After the AHL season haulted ten months ago, the league is finally starting up again with games beginning on Friday, February 5. The Wolves are also starting anew, however in more ways than just a turn of the calendar season.
The Wolves and Golden Knights broke their affiliation agreement after Vegas purchased the San Antonio Rampage and moved them to Henderson, Nevada to serve as the Knights’ AHL affiliate. After many months of searching, the Wolves and Carolina Hurricanes agreed to become affiliates beginning in the 2021 season.
Adding to the list of crazy differences this season possesses is the addition of another NHL affiliate. When the AHL announced they would have a season, three teams (the Milwaukee Admirals, Springfield Thunderbirds, and Charlotte Checkers) elected not to participate in the 2021 AHL season. This left the Nashville Predators, Florida Panthers, and St. Louis Blues without AHL affiliates for the shortened campaign.
The Wolves stepped up, also aligning with Nashville and housing the AHL players who otherwise would have been in Milwaukee this season.
Ahead of Friday’s season opener, Head Coach Ryan Warsofsky spoke to the media on Monday to discuss the team and the season that lies ahead. After hearing from coach, there are plenty of storylines to watch ahead of the Wolves’ 2021 season. Let’s dive in.
How the Team Looks
Coach Warsofsky spoke to the shape of the roster this season, noting the unique structure of the team. This season presents an uncanny mix of AHL veterans, complemented by young, exceptional talent. Players such as 2020 first-round pick Seth Jarvis, Ryan Suzuki, and Dominik Bokk were highlighted during the press conference, as well as their roles with the club this season.
“They’re going to get thrown right to the fire” said Coach Warsofsky in regard to his aforementioned young stars. The team is focused on the growth of these youngsters, who under normal circumstances wouldn’t be with the Wolves. If the WHL and OHL were playing currently, Jarvis and Suzuki would report to their respective junior leagues. However, the pandemic presents a unique opportunity for those players.
They’ll learn the pace of play at the pro level much earlier, albeit the minor leagues. Coach Warsofsky also touched on creating a winning culture, not only within the Wolves franchise, but within these players as well. If two former first round picks receive that level of education at such an early point in their careers, it will only benefit their growth moving forward.
As for the rest of the team, the veterans will be leaned on heavily. When asked about the role the veterans will play, Warsofsky said, “I’ll be meeting with the leaders of the team in the coming days”, signifying how important they’ll be this season. Not only do the vets play a huge role in the win column, but they’re also mentors for the youngsters. “[They’re] super important.” Warsofsky noted. “A Tyler Lewington comes to mind, who’s been really good recently since he’s been here helping Ryan Suzuki, and not so much grabbing him on the shoulder, but being hard on him in practice, you know? Something that Ryan needs.”
In all, Warsofsky said he’s excited about the team and the depth they have entering the season. Although the Wolves are loaded at forward, there is plenty of talent at the coaching staff’s disposal to ensure a great lineup every game.
The Team’s Style
One question sparked a thorough response from Coach Warsofsky during his press conference. The question was regarding the team’s style of play. Early in the press conference, Warsofsky said he wants the Wolves to be hard to play against. “It’s pretty cliche” he noted, “we want to be tough to play against, to the point where the other team doesn’t want to play us again.”
Warsofsky’s style is to grind, play hard, be strong defensively, and remain consistent. Coach believes if the Wolves can do that this season, they’ll have plenty of success. Warsofsky touched on the Wolves’ system, which is the same system being run at the NHL level in Carolina. Coach did mention he’ll add his own touch and flare to the system, but they will teach these guys to run the structure they’ll run at the highest level.
At the end of the day though, despite Nashville sending players to Chicago, this is Carolina’s farm team. However, the benefit for the Nashville prospects lies in the similarities between their parent’s system and the one they’ll be running in 2021. Warsofsky believes this will allow the Nashville-owned players to get the experience they need without deviating too much from what they did in Milwaukee.
In a pandemic-impacted season, everything seems to have an additional level of difficulty. From simple team building activities, to the life of a player when they’re not at the rink, each once-taken-for-granted action suddenly becomes an obstacle that could prevent a single player, or the entire team, from playing their full 30-game schedule.
However, although the human-to-human contact is a challenge for Warsofsky and staff, the real difficulties lie on the ice. In a very shortened 30-game season, teams can go six to seven days in between contests, very different than the usual AHL schedule structure. Coach Warsofsky was asked how that would affect the team and how he will get his players ready for each game.
“We’re going to have to get creative”, said Warsofsky. “We’ve talked about doing a lot of skill work… we’ve talked about making some more competitive things for game-like situations.” Warsofsky noted that practicing too much becomes very monotonous and can impact the team’s energy and compete level. By incorporating new activities into practices, Warsofsky hopes to maintain that competitive nature and have his team ready to play.
In addition, balancing two organizations’ players certainly isn’t easy. Most AHL team have upwards of six or seven scratches on a normal night, when they’re aligned with only one NHL affiliate. Add in a second one and another wrench is thrown into the situation. Balancing the lineup will be an incredible challenge on any given night.
“It definitely has its challenges, but we’re going to approach this thing day by day”, said Warsofsky on the topic. Coach Warsofsky elaborated that these guys will have to play as a team, no matter which organization they ultimately are working to play for. Whether it’s the Predators or the Hurricanes, these guys are ultimately all working toward the same goals.
What to Watch For
The Wolves are poised to have a strong season, emphasizing player development while establishing a winning culture, and winning plenty of games this season. “Why not go 30-0?” said Coach Warsofsky when speaking to the media. Both he, along with the rest of the staff, have big expectations for the Wolves in this abbreviated 2021 season.
There are many young, exciting players that fans can keep an eye on this season. Players such as Suzuki, Bokk, and Jarvis will be joined by the Cotton brothers, David and Jason, and 2019 second-round pick Jamieson Rees. There is an ample amount of youth to accompany the AHL veterans from both the Nashville and Carolina systems.
Aside from the abundance of talent, fans should be excited about the pedigree the coaching staff and Carolina/Nashville-owned players bring to the Wolves. Both organizations have seen great success recently in the AHL, most notably with the Charlotte Checkers beating the Wolves in the 2019 Calder Cup Finals. Coach Warsofsky and company will make sure the team is a great on-ice product for the fans, headlined by lots of winning and growth for these young players.
What’s On Tap?
The Wolves will be in action on Friday, February 5 for their first game of the season. Chicago will play host to the Grand Rapids Griffins on Friday, hosting the same Griffins again on Thursday, February 11 for some afternoon hockey. Although not originally on the schedule, the Wolves will also host the IceHogs on Saturday, February 6 for a game too.
Most notably, the Wolves are not playing home games at the Allstate Arena this season, rather playing games at their practice facility, the Triphahn Ice Arena in Hoffman Estates. There will be no press or fan presence, meaning only essential gameday operators will join the players at the facility during games.
On Tap Sports Net is officially covering the Wolves for the 2021 season. Be sure to tune in for game recaps and other Wolves content throughout the 30-game season.