s role with the team recently, emphasizing again that he didn’t know what to put on it and relied on others. He’ll have plenty of time to learn this and more.
Pavelec will return to Chicago when Thrashers starter Kari Lehtonen is deemed ready to play NHL games. Pavelec seemed a bit worried about his ice time with the Wolves given the recent good play of Fred Brathwaite, but as long as he plays well he should get his share of time.
When Pavelec is finally reassigned back down, it will take him a couple days in transit, as he’ll need to drive his car back up to Chicago.