After missing the playoffs last season, Atlanta Thrashers AHL affiliate Chicago Wolves are 23-7-1-1, with an even more impressive 8-1-0-1 in the last 10 games. They lead the Western Conference in points and look to be on track for another good run.
The turnaround is largely due to the amount of scoring brought in. The Wolves already have 152 goals for, which leads the league by far. But the youth of the defensive corps has indeed been a factor, with the seventh-worst goals against in the league at 104.
With the talent up front, it’s no wonder they have the sixth-ranked power play, clicking at 20.5 percent. Pointman Nathan Oystrick described the strategy used on the power play.
“We’re trying to move the puck around and spread out their guys. To start, we try to get pucks on net from the point and as the power play moves on, get it down low and give it to [league-leader] (Darren) Haydar and (Brett) Sterling.”
The team has seven rookies in the lineup, virtually all of whom are making an impact.
The only really concerning statistic this year is attendance — down to 6503, compared to a total last year of 7932. The league as a whole is down about 500 from last season’s average, so the drop is greater than other teams. This drops is perhaps in part due to last year’s losing season.
Brett Sterling, LW
A rookie out of Colorado College, Sterling leads the AHL in goal scoring with 31 – with the next player an entire nine goals behind him. Sterling’s 31 goals have shattered the Wolves franchise single-season record by a rookie.
Wolves Head Coach John Anderson said, “We knew he could score, but not like he has.”
It’s been a magical run for Sterling, after a very good Thrashers training camp. He’s had just a couple bumps along the way, one of which was being scratched in his fourth game on Oct. 15.
“I had to sit him because it took him a little while to get going. He had a very good training camp and all of a sudden he stopped skating and stopped playing hard,” Anderson said. “Now that he’s playing hard, he’s getting chance after chance after chance. Sometimes these little wake-up calls help. I want everyone to succeed, I don’t want to have to sit guys, but it’s a teaching tool. It’s because we want them to succeed that we treat them that way.”
The question marks around Sterling coming in were his size and how well he would do with new and different linemates. In college, Sterling played alongside Marty Sertich, who inched him out for the Hobey Baker award in 2006. This year Sterling has been playing with Haydar and Jason Krog, both good players in their own right. Notably, since Krog was called up to the Thrashers earlier this month and Cory Larose has been at center, Sterling has scored 11 points in six games, a whopping 10 of them goals. Overall, Sterling has 49 points in 30 games and is +12.
Size is certainly less of an issue than in the past, but generously listed at 5’8, Sterling still gives up a lot of wingspan and power to the opposition. He gets mauled sometimes along the boards, but to his credit it doesn’t deter him, and he draws a fair number of penalties this way.
Injuries have not been a factor this year. Sterling had some problems with his hip, first at the Traverse City tournament, then again in late November, but it hasn’t kept him out long.
Scoring a huge proportion of his goals from the right-wing doorstep, he’s very predictable, but as yet, unstoppable. His skating is not an issue, and should be good enough to find space at the next level.
“When he chases down the puck he goes hard. He’s strong on the puck, finishes his checks,” Anderson said.
“I think he’s ready to make the next jump.”
Alex Bourret, RW
Former first-round draft pick Alex Bourret had some adjustment issues this season. It took the right wing until Nov. 10 to score his first goal and he was even a healthy scratch as the coaching staff wasn’t getting what they needed out of him. He’s been coming on a bit more lately, playing on the second line with veteran Steve Martins and Jared Ross.
Bourret now has six goals and 15 assists in 23 games and is +3. He is second in rookie scoring on the team behind Sterling.
Bourret may not be scoring at a high rate just yet, but he is showing very good offensive instincts. He has also been able to bring his hitting game to the pro level very effectively. Inconsistency and maintaining a high work ethic are his main issues right now.
Jordan LaVallee, LW
Playing on the Wolves third line with Derek MacKenzie and Joey Crabb, LaVallee has five goals and nine assists in 31 games and is +7.
