In 2002-03, the Wolves advanced to the second round of the Calder Cup playoffs, losing to Grand Rapids. The 2003-04 Wolves feature a completely revamped offense and one of the best goaltending prospects in the world. The team has developed a pattern of winning championships in even numbered years, and 2004 is an even year.
The hope of a new season is marred by tragedy, however. Like the parent club, the Atlanta Thrashers, the Wolves will have a lot to overcome following the death of former teammate Dan Snyder. How well the Wolves deal with this emotional loss will determine in large part what kind of season they have.
Rob Brown, RW
Andreas Karlsson, C
JP Vigier, RW
Mark Hartigan, C
Jeff Farkas, C
Ben Simon, C
Karl Stewart, RW
Eric Healey, LW
Bill Lindsay, LW
Brian Maloney, LW
Brian Swanson, C
Stephen Baby, RW
Anthony Aquino, RW
Only five forwards who played most of the season with the team return: Simon Gamache, Steve Maltais, Brad Tapper, Derek MacKenzie and Zdenek Blatny. Losses were deep: Rob Brown retired in the offseason, and Andreas Karlsson’s contract with the Thrashers was not renewed. Mark Hartigan was bought out of his contract, and was signed to a new deal by Columbus Blue Jackets. Jeff Farkas was forced to retire to due injury. Ben Simon was offered a contract by the Thrashers, but opted to sign with the Nashville Predators instead. Key goalscorer JP Vigier is currently up with the Thrashers.
But several new additions could be just as productive, if not more than the players lost. 2002-03 AHL scoring champion Eric Healey joins the team, as does 20-year-old speedster Karl Stewart, who finished 13th in OHL scoring last year. Veteran leader and Wolves scoring leader 34-year-old Steve Maltais returns for his tenth season with the team.
Bill Lindsay adds veteran presence and young newcomer Kevin Doell will add grit and fighting ability to the team, as does Michigan State graduate Brian Maloney. Cornell grad Stephen Baby brings size and a mean streak.
One concern is a lack of natural centers on the roster, though several players can play the position. Only MacKenzie, Swanson and Doell are natural centers. Karl Stewart can play center and it’s likely that he will do so most of the season.
Six of the eight defensemen on the roster are returnees: Mike Weaver, Kirill Safronov, Joe DiPenta, Kurtis Foster, Libor Ustrnul, and Luke Sellars. Lost were 36-year-old Dallas Eakins, who was signed by the Vancouver Canucks, and young rugged Garnet Exelby, who graduates to the Thrashers.
Over the summer, the Wolves signed 34-year-old veteran offensive defenseman Greg Hawgood and 22-year-old local product Evan Nielsen, a former Thrashers draft pick out of Notre Dame. Nielsen has been assigned to Gwinnett of the ECHL to start the year. Veteran Shawn Heins also joins the team under contract with the Thrashers.
In net, the Wolves have both talent and experience. Top prospect Kari Lehtonen has played in the Finnish Elite League for two years, considered by many to be the best league outside the NHL. He is in Chicago to get games under his belt in North American rinks. He should see most of the starts in net for the Wolves in 2003-04. Also in net is 28-year-old AHL veteran Frederic Cassivi, who has been with the team for two seasons.
The organization is experiencing yet another logjam in goal. The Thrashers are currently carrying three goaltenders (Pasi Nurminen, Byron Dafoe, and Janni Hurme), but one is expected to be traded as soon as the right deal can be found. The Wolves are currently carrying three as well, Lehtonen, Cassivi, and prospect Michael Garnett, who played last year in Greenville of the ECHL. Garnett will likely be sent down to Gwinnett before the Gladiators season opener on the 18th.
Another key addition to the goaltending is Wendell Young as an assistant coach in charge of goaltenders as well as strength and conditioning. Young is the franchise leader in goaltender games played, wins, saves, minutes played, and shutouts, and is the only player in team history to have had his jersey retired. This is the first time the team has appointed a goaltending coach.
Karl Stewart was the last cut from Thrashers training camp, and will see time with the team as roster spots permit. Other prospects expected to see some time in Atlanta are Kirill Safronov, Derek Mackenzie and Simon Gamache. The amount of time will depend on injuries and how close the team is to the playoffs at the trade deadline. Veteran forward Bill Lindsay will likely see time with both clubs as well.
The power play was a key component to the Wolves’ success in past years. The team loses Karlsson and Brown off the unit, but gains Karl Stewart and Eric Healey.
Twenty-one-year-old offensive defenseman Kurtis Foster and his powerful shot return. Greg Hawgood will be a welcome addition at the point as well.
2003-04 marks the third year of affiliation with the Atlanta Thrashers. The organization’s ECHL affiliate has changed, going from the Greenville Grrrowl to the Gwinnett Gladiators, located minutes from the Thrashers training facility in Duluth, Georgia.
The Wolves open the season October 11th at home against Grand Rapids.