Chicago Wolves season preview

By Holly Gunning






Goaltending

The Chicago Wolves finished third in the AHL’s
West Division last season, but sixth in the league, showing what a tough
division they play in. The team lost in the second round of the playoffs to
divisional rival Milwaukee, who went on to win the 2004 Calder Cup. The
team hopes to do as well or better this year, but it will be difficult given the
now stocked rosters around the league. The Wolves are receiving relatively
less help from parent Atlanta Thrashers than most teams, whose top youngsters
are largely either too young or have too much NHL experience to be assigned to
the Wolves. The one exception, Kari Lehtonen, will be the difference-maker
for the Wolves in 2004-05.

Defense

Defense is an area of concern this year for
Chicago, with a lot of turnover and youth on the blue line. Gone are Mike
Weaver, Joe DiPenta, Shawn Heins (contracts not renewed), Kurtis Foster
(traded to Anaheim) and Luke Sellars (bought out of
contract).

Thirty-six-year-old veteran Greg Hawgood returns,
the leader in points among defensemen last year with 41 in 78 games. Other
blueliners with experience returning include 24-year-old Kyle Rossiter, who was
acquired by the Thrashers late last season, and third-year pro Libor Ustrnul.
The 6’5 Ustrnul is in a contract year and needs to take a step forward this
season. One experienced newcomer is 26-year-old Travis Roche, who joins the club
from the Minnesota organization.

New faces include Jeff Dwyer, who joined
the team late in the year once his season was over at Yale. The offensive
defenseman had 15 points in 30 games last season in the NCAA and no points in 11
games with the Wolves. The 23-year-old will need to make a quick
adjustment to the pros as he will be called on to contribute immediately.

Thrashers GM Don Waddell said of him this summer,
“Jeff Dwyer could be the big sleeper because for a defenseman his individual skill is as good as it could be at his
level. Unfortunately, not to take a shot at the ECAC or Yale hockey, he only got to play 20-some games a year and he really needs to get into a system where he plays a lot more games. But his skill level for a defenseman is really really high. I look for him to get the opportunity to continue to grow and he’ll be a real good player.”

Another rookie is Paul Flache, who spent
most of the year with ECHL affiliate Gwinnett Gladiators. What you see is
not what you get with Flache, who at 6’5 220 pounds is more of a finesse player than his size would have one assume. He has good hands and can play
on the power play. Flache had four points in his nine games with the Wolves
last season.

Another rookie remaining in the mix is Brian
Sipotz
, a recent graduate of Miami University. The 6’7, 245-pounder
had three assists and 39 penalty minutes in 36 games with Miami last year.
He’s a stay-at-home blueliner who has some developing to do before hitting his
stride in the pros. A local product out of South Bend, Indiana, he’ll have
his own cheering section.

Waddell said of Sipotz upon signing him, “He’s is a longer project. We talked to him and he’s got to work on many parts of his
game.” But, Waddell added, the team’s scouts say “‘We see something in this guy, he’s got a chance to be a player.’”

Sent to Gwinnett was 20-year-old Lane Manson,
a 6’8 rookie out of the WHL who had 12 points and 253 penalty minutes in 72
games last season for Moose Jaw.

Former Wolf Garnett Exelby remains without a team
for 2004-05 due to the NHL lockout and could still sign a contract with the
Wolves. He would solidify the defensive line-up, and turn an area of
concern into a strength.

Forwards

Scoring will come again mostly from older
players, including those who in a normal year would find themselves on the
Thrashers roster, such as J.P. Vigier, and Ben Simon. Wolves long-time
captain and 2003-04 scoring leader Steve Maltais returns, as does 25-year-old
Tommi Santala, who saw time with both the Wolves and Thrashers last season.

Gone from the front lines are Eric Healey, Brian
Swanson, and Daniel Corso, who were the second, third and fourth leading scorers
last year.

Last season left wing Karl Stewart
finished among the top five rookies in assists, plus/minus and penalty minutes.
He has the speed and offensive ability to pick up the scoring pace this year,
which he’ll have to do to make up for the lost firepower up front.

New faces include Colin Stuart, who
recently graduated from Colorado College. The 22-year-old had 22 points in
30 games last season.
Waddell praised
Stuart’s great speed and great hockey sense when talking about his signing.
Stuart’s pro readiness is such that he would have competed for a job on the
Thrashers roster had the season begun. He will chip in some offensively,
but should not be looked to to carry the load.

Another new face is 25-year-old center Kevin
Doell
, who was under contract with the Wolves last season, but spent most of
the year with the Gladiators where he won the ECHL Rookie of the Year award with
74 points in 63 games. Doell played eight games for the Wolves in the
regular season, posting two points. Now under contract with Atlanta, Doell
is neither fast nor big, nor possesses an exceptional shot, but has a veteran’s
instincts and vision. He’ll put up points when no one is looking.

Adam Smyth, a 21-year-old right winger who
spent four years in the OHL, is a rookie signed by the Wolves. He had 24
points and 160 penalty minutes in 50 games last season.

Despite the potential lack of scoring in the now stocked league,
20-year-old center Brad Schell, a rookie out of the WHL who had 92 points
in 71 games last season for Spokane, was assigned to Gwinnett. Twenty-two-year-old center Mike Stathopoulos was also assigned to Gwinnett. He had 51 points in 28 games for the University of Western Ontario.

Goaltending

Uber-prospect Kari Lehtonen, who would
have played for the Thrashers this season, returns in net. Last season
with the Wolves he had 20 wins, a 2.41 goals against average and a .926 save
percentage during the regular season and his numbers only got better during the
playoffs. By far the most talented player on the team, it will be
important both to him and the team to stay healthy and play as many games as he
can as he prepares for the rigors of the NHL.

Veteran Frederic Cassivi, who backed up Lehtonen
last season, was not re-signed and has moved on to the Cincinnati Mighty
Ducks. In a surprise move, it will not be another vet replacing him, but
soon to be 22-year-old Michael Garnett, who split time between the Wolves and the
Gladiators last year. Garnett had good numbers in the 11 games he played
with the Wolves, posting a 7-3-2 record, a 2.63 goals against average and a .914
save percentage.

Adam Berkhoel, of the 2004 NCAA champion
Denver Pioneers acquired at the Entry Draft from the Blackhawks, remains with
the team for now, but will assume the starting role in Gwinnett.

Outlook

Lehtonen will need to be stellar in net as the
rest of the Wolves line-up does not compare favorably to the rest of the league,
stocked up due to the lockout. It could be a long year in Chicago for a
fanbase used to winning unless some of the youngsters step up quickly.

The Wolves open their season on the road against
the Milwaukee Admirals on October 15th.

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