He’s not scoring as might have been hoped after a productive junior career, but his play is nevertheless encouraging. LaVallee plays well positionally, anticipates the play, and is sufficiently physical. He shows good puck pursuit and energy. Overall he has made a good adjustment to the pro level, but without the offense. He’s only a mediocre playmaker, but does tend to get shots off, regardless of the circumstances.
LaVallee’s play indicates that he will almost certainly play in the NHL, but it might be as a checker. He’s getting experience on the Wolves penalty kill.
Joey Crabb, RW
Signed as a free agent in the offseason, 23-year-old rookie Joey Crabb was scratched for the first time this year on Dec. 15 and 16.
Asked for the reason behind the scratch, Anderson sighed and said, “I need more. It’s not OK just to be OK, you’ve got to elevate your game. I can’t have you out there taking up time and space. You’ve got to contribute more than just being average.” He added, “it’s not a punishment.”
No player enjoys being out of the lineup, but Crabb seemed to understand the situation perfectly. Asked what Anderson wanted to see out of him, he said, “I think just more – I haven’t really created a whole lot and I need to be more consistent, make myself seen a little more. I don’t think anything awful, I’ve been playing alright, but like he said, ‘alright isn’t good enough.’”
But Crabb felt he definitely had it in him to do just that. “For sure,” he said. “I don’t lack any confidence in myself at all. As weird as it sounds, I lack confidence right now, but at the same time I know that I can do it. I think maybe this is a good thing for me and hopefully I’ll pick it up.”
Coach and player had not talked about the need to elevate his game before that weekend. “No, but you’ve got to recognize that yourself,” Crabb said. “I’ve known that I need to do more for the team.”
Crabb very much wants to straddle the line between scoring and checking, and has the skill to do both. Playing on the third line with LaVallee and MacKenzie, his –1 stands out on what is a very plus team, however. Asked if this was an indicator to him of something he needs to improve on, he said, “Yes and no. At the start of the season I think I was –4 in one game, two shorthanded goals, an empty netter and another one. From there I’ve been climbing back up so I’ve actually been plus since the very start of the season. But yeah, I do need to pick that up, get plusses.”
Coming from Colorado College where he played just 42 games last year, fatigue could have become a factor at this point in the season.
“I was actually a little bit worried about that coming in,” Crabb admitted. “But I feel fine. You’ve got a lot of down time so you’re able to take care of your body. In school you’d go to class in the morning and homework at night so you didn’t have as much free time. I eat plenty and get plenty of sleep, so I don’t think it’s been much of a factor.”
Crabb has been back in the lineup for three games and has picked up an assist. He now has four goals and nine assists in 30 games. With one step backward looking for two steps ahead, the long-term outlook for Crabb remains good.
Colin Stuart, LW
Stuart is an effective checking line forward at this level, currently with five goals and three assists in 19 games and a +3. He has never been known as a big scorer, but if he’s about to take his game to another level, then he has to start providing more than just good skating ability and solid effort. It’s remarkable that in a 9-1 game this month, he managed to have no points and come out minus.
Stuart missed 13 games (Oct. 14 – Nov. 14) with a broken jaw, which enabled Guillaume Desbiens to get into the lineup.
Guillaume Desbiens, RW
Desbiens saw a lot of ice time with the Gwinnett Gladiators last year, even time on the power play. In Chicago, he’s seeing fourth-line minutes and has played in just over half the games (17 of 32), but he’s just glad to be in the line-up. He wasn’t told until a month into the season that he could get an apartment in Chicago because he’d be staying.
“It’s my first season in the American Hockey League so when you’re a rookie you have to expect that sometimes you’re going to sit out,” he said. “Especially since we have a great team right now, a lot of veterans. Rosie (Cory Larose) has a point a game and he was sitting out for a while. When I see that, I’m not mad I’m not playing.”
Last year Gladiators Coach Jeff Pyle asked him not to fight because he wanted Desbiens to contribute offensively. But Desbiens admits that it’s probably the best way for him to keep a spot this year.
