Sitting atop the AHL‘s West Division, the Chicago Wolves are 18-11-1-1, good for a .613 win percentage. Long known for their powerful offense, 12 teams in the league have scored more goals than the Wolves this year.
This year they are winning games with a more well-rounded game, and cutting it closer to the margin. Due to the Wolves being in a lot of one-goal games, the prospects are getting critical development time.
"Every minute matters in these games," new head coach Don Granato said. "Not like a two or three-goal difference where there’s a moment for a lapse. No lapses."
Preparing for opponents is easier for Granato now than it was three seasons ago when he last coached in this league due to the evolution of video. Since last year, the AHL has had an onlilne archive for the teams, where they can download any game to their computers and edit them for use in video coaching. It’s the same feed as a fan would pay for, but on a separate site that provides the games as downloadable files. Teams can see exactly who their opponent used on the power play and where they used them in their last game, and with the number of call-ups and send-downs there are, that’s a huge advantage.
Granato works with players individually with video, going over decision-making and positioning.
"A lot of the value is just in them seeing the time and space they had. They know why they made a decision on the ice and when they see it on film, there’s a chance they will say ‘Geez, I had more time’ or ‘I didn’t see that option.’ It’s a continual process, a maintenance thing."
To the team, he’ll lay out two or three objectives against the specific opponent, and then once the game begins, he says very little.
"When the game starts, my philosophy is let the players play. You don’t want them thinking too much. Our sport’s too fast. The hope is that they go out and play as hard as they can, they trust their instincts."
One area they shouldn’t get too comfortable is in their linemates though.
"We shift the lines around a lot and will continue to do that," Granato said.
Arturs Kulda, D
Kulda was out of the lineup for about a month with a high ankle sprain, suffered during a Nov. 15 game against Syracuse.
"In the third period I made a pass and the guy kind of pushed me," Kulda explained. "I was falling down and kind of tried to catch balance and fell on my leg and it went under me. It looked pretty bad on video but I didn’t miss a shift. I thought it was nothing serious but after a couple days I could feel there was something wrong. I didn’t expect that I’d miss a whole month with it. You can’t tape it either. You go on the ice and one awkward move and it’s hurting."
Kulda said he played the most with Scott Lehman this year, before he was injured.
Tomas Pospisil is Kulda’s roommate this season. With one a Czech and the other a Latvian, they still have to speak English with one another. But they’ve gotten to know each other quite well already.
"It’s good, two Euros together," Kulda said. "We have many things to talk about."
Kulda isn’t really an offensive defenseman, with just four assists in 17 games, but uses the most curved blade among defensemen on the team. He said that last year his stick was even more curved, but he broke all of them in that pattern so he had to switch.
Kulda returned to the lineup on Dec. 19, and looked like he hadn’t missed a beat.
"It’s good to see him back in the lineup," Granato said after his return. "I thought he played well."
Beyond the ankle, Kulda recently suffered wounds to his self-image. He lost in a shootout competition in practice on Nov. 22, and the price for doing so is growing a mustache for a month. Kulda could not wait to get rid of it as he was nearing the end.
"It’s so disgusting," he said. "It’s gross."
Spencer Machacek, RW
Machacek and Holzapfel are often talked about as a pair because they are coming up through the system at the same time, both out of the WHL. Machacek was actually drafted a year later than Holzapfel due to when his birthday fell, but thanks to him turning 20 this fall he was able to play in the AHL this year.
The two are often seen together, as they are friends and roommates. Machacek said they are doing well with the domestic chores, but appreciate it when teammates with families have them over for dinner.
"I’ve done my laundry on my own before so I kind of know what to do," Machacek said. "It’s kind of self-explanatory. It’s not too hard. On days off we like to do our laundry."
Granato is bullish on both Machaceck and Holzapfel’s NHL futures.
