Keegan Kolesar ended his roller coaster season on a high note

He took the hardest road, but he looks like one of the best players for the Wolves going into next season.

Back in December, I wrote about how Keegan Kolesar was a goal away from becoming a different player. All the instincts were there, he just needed more confidence.

Well, after a stint in the ECHL, Kolesar scored two goals in his first game back in a Chicago Wolves jersey. Since that ECHL stint, he scored 12 points (five goals, seven assists) in 25 games. Not bad for a rookie season, at about a .5 point-per-game pace, especially when considering he had just one assist and zero goals in 19 games before that stint.

“My time down there, it gave me a chance to get my offensive game going,” said Kolesar. “Something I wasn’t able to do much when I was here. Since I’ve been back, doing that, it helped me a lot. I was able to contribute not just defensively, or with my physicality and fighting, but chip in offensively and win some games.”

Hate to say “told you so” but Kolesar looks like a more comfortable and confident player with the puck on his stick and continues to have the excellent defensive instincts that set him apart at the beginning of the season. Suddenly, Kolesar’s looking more and more like a very dynamic, solid bottom-six NHL player, one who can play on both special teams units. He also looks a lot like two Golden Knights players — Tomas Nosek and Alex Tuch.

Here’s why the comparison to Nosek should be made; they’re both excellent on the penalty kill, with Nosek earning time on the first unit with Pierre-Edouard Bellemare. Kolesar has also earned time, since the beginning of the season, on the penalty kill for the Wolves. Often times, those were the best defensive kills for the Wolves.

Kolesar, like Nosek, can read a play quickly, get in the right position and get the puck back out. It leads to good Corsi for Nosek, and while it’s difficult to measure Corsi in the AHL, opposing teams didn’t get off a ton of shots with Kolesar on the ice. He’s still developing, even in the defensive zone, but the same defensive instincts that set Nosek apart will soon help make Kolesar a pretty complete NHL player.

As for the Tuch similarities, Kolesar and Tuch have similar frames and have a similar power forward approach to offense. Kolesar needs to work on his shot, but his ability to get to the front of the net and capitalize on opportunities has grown over the season. Tuch’s power-play goal in Game 2 against the Los Angeles Kings is the type of goal that Kolesar is likely to score for Chicago.

When asked about what aspects of Tuch’s game stand out to him, Kolesar replied:

“Tuch’s got a tremendous shot, that’s for sure. I remember meeting him at development camp for the first time, and I swear he broke the glass with his first shot on the ice. That’s the first thing that stands out. He’s also got really good edges and can hold his own in the corners, especially with the big guys. It’s fun to watch guys that you met when you first got here doing really well up there.”

As to the player he would like to become, Kolesar answered:

“Obviously everyone wants to be like the superstars. I’m a huge Jamie Benn fan. I think he’s a tremendous player, he’s got everything you look for in a player. He’s a tremendous leader, he’s a physical player and he’s got the skill set to boot. When you put all that together, it’s a very dangerous package.”

Kolesar talks a lot about playing with physicality and being willing to put in the effort in the corners. That’s a trait he has, the ability to win the tough board battles and keep the momentum going in his favor. A large part of his pre-existing game coming into the AHL was based on his size and his ability to outmuscle other players. But that’s not what Kolesar is focused on developing.

“For sure my skating,” said Kolesar. “It’s something that at the start of the season, that was the biggest attribute I didn’t have, that I was lacking, and it caused me to be a couple steps behind. The skating is a huge part and the quickness. Every time you hit the ice at practice, you’re always working on your skill set, shooting, stick handling, and that gets better over time. What I really want to work on is the skating and the quickness.”

As to how he’s developed this season?

“I think I’ve come a long way as a player. This is the grand stage of how you mark your development. Playoffs are when everyone starts playing their absolute best. It’s been a long season for sure. I think I’ve progressed each day, every time I’ve stepped on the ice. I’m happy with where I am at with my game, as opposed to where I was at at the beginning of the year.”

That offensive game has been a big development point. Kolesar went from a player setting up in front of the net, trying to set screens on the goaltender and not much else, to shooting the puck when he has a window, setting up plays and finding rebounds. His play-making (as well as three out of four Wolves’ centers going down) has allowed Kolesar a chance to play in the middle of the ice. That’s led to an increase in his assists, and a more well-rounded offensive game.

Kolesar said that that part of the game is likely the most different thing since last season.

“I think my offensive game and playing a pro-style has really increased. In junior, you can get away with a lot of the one-on-one battles, outmuscling kids. The age gap is four years. My nineteen-year-old season, I was playing against some sixteen-year-olds, and I easily was able to outmuscle them. Here, I’m the youngest one. Everyone’s up to age. The biggest thing is playing a team game and making those offensive plays and not just relying solely on yourself to get the job done.”

Another part of the package Kolesar brings — he has a genuine personality and plays with intelligence. That personality is what allows for players to build chemistry with him quickly, and talking with guys who have played with him this season, including Brandon Pirri and Tomas Hyka, they have nothing but good things to say about him. That also shows the impact Kolesar makes on a team, and it’s a quality that isn’t talked about enough but is important. Especially as more Vegas prospects begin playing with the Wolves, and, likely, with Kolesar.

“Cody [Glass] and I went to high school together, we lived on the same street for a couple years. He’s a good kid and I got to know him. I knew him quite well before, but then we both got put on the same team. So we spent some more time together, trained together this past summer. It’s good to see a familiar face here. I’m disappointed he couldn’t go all the way, I was letting him know, but it’s nice to have him here, and I think he’s getting a good taste of what pro hockey is like at a young age.”

Talking with Glass at his AHL practices, one could tell how refreshed Glass was to have a player around he has tons of experience with, and the same goes for Kolesar. If you’ve known a guy for a long time like Kolesar and Glass have, it leads to chemistry. It’s why Glass and Kolesar could be on the same penalty-kill unit in the future for the Golden Knights.

Speaking of the Golden Knights, when being asked about their play this season and where he could see himself slotting in, Kolesar said:

“They’re a different team to watch. They’re all guys who work tremendously hard. You look at William Karlsson, last year he had six goals, and this year, it’s worked out for him and he’s working hard. He’s somebody I watched last year when I was in Columbus, that I was like, he’s a good player, he should be getting more chances. It’s tough to say where I’d fit in. They all have a key role in it. For me, just to be a depth guy, have that guy that you can put in and he’ll get the job done.”

Finally, Kolesar talked about what it’s like developing in the AHL, especially with a coach like Rocky Thompson. Thompson came from the CHL Memorial Cup-winning Windsor Spitfires to the Wolves last offseason. The best things that Thompson has done, at least for Kolesar:

“Being very in-depth about everything. A huge part of being a coach is being hands-on with a player. He was coaching junior last year so he knows how to handle young guys. This being my first year, I thought I got a really good coach on my side, who understands how a young guy thinks. Through my first year, I think he really helped me adjust, just with the lifestyle, playing, how to manage everything. Once you can start getting into a rhythm and get a feel for a league, it can come a bit easier for yourself.”

Kolesar will likely surprise a ton of people through next season. It’s hard to see his hockey career ending in the AHL, and if he’s successful as he can and should be, he’ll be with the Golden Knights in due time.