Goaltending depth has been a luxury all season for the Chicago Wolves, and it should pay dividends come playoff time

Not only is quality goaltending important, the Chicago Wolves are living proof that it goes hand-in-hand with having quality goaltending depth in their organization.

Unlike clubs who still have the traditional starter who plays over 60 games during the regular season, and a backup who only plays about 15-20 games, the Wolves have been blessed to feature three goalies this year who are all of a starter’s caliber.

Photo of Wolves goalie Oscar Dansk, courtesy of http://www.chicagowolves.com

Between Kasimir Kaskisuo (13-13-0), Oscar Dansk (7-0-0), and Maxime Lagace (11-4-1), the Wolves are not only equipped for a big game, but a busy schedule too, and that is what they had this weekend with three games in three days.

“We just go in when asked. I mean I’m sure you could get three games out of a guy, but it’s not optimal, and it’s always good for one of us to come in after getting some rest,” said Kasimir Kaskisuo following the Wolves most recent string of three games in three days.

In situations when the Wolves play on back to back days, especially when travel is involved, it is a luxury to be able to always play a fresh goaltender who could step in and give his tired teammates a shot of life.

Although this didn’t result in three wins this weekend, the play of Kasimir Kaskisuo on Saturday against a fresher first place Manitoba Moose team, is in all likelihood a key reason why Chicago kept it so close.

Photo of Kasimir Kaskisuo, courtesy of http://www.chicagowolves.com

And in the third and final game today against Rockford, it was Oscar Dansk who was a major reason why the Wolves managed to secure just one point.

“With three games in three nights, it’s tough on players. Especially a day like this, yesterday and today, you wanna help out your teammates as much as you can, because you know they’re going to be tired,” said Dansk, who made 37 stops on Sunday in the Wolves 2-1 loss against the IceHogs.

Chicago head coach Rocky Thompson even highlighted the benefit of being able to play a fresh goalie like Oscar Dansk when the rest of his team was tired.

“And you need that in these situations, especially when you’re playing a good team, and a team that’s trying to get back into a playoff spot. And I thought he kept us in it, without a doubt. He played so well,” said coach Thompson.

Having different quality options in goal to turn to, the Wolves could have an advantage in the playoffs, especially when fatigue kicks in and injuries begin to pile up.

Wolves head coach Rocky Thompson believes rest is what his team needs most following Sunday’s 2-1 overtime loss against Rockford

The American Hockey League’s schedule makers didn’t do the Chicago Wolves (33-19-8-2) any favors this weekend, as the hockey club played a total of three games in less than 72 hours this weekend.

Following a 4-3 victory on Friday evening at Milwaukee, the Wolves fell 2-1 to the Manitoba Moose on Saturday at Allstate Arena. On Sunday, Chicago was forced to settle for just a single point in a 2-1 overtime loss to the Rockford IceHogs.

IceHogs and Wolves during warm-up on Sunday at Allstate Arena

But despite what may look like a modest 1-1-1 record over the weekend, Wolves head coach Rocky Thompson is not disappointed with these results.“We were up against it I felt this weekend. Looking at the schedule, I was nervous,” Thomson explained.

Photo courtesy of http://www.chicagowolves.com

“We were able to get that first win, and then the next game was obviously a tough way to lose last night. I mean Manitoba is one of the best teams in the league, and they were sitting here waiting for us. And then with Rockford coming in, they only had to play one other game this weekend, we felt that they would probably be fresher,” the coach reflected, before offering praise of his players.

“To be able to steal a point, I’m happy with [that]. Our guys competed as hard as I thought they could have, considering the circumstances. I’m proud of their effort,” he said.

One of those players, was Sunday’s starting goalie Oscar Dansk, who was brilliant all afternoon to allow his teammates in front of him to settle down and find their legs.

“With three games in three nights, it’s tough on players. Especially a day like this, yesterday and today, you wanna help out your teammates as much as you can, because you know they’re going to be tired,” said Dansk, who stopped 37 of the 39 shots that the IceHogs fired on goal.

Photo courtesy of http://www.chicagowolves.com

But in addition to the perseverance shown by the Wolves through the course of this busy weekend, coach Thompson emphasized that getting tested this way now, could actually benefit his team when the playoffs roll around.

“It tests you without a doubt. There’s going to be situations when you’re fatigued and tired and you’re going to have to push through. [In the playoffs], the only benefit is that the other team is in the same situation as you  are. But our guys know that they can push through,” he said.

Naturally, coach Thompson would like his club to return to its winning ways in their next game, when the Wolves face Rockford in a rematch, but he doesn’t believe that he needs to reinvent the wheel for his players this week at practice. Instead, he feels the complete opposite.