"They are definite NHL potential players that will find a role within a team. You don’t find out how far they can go until they make that next step. But they have real good indications. They’ve continually gotten better through the course of the year. They learn from the situations they’re in. A key to player development is taking what happened in a game and gaining experience by being involved in it and immersing themselves in the game and competing as hard as they can, laying it on the line. If you’re not competing as hard, you’re not going to challenge yourself. These guys do that very well."
That said, they are complimentary rather than identical players.
"They play the game differently," Granato said. "Spencer really takes a lot of pride in traffic. He’s not as smooth. Riley’s a more smooth player. They shoot the puck differently. Riley’s got a quick release, Spencer does not. They both need to make improvements to get to the NHL."
Machacek missed just three Wolves games this year, due to a swollen inside of the knee off a Grant Lewis slapshot in practice. It happened the day before a quick series of games, so he wasn’t able to heal up quickly enough.
Machacek’s dependability has meant that he gets to play in a lot of situations.
"My ice time’s been really good here and gives me a good chance to develop," he said. "I’ve gotten to play on the penalty kill and power play to see what that’s like at the pro level. It’s helped me a lot."
Machacek actually reminds of someone who has made it hard for the Thrashers to send down. Granato agreed that there is a parallel to be drawn between Joey Crabb and Machacek.
"You know what, they are similar," he said. "They’re competitive, they make it hard on their opponent physically with their second effort, their strength on pucks."
It was Machacek’s strength on the puck that made him a choice for the power play against San Antonio last weekend.
"If you watch their team, how aggressive they are on the penalty kill, you don’t have any time to set up," Granato said. "They just run right at you. So on our power play against them, it’s real key for us to be able to protect the puck, to absorb a hit and still be able to maintain possession. Spencer excels at that. Against this team Spencer can be very effective on the power play. If they back off into a box as you typically see and there’s puck movement, then that may not favor the assets that Spencer has."
Machacek’s assets have led him to score four goals and nine assists in 28 games and post an impressive +12, the highest on the team among forwards. He doesn’t have as much finesse as Holzapfel, but he’s outscoring him this year, just as he did in junior last season.
"Because Spencer’s pushing himself so hard, his skill level is actually increasing," Granato said.
Grant Lewis, D
Lewis injured his left shoulder in the same game as Kulda injured his ankle. He was pushed into the boards. He made it back to the lineup last week.
"We’ve taken our time with all our guys to make sure they’re 100 percent. He came back, he was a little bit sore and missed some more games. It’s all basically precaution."
Lewis said he felt good last weekend.
"Last week I came back and it wasn’t where I wanted it to be, to be honest. It’s early in the season, a long season, so I figure why push it if I didn’t have to. But I felt good out there, my timing’s not on 100 percent, but I was happy with how I played. I took a couple hits there and it held up.
Former Wolves coach John Anderson is known for his aggressive offense, which includes the defensemen rushing the puck and being the trailer.
"Donny has talked to me specifically about jumping into the play and very similarly to Johnny, he encourages it," Lewis explained. "Lately I have been jumping into the play quite a bit, probably more than I ever have and after the games, he still tells me that I can jump more. After the last few games, I was thinking to myself, ‘wow, I have been jumping into the play a lot, I hope this is what he wants’ and I had to laugh a bit when he told me that he thought I could have jumped more. He is trying to get the other D to do so as well. And from a personal standpoint, I agree with him. I think that the D can be a huge asset to a team if they can join the rush because many forwards take their time getting back up the ice and as a team, we can take advantage of this. At the same time, there are going to be turnovers and can lead to odd-man rushes against, but I guess if you can create more odd-man rushes than you give up, it is to the team’s benefit."
Lewis’ +13 is tops on the team. He has seven assists in 19 games.
Riley Holzapfel, C/LW
Holzapfel has played some at left wing and some at center this year, and Granato said, "He’s a smart enough hockey player to be able to shift in the middle of a game. That’s pretty good for a young kid."
Holzapfel is a finesse player, but with less space in pro hockey than he had in the WHL, he’s had to adjust.
