One year ago, Brandon Pirri was among the Chicago Wolves team leaders in goals, assists, and points. Today, he’s an NHL regular with the Vegas Golden Knights and that is something his former coach and ex-teammates are all rallying around.
Beginning this season with the Wolves in the American Hockey League, Pirri instantly began building off of last year’s strong campaign. His 18 goals and 24 assists led the team at the time of his mid-December call-up to Vegas, and Pirri hasn’t looked back.
In 27 games for the Golden Knights since his promotion, the Toronto, Ontario native Pirri has registered 11 goals and 16 points and his example is a major source for optimism in the Wolves locker room.
“I think everyone in this locker room is happy about the success he’s having right now with Vegas,” said Wolves forward Reid Duke.
Not only has Pirri scored some important goals since his call-up, Wolves head coach Rocky Thompson said he’s been impressed with his 200-foot game and his ability to respond as well.
“He had a little bit of a drought there, but I thought he’s responded really well in the last couple of games,” said head coach Rocky Thompson. “He’s played some really good games, and he’s helped Vegas particularly in their last game get back in the win column. He’s a big piece of their puzzle now.”
“I watch every game that Vegas plays, and we’re very happy for Brandon. We’re very proud of him too because he was here for quite a while with us. And to see one of your players that you’ve grown close with have success is special. He’s got a great family, and he’s got a little boy here, who I think might even be with him over in Vegas.”
But even for those on the Wolves roster who have yet to capitalize on an opportunity with the Golden Knights, Pirri’s success can be a motivating factor. For example, forward Daniel Carr currently leads the Wolves with 30 goals and 71 points through 52 games this season and perhaps another call-up for him could be on the horizon.
Coach Thompson certainly sees a parallel between Carr’s play right now and the play that saw Pirri earn a prolonged opportunity with the Golden Knights. Carr played six games with Vegas in November, but was sent back to the Wolves after only managing a single point during the brief stint.
“He has to do what he’s been doing, just like Brandon [Pirri] did,” Thompson said. “Carrsy’s [Daniel Carr] doing the same thing that Pirri did. And in my opinion, if needed, he can do it. He can actually take that step to the next level. I believe he can.”
Carr and his Wolves teammates would love to join Pirri with the Golden Knights and while the task may seem daunting in the immediate future, their former mate’s success is proof that hard work and perseverance could eventually pay dividends.
For players who are selected in the first round of the National Hockey League’s annual entry draft, the likelihood of their careers spanning at least 100 games is high. But for Chicago Wolves forward Stefan Matteau, who was an opening round draft pick of the New Jersey Devils in 2012, the clock is ticking.
The 25-year old Matteau, who is the son of beloved New York Rangers legend Stéphane Matteau, currently sits at just 64 games played in the NHL after the Devils and the Montreal Canadiens gave up on him prior to his arrival with the Vegas Golden Knights organization.
Matteau was less than four months old when his father scored perhaps the biggest goal in Rangers history in 1994, a double overtime thriller in game seven of the eastern conference finals at Madison Square Garden against New Jersey. The Rangers went on to win the Stanley Cup later that spring, their first championship in 54 years.
Little did the elder Matteau know at the time, but less than 20 years later, his toddler would break into the NHL wearing a Devils uniform.
Although Matteau only played in 44 games with the Devils, and his time in the organization only lasted for parts of four seasons, the Wolves second year centreman does not view his time spent playing there as a wasted opportunity.
With the Devils, Matteau was reunited with longtime offseason training partner Dainius Zubrus, who played nearly 1,300 games before retiring from the NHL in 2016. Indeed, Zubrus’ longevity is only supported by the fact that he and Matteau were teammates, fifteen years after being an adversary to his father.
“My first year in the league, and even five or six years before that, I was working out with Dainus Zubrus,” said Matteau. “I got drafted by New Jersey, and then he took me in. Him and his family took me into their home, I got to live with them, which was pretty sweet. He’s definitely been a role model for me,” he added.
After falling out of favor in New Jersey, Matteau was dealt to the Montreal Canadiens in 2016, the team he grew up idolizing. And while he only got to suit up for 12 games with the Habs, he said it was nevertheless a dream come true.
“For the rest of my life I’ll be able to say that I played for the Montreal Canadiens, and I’m pretty proud of that,” Matteau said.
When the Canadiens opted not to retain Matteau’s services following a year spent with their American Hockey League affiliate, he signed a two-way contract in July of 2017 with the Vegas Golden Knights.
During their inaugural season in 2017-18, Matteau only managed to play in eight games with the Golden Knights and has instead been relegated to the AHL. Like all of his Wolves teammates, his goal is to play in the NHL, but it appears that he won’t be receiving a promotion any time in the near future.
This season, he is on pace for his worst season statistically, since entering the professional ranks in 2012-13. Through 48 games with the Wolves, Matteau has only managed to find the back of the net on three occasions and has only registered eight helpers.
His minus-7 differential is second worst on the team, and that is an area where defensive minded forwards are usually expected to shine. But the plus-minus stat isn’t the only metric by which a player’s defensive awareness is quantified, and according to Wolves head coach Rocky Thompson, it doesn’t tell the entire story in regards to the type of season his forward is having.
“He’s a big part of our penalty kill,” coach Thompson said. “At one point this year halfway through the season, we had the worst penalty kill in the league, but now we’re climbing the ranks with the penalty kill, [which is] a monumental step for our hockey team and Stef is a big part of that,” added his coach.
Despite his lack of offensive production this season, Thompson believes that Matteau can still develop that part of his game.
“I think offense is still there for him, and it’s not something he can give up on. I certainly haven’t given up on that, and I think he’s just right there ready to turn the corner with it again,” he said.
Likewise, Wolves forward Reid Duke acknowledged that Matteau’s game exhibits several key attributes, including an ability to play in all situations.
“A player like that can kind of play anywhere. He’s so versatile, and he’s got a lot of attributes in his toolbox which is probably great for a coach to have,” Duke expressed. He can play up and down your lineup, on your power play or your penalty kill,” said Duke.
And according to forward Brooks Macek, Matteau’s work ethic and physical brand of hockey are trademarks of No. 23’s game.
Normally, votes of confidence from your head coach and teammates are nothing to sneeze at for any professional athlete, but Matteau’s reduced role with the Wolves this season has felt more like a fall from grace. The former highly touted prospect had higher expectations for himself at the start of the campaign, ones which he doesn’t believe he’s met.
“It’s really fun to be a part of this team, don’t get me wrong, but just a bit tough for me personally,” said Matteau, who speaks to his father about his play on a regular basis.
“If I’m struggling, he calls me and he says ‘Stef, I’ve been through this a thousand times, I know what’s going on, I know how you’re feeling.’ So, it’s nice to be able to relate that way, and give me tips, and just take it one day at a time,” he said.
Matteau remembers being inside NHL locker rooms before making it there as a player, and that’s because his father used to let him hang out in there during the latter portion of his career. So, when his father offers hockey advice, Matteau listens.
These days however, his father speaks to high school students in New York City about the importance of mental health, and the dangers of drug and alcohol addiction. After recently opening up to the New York Times about his own struggles, Matteau’s father has decided to use his platform to help others as well, which is something that is an inspiration to his son.
“He’s just a good person, he’s pretty easy to talk to, pretty easy to get along with, so any advice that he has is definitely worth listening to,” Matteau said of his father.
If his father’s on-ice and off-ice perseverance is any indication, Stefan Matteau might just have it in him to overcome the adversity he is facing. And that is precisely what he needs to do if he’s going to find a path back to the NHL.