“You know what, our guys need to rest. We came off the road, we’ve been away from our families a lot in the last three weeks. So our guys need to rest,” coach Thompson acknowledged following Sunday’s defeat.

“I’ve been pushing our team extremely hard in the last six weeks. I’ve really been grinding them, and that comes at a cost. And I think they need to get away from me for a little bit to refocus,” he added.

It’s sometimes easy to forget that professional athletes are also people who have families. And after the recent physically and mentally taxing stretch for the Chicago Wolves, it would be hard to imagine Rocky Thompson’s group not benefiting from a bit of rest and relaxation.

Despite an early adjustment period, recent acquisition Zac Leslie is complimenting the Wolves transition game from defense to offense

When the Chicago Wolves acquired defenseman Zac Leslie from the Los Angeles Kings in exchange for future considerations in early February, they acquired a player who likely needed a change of scenery in order to rediscover his game as an offensive defenseman, but more importantly, his confidence. Not only has his ability to move the puck effectively helped the Wolves transition game since the trade, he’s also had a positive impact on his new teammates in the locker room.

Photo from the Chicago Wolves

“I think he’s getting his confidence up. He came over and didn’t try to do too much at the start. He kinda got his feet wet, and now he’s starting to reach his full potential. He came in, and he’s a good guy off the ice. He’s gelled in with the guys really quickly, which I think helped make him feel more comfortable and that’s translated into his on-ice play,” said fellow Wolves defenseman Griffin Reinhart of his new teammate.

Wolves forward Brandon Pirri highlighted Leslie’s skating ability as perhaps his greatest strength.

“He skates so well. I think in this league, if you’re a defenseman that can skate, you’re going to have a lot of success,” said Pirri, who scored his 23rd goal of the season in the Wolves losing effort on Saturday night.

Despite the Wolves 2-1 loss to the Manitoba Moose, which snapped Chicago’s six-game winning streak, Leslie played a solid game in the eyes of his head coach, Rocky Thompson.

“I think he’s defending better. And he’s competing. He’s a good guy, who’s well liked by his teammates, and you can see that he moves pucks well. He’s on our power play because he moves pucks well, but I like the fact that he’s defending better than he was earlier on, and he’s working on those details and those fundamentals that are important to us,” coach Thompson highlighted following the loss.

Leslie, who scored the game winning goal for Chicago when the Wolves defeated Milwaukee by a score of 4-3 on Friday, has now registered an impressive seven points through 11 games with the Wolves since coming over from the Ontario Reign. And he attributes his play recently to his confidence, even though it didn’t happen instantly.

“It was definitely an adjustment period when I first got here,” he explained.  “I don’t think anybody really thought I was playing the games the way I should have the first couple games. But then I kind of just got familiar with the guys, and got to know their tendencies, and the tendencies of the team really. And once you get comfortable, it kind of gives you that opportunity to really settle in, and it kind of gives you that opportunity to kind of make more plays and branch out from there,” said Leslie.

The Ottawa, Ontario native Leslie also acknowledged that the system with his previous team wasn’t tailored in such a way that complimented his offensive creativity.
“In Ontario, the system is very very defensive, and I wasn’t put in an offensive role, but instead to try and just make sure that I don’t get scored on. And that’s not really my game,” said the 24 year old.

“Obviously as a defenseman, my job is to not get scored on, but I like to chip in on offense and make plays, and that’s something that I’ve been able to do since coming to Chicago,” said Leslie.

When he arrived in Chicago as a member of the Wolves, Leslie highlights the fact that the organization really wanted him to play, and regain his confidence offensively while continuing to play responsible on the defensive side of the puck as well.

“They just wanted me to start playing, and gain confidence. I’m an offensive defenseman, so that’s going to be my job and that’s something they’re relying on me for. But at the same time, they want me to make sure that I’m being responsible defensively in order for them to have the trust in me. I think the biggest thing is earning their trust, and that’s not something that happens overnight. It’s a process, and it’s a process that I’ll continue to work at,” Leslie said.

For now, and moving forward into the future for the Wolves, Leslie’s two-way game should continue to help Chicago’s transition game from defense to offense, but his presence in the locker room with his new teammates shouldn’t be overlooked either.

Wolves will lean on rested goaltender Kaskisuo for second game in three consecutive days

Tonight, the Chicago Wolves (33-18-6-2) play host to the Manitoba Moose (35-16-4-4), who currently lead the central division by four points. This is the Wolves second game in three consecutive days, so they’ll be relying heavily on rested goaltender Kasimir Kaskisuo, who didn’t play last night in Milwaukee against the Admirals.