“My role is a lot different this year,” he said. “I try to hit a little more, skate a little more, and disturb the players over there, and when I hit, there’s going to be fights. It’s part of my game and I’ve been doing that since juniors. It’s nothing new to me, but yeah I’ve been fighting a lot more than last year, just trying to keep my spot in the lineup every night.”
Desbiens has a goal, an assist and 52 penalty minutes. The good news is that he is getting better as a fighter as he meets tougher competition.
“The last few fights I’ve done well, so I think I’m getting better, but I don’t want to get too confident because when you’re too confident, that’s when you get shit-kicked… if I can say that,” he said, laughing. “But yeah, just trying to do my job and do the best I can.”
He hasn’t received specific instructions from Anderson on fighting like he did from Pyle though.
“If some of our top players are getting hit too much or if they’re trying to disturb them, then my job is to make them be respected by the other players,” he said. “He’s not really telling me anything about fighting, but I think he expects me to fight when the situation is needed.”
The bad news for Desbiens is that his skating remains an issue. He has been working on it lately with Wolves Skating and Skills Coach Kenny McCudden. “We’re trying to get my feet a little quicker and take a lot of shots close to the net – that’s where I score most of my goals,” he said. They are also practicing making sure the puck leaves the zone when it comes around to him on the breakout. Desbiens said he had used what they had worked on in the game that night and it worked well.
Desbiens is very aware of his skating, and the need to keep his feet moving. “Definitely,” he said. “I don’t play a lot, so sometimes I’m not fresh on the ice, so I’ve got to keep my feet moving all the time, shorter shifts, make sure I stay warm and everything.”
He also admitted that he’s struggling with staying in game shape, something he has never had to do before because he was playing so much.
“It’s harder to stay in as good of shape when you’re not in the lineup and don’t have a lot of ice time. Obviously if you play a lot, your game shape is going to be a lot better.”
Desbiens has been riding the bike and staying after practice to try to stay in shape. Given the decline in fighting in hockey, skating will determine his future.
“I have to keep working on it and improve it,” he said. “If I want to make it to the NHL one day, I have to be a lot faster than I am right now.”
In his fifth year in the league, Popovic is the most experienced Wolves defenseman, and certainly the one to put out in a pressure situation. The 24-year-old is always calm with the puck and usually makes the right decision.
Popovic missed seven games (Oct. 7-24) due to a foot injury suffered in Thrashers training camp. Combine that with two weeks called up to the Thrashers in late November, and he has played just 18 games for the Wolves. Popovic has nine points and is +3.
Oystrick came down with mononucleosis in July, and was still recovering during training camp. The rookie started the season on time, and never missed any games because of it, but only got back up to 100 percent cardiovascular-wise three or four weeks ago.
“I’ve got to give credit to our coaches, they give me a chance to play. They’ve stuck with me,” he said.
The coaching staff is giving him lots of ice time, in all situations, and the newly-turned 24-year-old is handling it well physically.
“I think I still need to get in the gym a bit more and work on my strength,” he said. “That will come with time. Mono’s pretty tough to get over so it’s going good. I think I’m playing pretty well so far and hopefully people are happy.”
Oystrick, a 5’11 two-way defenseman, talked about his role on the team and his approach.
“I’m getting power play time, so I’ve got to get pucks on net, get them through and help out there, but I’m really trying to focus on the defensive side of my game this year. College was a little bit easier for me to join the rush, but here I’m trying to hang back a little bit more and just make easy plays for our forwards. Give the puck to Sterling, Krog and Haydar – you’ve got guys on the team who can score. I’m just trying to move the puck up and play sound defensively.”
Despite the stated concentration on defense, Oystrick is tied for the lead among team defensemen in scoring with five goals and 11 assists in 16 games and is +8. He edges out several others for second place in penalty minutes with 54. Oystrick credited his scoring to all the time he’s seeing on the power play.
Still, is he surprised that he’s scoring so much? “A little bit… yeah,” he laughed as he thought about it. “Every goalie is an unreal goalie in this league, so to have five goals already is a pretty big accomplishment for me.”
Hitting was a huge part of his game with Northern Michigan University, but it’s not something that stands out right now with the Wolves.
