In 2006-07, the Chicago Wolves finished second in the West Division and third in the Western Conference. And it would be hard to make a case that the 2007-08 version of the Chicago Wolves won’t be better than last year. Much of the lineup returns, with solid replacements for the players who have moved up or moved on.
Brett Sterling, last year’s AHL rookie of the year, and versatile defenseman Mark Popovic, have made the Atlanta Thrashers roster. Sterling was part of the most potent line in the entire league, but with a couple solid candidates to take his place, there shouldn’t be much of a drop-off for the Wolves.
While last year’s team did its damage via offense, this version should be more balanced, with improved goaltending and defense. It should also have a more European flair, with a new Czech contingent that is three strong.
Half of the top line returns, which is a confusing thing to say when there are three players on a line. But Jason Krog was gone about half of the year, either with Atlanta or the NY Rangers, and Cory Larose filled in for him. Krog returns this season, along with Darren Haydar, but Larose does not. Who will end up playing left wing on that line in the spot vacated by Sterling is one of the more interesting questions heading into the Oct. 6 opener.
Another candidate for the top line is Alexandre Giroux, though as a center, he may be better suited to pivot on the second line. He had a career-high 42 goals and 70 points in 67 games for the Hershey Bears last year. Along with a trip to the Calder Cup finals with the Bears, he also played nine games for the Washington Capitals.
Rookie Tomas Pospisil, a left winger, lead the Wolves in scoring in the preseason with three goals. He’s a wildcard – he could range all the way from the top line, to a ticket to Gwinnett in the early going.
Second-year winger Jordan LaVallee will look to improve on his 16-goal, 34-point season last year. Jesse Schultz came over in a trade with Vancouver for defenseman Jimmy Sharrow, and should be in the mix for the second line.
Colin Stuart, who is confirmed to have a new three-year deal with the Thrashers which turns to one-way contract in the third year, returns to the fold. Breaking the elusive 30-point barrier should be his goal for the year.
Big-bodied Andre Deveaux, acquired partway through the 2006-07 season, returns and is now on a Wolves contract. Rounding out the checking line is Kevin Doell, the active leader in games played in a Wolves uniform with 211.
Thrashers free-agent signee Milan Bartovic may opt to leave for Europe at any time, if a desired offer comes through. The limit of six veterans in an AHL lineup each night could keep his playing time low, and if that happens, it is even more likely that he will exercise the option.
Winger Chad Painchaud suffered a left MCL strain at the Traverse City tournament in early September and should just be getting back on the ice in the next week or so. He spent all of last year with the Gladiators, and will need some luck on his side to avoid that assignment again.
In contrast to the Thrashers, the Wolves continue to have a very large backline, with both Sipotz and Valabik at 6’7. The only defenseman under 6’1 is Oystrick, at 5’11.
Sipotz, 26, is one of three players beginning their fourth year with the team (Sipotz, Doell and Stuart all began play with the team in 2004-05). The South Bend, Ind. native brings a steady defensive game to the table.
At the other end of the spectrum, Oystrick was fourth among AHL defensemen with 15 goals and ranked third overall among league blueliners with 47 points during his rookie year last season.
Last season the Wolves were low on veteran presence on the blue line, with the ultra-offensive Andy Delmore joining the team late in the season via trade. This season there are two vets to help guide the prospects.
Karel Pilar, who has already had an eventful preseason being waived and back again, is a veteran of 90 NHL games. He is coming off some health problems at age 29, playing just 10 games last year for the Toronto Marlies, and will likely only get better as he gets back into game shape. At the AHL level he has put up some solid points. The affable Czech should be a good locker room presence, already seen herding up the youngsters in Atlanta’s camp. Joel Kwiatkowski, 30, is a veteran of 264 NHL games. He played 42 games last year for the Florida Panthers and Pittsburgh Penguins.
Grant Lewis is a rookie out of Dartmouth College who should make an immediate impact. He’s a two-way defenseman with good size at 6’2. The 22-year-old was a second-round pick of the Thrashers in 2004.
There are nine names on the roster on defense right now, so one or two could be sent to the Gladiators. Scott Lehman, who played for the Gladiators last year, and Chad Denny, a offensive-minded rookie out of the QMJHL, are the most likely candidates.
In goal will be 20-year-old Ondrej Pavelec and 34-year-old Fred Brathwaite. Pavelec is the Thrashers top prospect – goaltender or otherwise – and is coming off of a two-year QMJHL career that saw him win the Jacques Plante Goaltender of the Year trophy both years.
Last year, Brathwaite was paired with Michael Garnett, who was not re-signed by the Thrashers and is now playing in Russia. Brathwaite had a down year compared to his career numbers, so he will be looking to bounce back.
Pavelec, a bright-eyed rookie, is looking to start his pro career on the right foot. He had some problems with his weight a year ago, but is now at his ideal weight and very enthusiastic about the upcoming year. Pavelec will likely play a majority of the games – not because of who he is – but because he’s that good.
Thrashers assistant coach Steve Weeks said of him "He had a very, very good camp. I look forward to having him go to Chicago and play a lot of games, get a lot of experience."
Pavelec and Brathwaite don’t know each other very well yet, but for the last two years, Pavelec had a goalie coach, Vincent Riendeau who had played with Brathwaite in 1996-97 for the Manitoba Moose.
"He told me about Freddy – he’s a good guy, good team player," Pavelec said during Thrashers camp.
Pavelec was planning to live with either fellow Czech Pospisil or a Slovak Valabik.
How about all three together, or would that be too much?
"It’s too much," he said laughing. "I think two guys would be OK. But we need some girls. I don’t know how to cook. I don’t want to eat out.
"Tomas has a girlfriend, so maybe…" he went on, the wheels in his head turning on how he could snag some meals. The good news is that the Wolves are working on setting up cooking classes for the young guys who have never had to live on their own before, so Pavelec should be able to feed himself.
Next up for him – a new Wolves-themed mask. He will be wearing a mask from the Cape Breton Screaming Eagles for several more weeks as he waits for his new one to come in.
"It will have a baseball stadium, the Cubs, and on the other side some buildings from Chicago," he described. "Here (pointing to top of head) will be the Atlanta logo and the Chicago logo. (On the back) the Czech flag and my name. (On the chin) my number, 31."
Thrashers equipment manager Joey Guilmet helped him decide what to put on it, before they sent it off to the painter.
"I said ‘what do you want to put on my mask,’ because I have no idea," Pavelec recalled. "It’s a Joey mask."
Copyright 2007 Hockey’s Future. Do not reprint or otherwise duplicate without permission of the editorial staff.