While I still believe that Reid Duke will eventually play a key role as a forward for the Chicago Wolves, perhaps the 21-year-old deserves a pass if his first four games in professional hockey haven’t been anything to write home about. Duke has the skillset to be a game changer, and at some point his talent will be on full display. But after missing more than five months with a shoulder injury, it’s only normal that it’s been an adjustment period since his return.
Following the Wolves 2-1 overtime loss to the Rockford IceHogs on Sunday afternoon at Allstate Arena, head coach Rocky Thompson addressed Duke’s play since coming back from a long absence.
“Let’s not forget, Reid was out for a long time, and it’s going to take a bit of time for him to get some of the rust off. That’s only normal. But I thought today was one of his better games,” coach Thompson said of the Calgary, Alberta native.
As a junior player for the Brandon Wheat Kings of the Western Hockey League, Duke registered 254 points in 311 games, so there is good reason to believe that his soft hands and quick wrist shot will eventually translate into offensive production at the pro level.
While Duke has yet to record a point with the Wolves, and has a plus/minus differential of negative three, it is important to recognize that he is competing with and against players who are in midseason stride.
But fortunately for the Wolves, Duke exhibits speed and elite level skill when the puck is on his stick. Look for him to gradually improve game by game in terms of his execution and confidence.
By the time the playoffs roll around, look for Duke to be a top-six forward for the Wolves. The combination of his ability to finish off plays, and T.J. Tynan’s playmaking skills could potentially be a dynamic duo for head coach Rocky Thompson’s hockey club.
Below are a few notes related to the Wolves that I put together, so please don’t hesitate to continue the discussion by posting your own comments and opinions below this post. I’m looking forward to interacting with you!
If you haven’t voted yet for the Time Breslin Unsung Hero Award, it’s not too late. Your choices are Kevin Lough, T.J. Tynan, Jake Bischoff, and Chris Casto. Personally, I’d like to see Bischoff win this award. He’s played in 56 games, holds a plus-14 differential and probably gets less attention than he deserves. I’m also not sure whether or not Tynan’s terrific season from a production standpoint makes him an “unsung” hero.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
“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.
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.
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.
“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.
Defenseman Zac Leslie has 3-4-7 in 10 Wolves games since being acquired from the LA Kings. Last night he scored the Game Winning Goal on the PP w/ 1:47 left at Milwaukee running Chicago’s win streak to 6 games heading into today’s showdown vs. Manitoba @AllstateArena#Wolvesbitespic.twitter.com/3lvT45XF4N
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.
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_
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.
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.
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.