The high-scoring Chicago Wolves of the 2018-19 season are long gone — if you weren’t convinced at the outset of the season by just a glance at the roster, the team’s sputtering offense this past weekend at home helped reinforce the point.
While the play of veteran AHL center Patrick Brown has been a positive, showing a well-rounded and tenacious 200-foot game, and first year forward Lucas Elvenes has shown to be a stellar playmaker, that hasn’t been enough yet to make up for the loss of offense-driving players from last season.
With high-scoring players including T.J. Tynan, Daniel Carr, and Brooks Macek leaving in free agency, and Nic Hague and Cody Glass spending a majority of their time to date with the Vegas Golden Knights, the Wolves lost a huge amount of scoring power. Players who are major subtractions from their lineup were responsible for 123 of the Wolves’ 250 goals last season — and that’s without including contributions from role players like Tyler Wong, Griffin Reinhart, and Ryan Wagner.
Head coach Rocky Thompson has found himself essentially starting from scratch this season as he tries to find a way to create offense with a group of players without a true elite prospect or superstar in the mix. They’ve been further hampered by an injury to forward Gage Quinney, who had stepped into first line center duties this season prior to being injured on a recent road trip. Quinney returned to the lineup on Wednesday after missing three games.
After the Wolves’ 3-0 loss to the Manitoba Moose on Saturday, Thompson admitted as much in his post-game remarks.
“I don’t know that we’re a super offensive team, even healthy,” he said. “But we’ve got to play a heavy game. And if we play in the offensive zone and you grind teams out, you’ll fatigue them, they’ll make mistakes, you’ll get scoring chances.”
Special teams have continued to trouble the Wolves, as well. Against Manitoba, the Wolves failed to convert on four power play opportunities. In a 4-1 loss to the Rockford IceHogs the next day, the Wolves only goal came on the power play, via Dylan Coghlan.
After the Rockford game, Thompson spoke of the importance of special teams, particularly in limiting penalties. The Wolves have been inconsistent in that regard and are currently tied for seventh in the league in terms of amount of times shorthanded (63 to date). Most of the Wolves’ penalties have come more as a result of sloppy play and stickwork rather than roughing or excessive physicality.
Thompson, who said on Sunday that he considers three total penalties to be acceptable, must have been concerned on Wednesday when the Wolves gave the Milwaukee Admirals six power plays. More concerning? The fact that the Admirals capitalized five times.
Goaltender Garret Sparks, in net on Sunday for the Wolves, set a new franchise record for consecutive minutes played without allowing a goal. Sparks’ shutout streak stretched through three games, a 191 minute, 14 second time span. His performance in net against the IceHogs was excellent, particularly given the amount of shots he faced — during the second period, the Wolves allowed 18 shots, with Sparks stopping all but one.
“I would have liked to make a couple more saves there,” Sparks said after the game, before he acknowledged his extraordinary run of play. “I went 191 minutes without letting in a goal, so I’m pretty happy with that. But there’s always room for improvement.”
Ultimately, there’s little that Sparks or Oscar Dansk can do if the team in front of them is going to continue to struggle to provide any offense. While Quinney is back in the lineup, he can’t be expected to provide all of the offense himself. The Wolves have a long road ahead of them as they learn to play as a team and to find a way to win without the contributions of players like Nic Hague and Cody Glass.
The Wolves are next in action on Saturday against the Iowa Wild. Game action starts at 7 p.m. Central/5 p.m. Pacific. The game is the first in a set of home-and-home action, which will see both teams travel to Iowa the next day for the rematch.