“I still like to hit, but it’s kind of a different game now,” he explained. “You’ve got to use your stick a bit more and angle guys. Here guys are a lot better with the puck and faster and you can’t always step up and go for that big hit because there will be a guy behind and suddenly it’s a two-on-one for your partner. So yeah it’s still there, but I’ve got to pick my spots more.
He could add it back to his game once he’s completely adjusted to the league and the speed of the forwards.
“I think I’m getting better with the speed and I definitely want to hit more but it will take a little bit I think. It’s tough,” he said. “I want to, really bad, but I’ve got to pick my spots.”
Oystrick plays a good all-around game, effective both offensively and defensively. He has been partnered with the 6’6 Brian Sipotz this season. Sipotz is very good along the wall, but the downside of that is that Oystrick is not active enough and lets his partner do too much of the work in the corners. As a smaller defenseman, he needs to be exceptional to make up for lack of reach. Greater intensity would go a long way.
In the opposite corner is Boris Valabik, whose imperative is turning down the intensity. The 6’7 Slovakian, the only European on the Wolves roster this year, leads the league in penalty minutes with 133, almost all of them the belligerent variety. Thirty-five of the 133 were fighting majors (7), while 30 were game misconducts (3).
The following table breaks down Valabik’s minutes into their component categories.
|No. of minutes||Infraction|
Against (bigger) AHL players, Valabik is still getting called for a lot of penalties this year. In fact, he’s getting more. Valabik had a rate of 4.15 penalty minutes per game last year with the OHL Kitchener Rangers, and 4.59 this year. It seems that his reputation as a loose cannon was well-earned and it wasn’t the OHL referees picking on him after all. He’s a player who cannot help giving that extra shove at the end of an altercation.
Valabik has been partnered with Brian Fahey most of the season. He has two goals and six assists in 29 games and is +16.
On the positive side, Valabik’s defensive positioning is good and his long wingspan means he gets to a lot of pucks. But skating remains an issue as he is sometimes beaten wide to the net, and lack of first-step quickness has him losing footraces to the net off the boards. His puckhandling is sub-par for the NHL as well. According to Thrashers Director of Amateur Scouting and Player Development Dan Marr, Valabik is learning to skate hard prior to receiving the puck, rather than catch, then start skating.
Sharrow is in his second year in the league, but seems to make more rookie mistakes than those with the rookie asterisk on the stat sheet. Problems begin with his very approach to defense, which is a tendency to play the puck instead of the man. This may be related to his lack of physical strength – also a problem.
The only truly offensive defenseman currently in the lineup, Sharrow sees a lot of time on the power play, sometimes the entire two minutes. He moves the puck, but doesn’t always get his shots through to the net. At even strength, he has lately been partnered with Popovic.
Sharrow is tied with Oystrick in defensive scoring with three goals and 11 assists in 30 games. He is +7 on the season.
Garnett has a 11-6-0 record, a 3.23 GAA and .891 save percentage. He’s playing less than a majority of the games, behind a healthy Fred Brathwaite, who had missed seven games with a hand injury. Six of the team’s nine losses have come with Garnett in net.
Skating and Skills Coach McCudden, who also helps out at Thrashers prospect camps, works on drills with the prospects a few times a week — catching and releasing, skating into a pass — little things that a lot of people wouldn’t think about. Players have had nothing but good things to say about his coaching over the years.
“He’s there quite a bit, once or twice a week. But he’s a big help I think,” Crabb said. “If you don’t work on things, you’re not going to get any better. I see a big improvement in myself just from the start of practice to the end. I’d go out with him every day if I could.”
Crabb, who had similar types of coaching at Colorado College, said he has been able to put these things into practice, with good results.
“We were joking around, me and LaVallee, we’ve been doing it quite a bit. For a while we went out there a few times in a row and both of us had a couple goals that weekend so we joked that it was all due to him. He’s a big help and he knows what he’s doing. It’s good for the team.”
Copyright 2006 Hockey’s Future. Do not reprint or otherwise duplicate without permission of the editorial staff.