Chicago Wolves season preview

By Holly Gunning

Last season, the Chicago Wolves headed into the season thin on scoring and heavy on goaltending. They added enough scoring and defense throughout the season to help them to the Calder Cup Finals, where they lost to the Philadelphia Phantoms.

This season, the Wolves are again thin on scoring, and are undergoing a changing of the guard in net. They will again need to make upgrades in order to contend for the 2006 Calder Cup.

Below is a look at the personnel in place thus far.

Forwards

It will be a new-look offense for the Wolves. Leading scorer J.P. Vigier (70 points) returns to the NHL with parent club Atlanta Thrashers. Cory Larose (63 points), Steve Maltais (60 points), and Lonny Bohonos (57 points) are not expected back in the fold. This makes 25-year-old newcomer Ramzi Abid the most experienced scorer on the team. Abid had 55 points in 78 games with Wilkes-Barre Scranton last season, 26 of them goals.

Another relative veteran sent down by the Thrashers was 26-year-old Scott Barney. Barney has lost four entire seasons to injuries over the course of his career, including last season. The Thrashers see Barney as a reclamation project who could be a real sleeper for them. Getting back into the flow of the game will be the first step. Barney has good size at 6’4 and the hands of a goal scorer. In 2003-04 he played 19 games for the Los Angeles Kings, with 11 points.

Derek MacKenzie, a late cut from Thrashers camp, rejoins the team to begin a fifth year. With Maltais gone, MacKenzie now has the longest tenure with the team. A very responsible two-way player, he will be an important cog for Chicago. Speedy agitator Karl Stewart returns, as does banger Brian Maloney.


Colin Stuart did not see much ice time last year, but look for a strong sophomore year from him after a good camp in Atlanta. He had just five points in 39 games with Chicago last season. Thirty points should be within his reach.

Brad Schell spent all of 2004-05, his rookie year, with the ECHL Gwinnett Gladiators. The 21-year-old will provide some much-needed offensive skill to the lineup. Both he and Stuart can play either center or wing.

Kevin Doell is another forward who didn’t see much ice time last season. An undersized energy player, he’s fairly versatile. Pat Dwyer is almost an identical player to Doell, small and scrappy. The 22-year-old rookie is a former Thrashers draft pick, but under contract with the Wolves.

Checker Stephen Baby had a lot of development to do in the minors, but has advanced only a small amount. The 6’6, 25-year-old winger is in the last year of contract, and needs to step up in a big way to simply keep his professional career going, much less be re-signed by the Thrashers.

Adam Smyth, under contract with the Wolves last season, played all but three games with Gwinnett. Now under contract with the Thrashers, he’s likely ready to move up to the AHL level. A tough player with good skating and puck skills, he needs to be more consistent in his play. He had 16 points and 217 penalty minutes in 49 games with Gwinnett.

Guillaume Desbiens, a rookie out of the QMJHL, will likely be sent to Gwinnett where he can get more playing time. The Thrashers 2003 draft pick can fight and score, but needs to round out the rest of his game. He had 43 points, 27 of them goals, and 206 penalty minutes with Rouyn-Noranda last season.

The Wolves will get another forward or two from Atlanta once Ilya Kovalchuk signs a contract. Brad Larsen and Francis Lessard are two potential candidates, and to a lesser degree, rookie Jim Slater. Signing a veteran forward or two to an AHL contract seems likely as well, both for leadership and production reasons.

Currently the Thrashers are carrying a full 23-man roster, but will likely get below that once Kovalchuk is signed and cap space becomes an issue.

Defensemen

Defense is a strength for the Wolves heading into the season. The Wolves added NHL veteran Chris Tamer, a stay at homer who will lend both leadership and stability to the backline. Having played for the Thrashers for several years, the 34-year-old true professional will be able to help guide the young blueliners on what it takes to make the next step.

Blue chip prospect Braydon Coburn begins the season with the Thrashers, who have injuries on the back line, but if reassigned, would be another rock on defense. He joined the Wolves for 21 games at the end of last season.

Mark Popovic is a recent acquisition of the Thrashers from the Anaheim Mighty Ducks. The two-way defender could see time on power play, something he didn’t see much of in Cincinnati last season. Though assigning him to the minors to start the year, the Thrashers are high on his potential and believe he will see time with the big club this year.

Jeff Dwyer was assigned to the team last season, but was out with a lingering groin injury almost all of last year. The second Dwyer on the team, he is a good skater with all-around skill, a very similar player to Popovic. A good year is absolutely critical for the 25-year-old, who can’t afford further setbacks.

Jim Sharrow joins the squad as a rookie out of the QMJHL. An offensive defenseman, he will be important on the attack. The 2003 draft pick had 47 points in 69 games for the QMJHL Halifax Mooseheads in 2004-05.

Brian Sipotz is a stay at home defenseman looking to build on strong rookie year. Partner Tim Wedderburn returns to the defensive corps as well, as does Travis Roche.

Also available are Lane Manson and Troy Milam who will likely be back in Gwinnett. Milam is an offensive defenseman who played with Gwinnett in the 2003-04 season and would be welcomed back. Nick Naumenko could be reassigned to the AA level as well.

Goaltenders

With uber-prospect Kari Lehtonen graduating to Atlanta, Michael Garnett inherits the starting position for the Wolves. Capable but unproven, there’s no way to know how he’ll perform as a starter at the AHL level. Last season he posted a 11-9-0 record, .911 save percentage and 2.86 GAA as the backup. The soon to be 23-year-old was the Thrashers’ third round pick in the 2001 NHL Entry Draft.

The No. 2 slot is currently held by Adam Berkhoel, acquired by the Thrashers via trade in 2004 after backstopping his team to the NCAA championship. Berkhoel spent his injury-plagued rookie season with the Gladiators last season, posting a 9-10-5 record, .913 save percentage, and 2.43 goals against average. A good training camp has served his cause well.

The question mark on goaltending is two-fold — is it strong enough for the Wolves to win, and is there someone capable of being an injury replacement in Atlanta? Neither question has been answered yet.

For now, the Thrashers at least seem content to give these two prospects a chance, and if injuries create a need for more manpower, cross that bridge when they come to it. If the Wolves see a greater need from their perspective, a veteran netminder could be added.




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