"Willingness to work is an area that Holzy’s improved on over the course of the year. He didn’t have to work as hard for points a year ago because he was just better than his competitors. Now his competitors are bigger and stronger and smarter. So he’s forced to work. Spence looks like he’s always had to work for that. So Riley’s a little more challenged in that regard, but he’s responding well to it. You don’t see him going up one game, down the next, where he’s miffed by ‘why couldn’t I get anything done tonight.’ He competes to find a way to get something done and that’s a great sign."
Holzapfel gets some power play time, but against teams that are aggressive on the PK, he doesn’t because of his need to improve his protection of the puck.
The Wolves change the lines often, but veteran Steve Martins has been between Holzapfel and Machacek as of late. Granato said Martins "plays the same way every night, the consummate professional. I think that’s great for those two young guys because they can see here’s a guy, 36 years old, who works as hard as any young guy in the league and that’s a rarity."
Granato has no qualms about putting two or even three rookies together on a line.
"Last night at one point I had Kaip in between them and I had no problem with Riley, Kaip and Spence. The three of them are professional hockey players — their mindset is of a professional hockey player. They know the objective is to win hockey game. All three of them have a good feel for what they need to do to contribute to that. To have that out of the gate is significant."
Typically rookies make more mistakes than other players, which is why coaches often separate them. But Granato rejected the idea of Holzapfel and Machacek making rookie mistakes.
"They made mistakes just like everyone else at times. But I wouldn’t say it’s because they’re rookies. They have a very good feel for what it is they need to do within a team and their responsibilities on the team. I’d throw the "rookie" right out the window."
So far Holzapfel has five goals and seven assists in 30 games and is +6.
Jordan LaVallee, LW
LaVallee has missed the last six games on bereavement leave, but had five goals, five assists in 25 games and a +4 before he left.
"I like Jordan, he plays with a lot of energy," Granato said. "He’s a very good prospect and continues to get better. There’s a lot to be intrigued about him. And the same with Sterls (Brett Sterling). These are guys I’ve seen when I was scouting that I think have a real opportunity to have an NHL career. It’s exciting to work with them.
"Jordan’s done a great job with us killing penalties, is effective against teams’ better lines. We miss him in close games like tonight (against San Antonio)."
Rylan Kaip, C
Kaip has been centering a checking line and playing on the penalty kill, just as he did at University of North Dakota. The 24-year-old’s transition to pro hockey has been very smooth. In 20 games, he has one assist and is -1.
Scott Lehman, D
Lehman is a rarity among Wolves defensemen in that he managed to stay healthy all season. That fact led to his recall to Atlanta as insurance when Garnet Exelby had to come out of the lineup.
Both Kulda and Lewis were encouraging about Lehman’s opportunity, even though it was an opportunity missed for them.
On the fact that it could have been him if he were healthy, Lewis responded "You never know. You can’t really look at it like that. Lehman’s one of my better friends on the team and it’s a dream come true. All of us want to be there eventually and play that first game. It was a great opportunity for him."
Kulda said he was happy for Lehman, who was living a dream. Regarding missing out himself, Kulda shrugged and said, "My time will come."
In Chicago, Lehman played just 21 games, posting four points and a +1.
Chad Denny, D
Denny had been injured earlier in the year but is now healthy.
"Kind of a minor but nagging injury," Granato said. "It’s kept him in and out a bit, dealing with that and his play is not up to where it’s accustomed to being as well. It’s hurt that. But for him, it’s part of his development, dealing with that and playing at a level that’s demanded of him."
In his 15 games played, Denny posted five points and was +3.
Dan Turple, G
Turple has played in 10 games for the Wolves, with a .899 save percentage and 2.86 GAA. Lately he’s been on the shelf though.
"He had a minor injury, missed a few days of practice," Granato said. "The last couple days we’ve really ramped up the conditioning with him to get back in it."
