Chicago Wolves 2011-12 season preview

By John Jaeckel
Photo: Nicklas Jensen looked sharp in training camp and was rewarded with an entry-level deal on September 22nd. (Photo courtesy of Ken McKenna/HF)

Allstate Arena, just 20 minutes or so northwest of the United Center (home of the NHL Chicago Blackhawks), has long been home to the AHL Chicago Wolves. So the Vancouver Canucks‘ new affiliation with the Wolves, hometown to the NHL archrival Chicago Blackhawks, is ironic to say the least.

There however has always been a clear division between the fans of the Wolves and Hawks and Chicago fans will wholeheartedly embrace the new Wolves, now fully stocked with proven AHL veterans and Vancouver Canuck prospects.

Forwards

Five seasons ago, right wing Darren Haydar wowed Chicago crowds with 122 points for the Wolves. Essentially a career AHL star, Haydar forms a potentially strong core of veteran leadership along with forwards Kevin Doell, Mike Davies, Tim Miller, and perhaps late player tryout contract signee, Dean Strong.

They will be complemented by a generally very fast group of Canuck forward prospects, including Chicago area-native Billy Sweatt, who had decent numbers last year at Manitoba (AHL). A 2007 second round pick of the Blackhawks, Sweatt was sidelined by injury in Canuck training camp, before assignment to the Wolves.

More speed is provided by rookies Prab Rai and Swede Anton Rodin, with Rodin projected as a second line player with the Wolves, likely playing with Davies and perhaps Nathan Longpre.

The top six for the Wolves might look like Mark Mancari, Jordan Schroeder, and Haydar as a first line, with Rodin and Davies as wings on the second line, perhaps centered by Canuck camp standout Nathan Longpre. Playmaking has always been the calling card of former first round selection Schroeder, who will try to build on an unremarkable rookie year at Manitoba in 2010-11. Playing with a finisher like Haydar could allow Schroeder’s natural gifts to shine.

But this group is not just about speed and skill. Muscle and snarl will come from Viktor Oreskovich, Alex Friesen (compared at times to the late Rick Rypien), Matt Clackson, Mike Duco, and Darren Archibald.

Veteran tough guy Steve Pinizzotto suffered a shoulder injury in a late September preseason game and could join the Wolves at some point.

Defensemen

Veteran blueliners Mark Matheson, J.P. Testwuide, Dustin Friesen, and former Flyer Ryan Parent are joined by prospects Sebastian Erixon, Adam Polasek, Taylor Ellington, and Kevin Connauton.

Yann Sauve was recalled to the Canucks on September 28 after an injury to Aaron Rome.

Veteran AHL and NHL player Nolan Baumgartner joined Rome on the Canucks injured list in late September. When both recover, it remains to be seen whether Baumgartner, Sauve or perhaps former Nashville prospect Alexander Sulzer might join the Wolves. Any or all of those three would immediately provide a significant lift to the Chicago defense.

Goaltending

Rangy Swede Eddie Lack will be the number one goalie in Chicago. Lack was impressive in training camp and at times arguably looked better than NHL backup Cory Schneider.

The other part of the Chicago tandem, Matt Climie, was challenged in Wolves camp by Karel St. Laurent. However, St. Laurent was eventually released by the Wolves on October 4th. St. Laurent’s solid play in Canucks’ camp and subsequent release by the Wolves further proves the outstanding depth between the pipes in the Canucks’ system.

Coaching

The Wolves will be led by longtime NHL center and head coach Craig MacTavish. His assistant will be former Ontario Reign and Reading Royals (ECHL) head coach Karl Taylor.

Few AHL head coaches present the same level of experience and success as MacTavish, and the Canucks certainly had this in mind when they hired him in August 2011. Perhaps best remembered as a tough, stay-at-home defenseman with the great Edmonton teams of the late 80′s, MacTavish served as head coach of the Oilers for eight seasons, compiling a 301-252-47-56 record and .537 winning percentage from 2000 to 2009, and leading the Oil to the Stanley Cup Finals in 2005-06.

Prospects

It appears, after a strong camp and preseason, top prospect Cody Hodgson has arrived to stay in Vancouver.

2011 first round pick Nicklas Jensen was very impressive in Canucks camp, drawing consistent praise from head coach Alian Vigneault and registering a multi-point game in preseason action versus Calgary, before being returned to Oshawa (OHL). Jensen’s combination of size and obvious skill positions him well as a future NHL top six winger. He was signed to an entry-level pro contract on September 22nd.

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