Chicago Wolves 2006-07 season preview

By Holly Gunning

The Chicago Wolves 2006-07 roster will be quite different than that of last season, as only one of the team’s top nine scorers returns to the team. The Wolves missed the playoffs in 2005-06 for the first time in the team’s 11-year history, so personnel changes should not come as a surprise.

While some new faces are veterans, there will be a high percentage of rookies, as many Atlanta Thrashers draftees turn pro this year. They are a talented lot, players who had a lot of success at their previous levels, be it college or juniors.

The high number of rookies will make for a real coaching challenge. There is enough talent here, but the players will need to be taught the professional game and shaped into a winning team. John Anderson returns as head coach, his tenth year with the Wolves. He is joined by newly-hired Todd Nelson, a former defenseman, from the UHL’s Muskegon Fury.

Forwards

Gone are last year’s top three scorers in Ramzi Abid, Kip Miller, and Scott Barney. But scoring should not be a problem for the incoming group.

Sniper Brett Sterling posted over 30 goals his last two seasons at Colorado College, and Alex Bourret was a top scorer in the Quebec League. Bourret, also known for his physical play, remains in Thrashers camp, but will probably spend most of the year in Chicago. Jordan LaVallee is another rookie out of the QMJHL who has put up 40 goals in the past.

Teams in the American League are most often lead by veterans scorers, however. Darren Haydar scored a lot against the Wolves in his time with rival Milwaukee Admirals, but this time he’ll be scoring for them. The 26-year-old had a career year last year with 92 points in 80 games.

Steve Martins, a member of the Wolves’ 1998 Turner Cup Championship team when they were part of the IHL, returns for a second stint. The 34-year-old journeyman has played 267 NHL games, and will serve as a role model for the youth. He’s no slouch at scoring either, placing fifth in the AHL in assists last year with Binghamton. Cory Larose, a 31-year-old returnee from the 2004-05 season, rounds out the veteran forwards.

Derek MacKenzie, named captain in 2005-06, returns to the team for a sixth year and will again be a key cog in the penalty kill. Kevin Doell, the team’s fourth-leading scorer last season with 51 points in 78 games, also returns. Playmaker Jared Ross scored 37 points in 62 games last year, and should only increase that number with more experience.

Colin Stuart, who had a good second half last year, will be a leader on the penalty kill and could see a call-up to Atlanta at some point. Joey Crabb, a former linemate of both Sterling and Stuart at Colorado College, will bring some scoring and grit to the table in his rookie season.

Guillaume Desbiens brings a physical element to the table, but the 21-year-old can score his share of goals as well, potting 33 last year with the ECHL Gwinnett Gladiators.

Colton Fretter, a former Thrashers draft pick signed to a Wolves contract, is a wild card. At 23, he should be able to step in and contribute right away as he did for Michigan State. While he doesn’t score as often, it’s usually when the team most needs it. Whether the energetic Fretter sticks to start the season is uncertain, however.

Former Minnesota Wild player Kyle Wanvig remains with Atlanta, but is a probable further cut headed for Chicago. He brings size and grit. Chaz Johnson will be a contender as a role player.

Defense

Defense will likely be the weakest area for the Wolves this year, as the area where youth and inexperience is most evident.

Justin Kurtz, a 29-year-old veteran, essentially replaces 2005-06’s top scoring defenseman Travis Roche in the lineup. Mark Popovic is still in Thrashers camp, trying to make the NHL roster. Losing the soon to be 24-year-old would be a blow to the squad.

Twenty-six-year-old Troy Milam, in his third year as a pro, should finally get a chance to stick with the team. He and his every-ready slapshot would be a welcome addition to the Wolves power play. Jim Sharrow, a second-year offensive defenseman, remains out for another couple of weeks with a broken bone in his hand.

The team may see Braydon Coburn return for part of the year, but can’t plan for him at this point.

Nathan Oystrick and Boris Valabik will be rookies making impacts, often literally. Both approach defense from a physical angle, though Oystrick has more offensive skill. The former Northern Michigan Wildcat is still recovering from mononucleosis, so he might be slow getting going. He participated in Thrashers training camp, but struggled with strength and conditioning. The 23-year-old’s play should gradually improve as he gets stronger. Valabik, on the other hand, remains in Thrashers camp, but should be sent down within a few days. The former Kitchener Ranger will be a mainstay on the penalty kill when he’s not in the box himself.

Brian Sipotz, now under Wolves contract, and partner Tim Wedderburn round out the defensive corps.

Goaltending

Only one of the six goaltenders used by the Wolves in 2005-06 returns: Michael Garnett. The 23-year-old struggled last season with just a .881 save percentage in 35 games with the Wolves.

Veteran Fred Brathwaite will likely join Garnett in Chicago, but must clear NHL waivers to do so. A team looking for a quality backup could very well grab the 34-year-old veteran of 254 NHL games. The Thrashers will wait a while to send him down, making sure they have no injuries of their own first, then crossing their fingers that no team sees an immediate need. Brathwaite is clearly still good enough to have a job in the NHL, so it will be a boon for the Wolves if he makes it to Chicago.

If Brathwaite is claimed via waivers or spends most of the year in Atlanta due to injury, goaltending suddenly becomes a concern. Twenty-four-year-old Dave Caruso or 21-year-old Dan Turple, both rookies, would be called upon.

Outlook

With more veterans signed, and assigned, than can play in any given game, the Wolves lineup will be a juggled one to start the season. But the team could be a very high-scoring one and a lot of fun to watch.

With an influx of young talent, the outlook is good. If some of the rookie players have relatively seamless transitions to the professional game, with the veterans showing them the way, the Wolves should be back in the playoff chase. But it will require good coaching to mold them into a contender so soon – difficult but not impossible.


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