Neither coach nor GM Kevin Cheveldayoff could describe the exact nature of the injury, located in the region of the hip. But it was not a groin pull.
Ondrej Pavelec‘s recall to Atlanta and Turple’s injury led to the assignment of Brent Krahn from the Dallas Stars organization to the Wolves. Cheveldayoff played with Dallas director of minor league operations Scott White and maintains a good relationship. Their conversations led to the assignment.
Notes and outlook
Granato is very protective of his players, not rushing them back from injury, and not talking much about injuries in case that information got back to opponents. With no IR in the AHL, there’s nothing distinguishing a healthy from an unhealthy scratch.
"I worry about it for guys," Granato said. "I don’t like it when it’s printed because the guys on the other team can go right after you. I don’t want to be the one putting them in that position. If they want to tell somebody, that’s their prerogative, because they’re the one who’s going to pay the price for it. For us to say it is like putting a bullseye on them."
In coming back from injuries, the last hurdle is that a player feels comfortable back on the ice. The second to last hurdle is their conditioning level.
The 2008-09 Chicago Wolves are a very different team than the one that took the 2008 Calder Cup. Very few faces remain the same, which means that the personality of the team will by nature be different.
"I would say that’s still evolving," Granato said. "Probably because we’ve had some call-ups to key guys, every team does. With what we lost last year, this team without question was going to have a new identity. When we started the year I think Joey Crabb and Colin Stuart were a big part of our identity. Both those guys have gone up and down. Boris (Valabik) was a big part of an evolving identity. He was recalled, obviously Pav (Pavelec) was. We had injuries to some older guys."
ECHL Gwinnett Gladiators
Matt Siddall, F
Siddall was doing a lot of sitting in Chicago early in the year before he was finally sent down to the Gwinnett Gladiators. There, he’s scored 13 points in 14 games.
He caught the ire of coach Jeff Pyle for taking bad penalties (including a fight with a goaltender), but lately Pyle has been happier with the forward.
"He works his ass off," Pyle said. "He wants me to be hard on him andn he knows that I will be hard on him. That’s what you want, a guy willing to take the heat, because you’re going to get a lot of it in this business."
Siddall was called up with LaVallee went on bereavement leave, but was returned to Gwinnett last weekend. In eight games with the Wolves, Siddall is scoreless.
Myles Stoesz, F
Stoesz, a second-year pro, has had trouble staying in the lineup this recently. While Stoesz did some important work on his skating over the summer, the addition of veteran tough guy Dan Sullivan hasn’t helped matters.
"He works hard, he’s committed, I love the kid, but he’s limited," Pyle said softly. "With Sully being here, it takes some of Stoeszer’s time away. It’s hard sitting him, but you’ve got to go with your best guys and at some point I told him ‘you’re going to get more ice time with injuries and call-ups,’ but when you’re not winning a lot it stymies your call-ups."
Sitting out has been tough on Stoesz, which Pyle understands.
"I don’t blame him, he shouldn’t be happy about it," Pyle said. "But in the end I’ve got a job to do and I do it to the best of my ability. It’s not personal, it just is what it is."
Pyle continues to work with him both via video and on the ice, and Stoesz has also tried to contact Thrashers and Wolves skills coach Kenny McCudden for some extra help.
"Because he’s not a quick skater, he has to think the game and be ahead of the game," Pyle said. "So we’re going to walk through tape and walk through situations and pause it and let him read where it’s going next. Click it, see what happens. Where’s it going next. Stop it. To me a big part of the game is the anticipation. If you anticipate, you’re in better position all the time.
"We’ve worked on little things for keeping his feet going, quick feet drills, 2-on-1 on his offside and opening up for a one-time," Pyle continued. "Things he’s probably not used to doing, but we’ve got to get him used to doing those things."
Stoesz has played in 20 of the team’s 27 games, scoring two points and posting 92 penalty minutes. He recently scored his first goal of the year on a penalty shot. He also broke an opponent’s leg by landing on him after a fight.