It’s been a summer of change for the Chicago Wolves, after winning the 2008 Calder Cup. Many key players have moved on, as did most of the coaching staff. This new era brings a lot of uncertainty. And that uncertainty has only grown in the past few days.
New head coach Don Granato has experience, having coached the AHL Worcester IceCats several years ago. He’s not big on X’s and O’s, but concentrates rather on motivating his players.
"I’m very passionate about the game and I want our team to play with passion," Granato said of his playing style. "I want us to compete, play an up-tempo style when we can — that’s the preference but you tweak things based on your team. Everyone knows in the American Hockey League that the roster changes and can change daily with call-ups, injuries, and obviously the opponents you play as well."
So what kinds of things does he emphasize in the room then? "More concepts, general things that every team needs to do," he said. "Habits of starting and stopping, playing through the body, good stick on the puck, shooting lanes and blocking shots. Those things are universal to the game."
Having previously worked in the St. Louis Blues system, Granato is excited to work with Atlanta’s prospects. He coached them in the Traverse City tournament and then two games with Nashville during Atlanta’s training camp.
"The young kids, the prospects, are very good," he offered. "I’ve seen a lot of young kids through the years and I’m excited to work with some of these young guys that will eventually end up in Chicago. Each one has strengths that are very intriguing and they’re all good character kids that can be pushed. When you get a player at the American Hockey League level, you want to make sure they can compete well enough at that level that you can push them and these guys show a great job of pushing themselves. Hopefully that will make our job as coaches easier."
And the young kids likewise have enjoyed Granato so far. Defenseman Paul Postma will spend this year in junior, perhaps joining the Wolves at the end of the year. But he really enjoyed playing for Granato at the Traverse City tournament.
"He seems like a great coach, he’ll do awesome in Chicago," Postma said. "He’s really down to earth and his practices are a lot of fun — up-beat and up-tempo. He’s always positive and he knows what he’s talking about. He’s got a lot of experience in hockey and I enjoyed playing for him at Traverse."
With the loss of high-scoring forwards Jason Krog, Jesse Schultz and Darren Haydar, and probable loss of Brett Sterling to the NHL, a big question is who is going to lead the Wolves on the score sheet. There the leading candidates are Jeff Hamilton, Junior Lessard, and Joe Motzko.
Hamilton played most of last year in the NHL for Carolina, and played most of it hurt, which not many knew about. So a lot more can be expected out of him. He’s a point a game player in the AHL. Lessard is a goal scorer, with a quick release to match the fire of his hair. Motzko joined the Wolves in the latter half of the year, and on a points per game basis was one of the most productive on the team.
If Sterling is returned to the Wolves, he can teach younger prospects the proper mental game that he’s learned so well. He said of the pressure to make the Thrashers this year, "Whatever happens, happens. If I don’t start up, that’s OK, maybe I’ll get a chance if something happens, or if I play well in Chicago."
Last year’s fifth leading scorer, 36-year-old Steve Martins returns, but there are a couple players almost half his age that may score as many points — namely Riley Holzapfel and Spencer Machacek. Both are rookie pros out of the WHL, and they work well together. Granato called Holzapfel "a heck of a player," and is expecting big things from him. The former second-round pick had 41 points in 49 games last year in an injury-filled season. Holzapfel served as team captain in Traverse City and the Nashville games. Machacek is the grittier of the two, scoring a lot by crashing the net. He had 33 goals and 78 points last year in 70 games. The 20-year-old has been in the situation of following up a championship season before, having played for the Memorial Cup champion Vancouver Giants.
"You just know that every team’s going to want to beat you, being the top team from the year before. You’ve got to thrive off that pressure and be able to play in pressure situations."
Machacek described Granato’s coaching style as liking "hard-working guys, competing and battling. I get the sense he’s an intense coach and like intense players." Machacek should fit in quite well then. "Hopefully, yeah," he responded this suggestion.
The checking lines saw the departures of Kevin Doell and Andre Deveaux, but see the addition of Grant Stevenson and Rylan Kaip. Kaip should fill the role of checking center with more size and physicality than Doell did, and Stevenson makes smart plays and works the boards well.
Jordan LaVallee and Matt Anderson return to the group. The 6’5 Mike Hoffman and heart and souler Joey Crabb are still in Thrashers camp, but could be assigned to the Wolves. Tomas Pospisil is a scoring forward who will look to stick with the AHL club.
The defensive corps is losing the veteran experience of Joel Kwiatkowski (to Russia), Brian Fahey (to the Wolfpack) and the size and beligerance of Boris Valabik (to the NHL). That still leaves a reasonably good group of Nathan Oystrick, newcomer veteran Jamie Rivers, Brian Sipotz, Arturs Kulda, Grant Lewis, Chad Denny and Scott Lehman. More veteran presence would aid the development, especially with no designated defensive coach on staff.
Oystrick, Rivers and Kulda would be the first in line for a call-up, though Rivers is currently on an AHL deal. Kulda is officially a rookie this year, the only one in the mix, though he played during the entire playoff run last spring. He should see top-four minutes.
Net is the position with the most uncertainty by far. Events of the next few days could turn goaltending from a strength to a weakness. Last season the team was backstopped by rookie Ondrej Pavelec and journeyman Rob Gherson. That was the plan again for the year. That is until Pavelec’s agent loudly announced that his client would not report to the AHL.
Currently the Wolves have three goaltenders in training camp: Gherson, Gerald Coleman, and Dan Turple. Turple is in the third year of a three-year contract with the Thrashers but has seen time on only one AHL game, and that was for Grand Rapids. No matter how the matter with Pavelec is resolved, there will need to be a goaltender available for call-up to the Thrashers, who spends most of his time on the Wolves roster. But who that will be is an open question.
Relationship with Atlanta
With coach John Anderson moving up to the Thrashers, the strong relationship between the two organizations will only continue.
"In the past two years, it’s been the best it’s ever been," Anderson said. "I talked to Bob [Hartley] constantly." Small improvements will include writing down what’s being covered in every Wolves practice, for example if skills coach Kenny McCudden goes out with certain players. Conference calls with Thrashers brass where each player is talked about will continue.
"I’ve already told Donny Granato that I’d be speaking with him every 10 days to two weeks, when both our situations make that available," Anderson said. "I’ve got to credit Bob and Don [Waddell] for doing that because it hadn’t been that way in the past. The past two years have been great. The good thing for me is I’ve sat in Donny Granato’s seat, I understand the needs and wants of a coach down there. They still have to win, and help us out at the same time. So I’m very very aware of the pressures on him."