Enjoy the game,and don’t forget to follow me on twitter @davidpstein_

Through 58 games this season, Brandon Pirri might just be the Chicago Wolves’ MVP

If you asked most people close to the Chicago Wolves who has been the club’s most valuable player this year, it’d probably be a close call between forwards T.J. Tynan and Brandon Pirri. While both have been dynamic offensively, Pirri has brought some intangibles such as experience and leadership  that make him the heart and soul of this year’s edition of the Wolves.

Pirri, who leads the Wolves in terms of a game played at the NHL level with 226, even has a 20-goal season to his name at that level.

NHL: New York Rangers at Calgary Flames
Nov 12, 2016; Calgary, Alberta, CAN; New York Rangers right wing Brandon Pirri (73) skates against the Calgary Flames during the third period at Scotiabank Saddledome. New York Rangers won 4-1. Mandatory Credit: Sergei Belski-USA TODAY Sports

His experience in the NHL playing on four different teams is something that is never lost on guys who now play with him on the Wolves, said Emily Polglaze, who covers the team for the Las Vegas Journal-Review.

“Definitely. Prior to coming to Chicago, Pirri hadn’t played a full AHL season since 2012-2013. He’s definitely proven himself at the NHL level, but he’s been through four different teams there, none of which have really clicked. He’s also got a reduced role when he’s there.”

Polglaze, who’s contributed to this site before, also indicated that Pirri and those around him can see an eventual call up to the Golden Knights. Those who play with him day in and day out are especially loving his production totals of 21 goals 23 assists and 44 points through 43 games played.

“I think starting with Vegas from the ground up will be the best thing for him. He’s still learning Vegas’s systems and philosophies, while getting a bigger role and the opportunity to be a leader for Chicago. I don’t see Chicago as a demotion for him, he’s helping Chicago a ton now and is only getting better for when his time with Vegas does come. You can’t complain about a point per game player on your roster, ever,” said Polglaze.

According to Polglaze, Pirri’s experience, his veteran leadership, and his positive attitude make him an excellent role model for many of his younger teammates on the Wolves.

“Pirri has been banged up during parts of the season and had a short break while taking care of a newborn. He’s a veteran player at almost 27, and when this team was new to just about everybody, it’s important to have that. It would’ve been really easy for him to get bitter and despondent about not making it in Vegas, but instead he’s bought in to the system and is working his hardest on the way up, which is a good example to set,” Polglaze explained.

Pirri teammates
Photo courtesy of the ChicagoSunTimes.com


Polglaze even added that the positive approach Pirri brings to the table, has proven to be infectious as his teammates really feed off of that calm focus and confidence that he brings to the table. When the Wolves were struggling early on in the year, he always urged the team to not panic.

“The Wolves have definitely been a special case this season in terms of mentality. The benefit is that they get a great example in their head coach, Rocky Thompson. There’s really no way around it, this team was pretty bad on paper to start the season. But Rocky always seemed to find a silver lining, and that trickled down to the players. Pirri or Tynan or Paul Thompson were always quick to say that the games were still close, or that they were working hard in practice, or that once they could string together a couple of wins, they’d find a bigger streak. Not much later they went on a 14-point one.”

Apart from early season injuries to their goaltenders, the Vegas Golden Knights have been remarkably healthy this year. But should bad luck strike, look for Pirri, who’s can produce and bring the intangibles to get a call up thanks to his productive year with the Wolves.

The Chicago Wolves and Reid Duke will be a perfect match for each other

For the rest of his life, Reid Duke will hold the distinction as being the first ever player to sign a free agent contract with the National Hockey League’s Vegas Golden Knights. But when he signed an entry level deal last March, both he and the Golden Knights never could have expected that their first year together to unfold the way it has thus far.

Reid Duke
Photo courtesy of TheScore.com

Not only is Vegas atop the western conference’s pacific division with an impressive 89 points and 42 victories through 66 games, Reid Duke has not yet played even a single game for the club after sustaining a shoulder injury during training camp, which has kept him out of the Golden Knights’ plans this season. Having spent more than five months rehabilitating his shoulder, Duke’s professional hockey career finally began, albeit with the Chicago Wolves of the American Hockey League. But having been robbed of the chance to make a proper first impression with the Golden Knights this year, Duke is eager to make up for lost time in Chicago with the Wolves.

Duke, who plays at the center position, is joining a forward group with the Wolves that should allow him to thrive once he scrapes some of the rust off from being sidelined for such a long period of time. Through just two games so far, Duke is pointless with a negative-2 differential and two penalty minutes. While it may take a bit of time for him to develop some chemistry on one of the top lines, Emily Polglaze of the Las Vegas Review Journal believes a gradual return should benefit him.

