The highlight of the Chicago Wolves’ season has to be this; after rumors that Rocky Thompson was talking with the Toronto Maple Leafs about a potential assistant coaching job, he is set to return to the Wolves in 2019-20. Arguably the best coach in the AHL, Thompson has coached the Wolves to first place in the AHL’s Central Division both years he’s been head coach and took them from a first-round exit his first season to the Calder Cup Final in his second.
Aside from Thompson, though, there appears to be a lot of turnover heading into the season. Daniel Carr, the AHL’s most valuable player last season, headed to Nashville (and perhaps the interdivisional rival Milwaukee Admirals). T.J. Tynan, who led the Wolves in assists each of the last two seasons, moved on to the Colorado Avalanche’s system. Tomas Hyka went to the KHL. Brandon Pirri probably isn’t (and likely shouldn’t be) going back to Chicago this season, even though he remains with the Vegas Golden Knights.
Still, key veterans like Curtis McKenzie, Gage Quinney and goaltender Oscar Dansk remain. Keegan Kolesar, although young, has seen improvement over the past two years and should be a crucial figure for the Wolves this season, even as he should see his first taste of the NHL.
But it’s the young players the Chicago Wolves will bring in this season that should make it exciting. Besides the likelihood of keeping one of Zach Whitecloud or Nic Hague as their primary defensemen, there’s a chance Cody Glass plays long-term in the AHL this season. Other Vegas prospects like Jonas Rondbjerg, Jake Leschyshyn, Lucas Elvenes and Ben Jones all figure to get their first taste of AHL hockey.
Dylan Coghlan, a crucial member of the Wolves’ power play last season, should get a promotion to the top pairing if either Hague or Whitecloud make the Knights’ lineup. Jake Bischoff will continue to be a fixture in the Wolves’ penalty kill, and the Wolves could add Jimmy Schuldt to their top four as well.
The Wolves also lost goaltender Maxime Lagace, but the Golden Knights added Garret Sparks to their system, who may compete with Dansk for the starting gig. The last time Sparks played full time in the AHL, he had a .936 save percentage in 43 games, much better than Lagace’s .905 that same year (or his .914 last season).
The Wolves also added two members of the team they lost to in the Calder Cup Final. The Charlotte Checkers’ former captain Patrick Brown should be a good influence in the Wolves’ locker room this season and Nicolas Roy was acquired in exchange for Erik Haula. Roy had 15 points in the AHL playoffs for Charlotte, and Brown had 5-5—10 in 11 games.
That’s in addition to recent signings like Tyrell Goulbourne, formerly of the Philadelphia Flyers’ system, and Marcus Kallionkieli at forward and veterans Brett Lernout and Jaycob Megna on defense.
With a massive amount of turnaround — of the 31 players who played at least five games with the Wolves in the regular season last year, only 10 are sure to be back — the team will do only as well as their young talent does. But perhaps no one is better suited to lead that young talent than Thompson, who’s had young Wolves teams in both of his years as Chicago’s bench boss.
It’s too early to project a lineup, but a rough sketch has Glass as the first line center and Hague as the first defenseman. If both start the year in the AHL, it’s safe to assume they’ll do so in positions to succeed. Both of them were critical in the Wolves’ run through the playoffs and will be given every opportunity in the regular season.