“I definitely think his transition with Chicago will be a gradual one. With that much time off, I think some pressure has to be taken off of him to let him find his groove. He’s a -2 through two games, so I’m sure they’re looking to find where he fits in lines and haven’t quite found a sweet spot yet. But when they do, I really think he’ll be an offensive asset. From what I know of his game before Vegas, he’s a quick thinker and can get pucks through at the right times. He was a high-caliber scorer at the junior level, so we’ll see how that translates as a pro,” said Polglaze, who covers the Wolves from a Golden Knights angle.

Polglaze also indicates that that although Duke’s injury hampered any chance of him playing in the NHL this year, he likely wouldn’t have played there much anyway.

“Despite being the first Golden Knight in history, I still think Duke would’ve ended up in Chicago. The depth that Vegas has at forward is just too great, and had they kept him, I think he would’ve been getting scratched a lot, which is what no player wants. That said, getting to play with forwards like Brandon Pirri, TJ Tynan and Teemu Pulkkinen early on would’ve been a great benefit to him” she said.

Once Duke gets the confidence that he possessed as a junior player with the Brandon Wheat Kings of the Western Hockey League, he should begin to feel more comfortable in what has been a winning environment around the Wolves this season. Polglaze believes that he will establish himself as a legitimate top-six forward for the team.

“Duke is a natural goal scorer and nearly the exact same size as Pirri, you take that and combine him with Chicago’s best playmaker in Tynan and you’ve definitely got a top six forward.”

It was the combination of Duke’s speed, soft hands, and heavy wrist shot off the rush that made him so dangerous during his junior career with the Wheat Kings.

Moreover, according to Branden Crowe, the play-by-play voice of the Brandon Wheat Kings, Duke is a game breaker.

“Reid is a game changer. He is a player that can score at will, at any given time. He is one of those players who can break a game open  seemingly whenever he wants to. He is a quick skater with even quicker hands and a real treat to watch,” said Crowe.

These are the qualities of Reid Duke’s game that Wolves fans can definitely look forward to seeing in Chicago down the stretch.

Wolves braintrust promoting internal competition as team prepares for March and beyond

Having celebrated victories in four of its last five games, Chicago is riding high and currently occupies second place in the AHL’s central division.

Image taken from the http://www.chicagowolves.com

While the Wolves remain idle until Friday, thanks to a fortuitous break in their schedule, they will jump back into the fire this weekend for two road games in two consecutive nights. First, they will visit the San Antonio for a meet up with the Rampage, and they will then quickly turn their attention to Texas for a date on Saturday with the Stars in the lone star state.

Screen Shot 2018-02-28 at 5.33.22 PM
The AHL’s western conference standings

There has been a fair bit of news since my previous post, and not every development is of the on-ice variety. February was a particularly busy month for the executives who make up the Wolves hockey operations department, as well as the management team for the Vegas Golden Knights led by general manager George McPhee.

The balance of today’s post will offer links to pertinent Chicago Wolves news from the past few days or so that I believe will have implications on this season moving forward.

George McPhee
This photo of Vegas Golden Knights general manager George McPhee belongs to NHL.com

More often than not, the best players on a good team seem to rise to the occasion in a close game. At home on Tuesday against the Stars, the Wolves two most prolific offensive players came through when they were needed most. Chicago has struggled all season in the shootout, but T.J. Tynan and Brandon Pirri took matters into their own hands last knight, by getting the Wolves over the hump with a thrilling 4-3 shootout victory. It cannot be understated how important that was for Chicago, especially heading into the season’s final month. That it was the team’s two leading point getters who managed to come through in the shootout, should accentuate the confidence and trust that the Wolves feel about their offensive studs.

Having already bolstered the Wolves depth on defense with the addition of Zac Leslie from the Los Angeles Kings on Feb. 5, the Golden Knights management team decided it wanted to ameliorate an already solid group of rearguards in Chicago, and groom another defenseman who has the ability to provide some emergency minutes in the NHL if the injury bug were to strike. By acquiring 26-year-old Philip Holm from the Vancouver Canucks, Vegas continues to improve its organizational depth on D,  which cultivates more internal competition on the Wolves blue line, too.

On Feb. 25, the Wolves signed forward Brandon McNally to a professional tryout contract. Since then, he has played in two games for Chicago, after previously playing in 52 games for the ECHL’s Cincinnati Cyclones. McNally has size at 6-foot-2 and 212 pounds, and he has registered 137 penalty minutes already this season. McNally’s addition to the Wolves will definitely give them another element for teams to think about if respect isn’t shown to some of Chicago’s players who are smaller in stature.

Although this is already a few days old, I feel it is worth noting how important Chicago’s Feb. 25 road victory in Manitoba was versus the central division leading Moose. At this juncture in the season, games like this are measuring stick type games, and the Wolves sent a message to the western conference that they can go into any building and beat any team on any night. I’ve identified this 2-0 victory at the Moose as a character building game for the Wolves, with the final stretch now upon us.