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.

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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.

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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.


“It’s a new experience for mostly everybody in Chicago, from the head coach down to the players,” says Emily Polglaze of the Las Vegas Review Journal

As it turns out, the American Hockey League isn’t just a development league for those who are competing on the ice. It also happens to be a development league for many of the reporters who aspire to someday make it to the NHL.NHL-Announcement-1600x700

Emily Polglaze, who covers the Chicago Wolves for the Las Vegas Review-Journal, recently took the time to answer a few questions I had for her.

Not only does Emily cover the Wolves for a professional publication, she reports on the development of Vegas’ prospects as her primary focus, which has been a major point of emphasis for me as well.

I believe our conversation is a compelling one, because she offers insight into the direction of the Chicago Wolves and how it relates to the Golden Knights. In particular, the NHL’s upcoming Feb. 26 trade deadline was a conversation topic, and so was the recent acquisition of defenseman Zac Leslie.

Since you are covering the Wolves from a Vegas Golden Knights angle, and since the Knights are only in their first year of existence, how do you approach your reporting about this American hockey league team?

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Photo from USA Today

“It’s a new experience for mostly everybody in Chicago, from the head coach down to the players. Some of these guys are held over from the Blues affiliation, but most aren’t. In that respect, I approach it how a lot of people approached Vegas: a ragtag bunch of guys that were going to be figuring it out along the way, with the expectation of just building a team and “new” organization to start. The Wolves have done much more than that, just like their Vegas counterpart, so it’s a rare opportunity in reporting because you’re really seeing it built from the ground up.”

What did you make of the acquisition of defenseman Zac Leslie? How do you think he will help the Wolves? And what do you think Vegas has planned for him?

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Photo courtesy of the Ontario Reign

“I personally haven’t seen Leslie play yet, but Vegas definitely wins the trade here. Leslie hasn’t been incredibly impactful on the scoresheet in the AHL over the years, but he’s proved he’s reliable and that’s something Chicago will need down the stretch. With d-men like Griffin Reinhart and Jason Garrison in bubble territory with Vegas’s solid core, I doubt that Leslie will see the ice in Vegas any time soon, but Chicago head coach Rocky Thompson continuously stresses building a team, and have solid, albeit quiet defensemen like Leslie, Jake Bischoff and Chris Casto is going to keep the Wolves defense sound for years to come.”

What are you expecting from the Knights / Wolves as the Feb. 26 trade deadline approaches?
“My answer probably would’ve been different a year ago, but honestly, not much. By way of offense, there’s a couple moves that Vegas could make (Eakin stands out), but there will be no blockbuster trades in my mind. Vegas could’ve been in a mess at this point with the expansion draft, but all the right pieces fell together and it worked. If it’s not broken, don’t fix it. I could see them adding to the Wolves roster if anything, but AHL for AHL trades are still semi-rare, and they have enough going on to be too concerned with that.”

Who do you think is next in line for a call up?
Brandon Pirri, for sure. It’s no secret that Pirri is an NHL-caliber player, but Vegas has really lucked out in not needing call-ups until right about now in the season (other than goaltending). He’s had an outstanding season in Chicago and if he doesn’t make the team out of camp next year, he’ll be one of their main guys to call on. I’d also like to see a call-up for TJ Tynan. He works incredibly hard and I know he’d make the most of the chance. He’s always been good in the AHL, it’s only a matter of time.”


What’s your favorite part about covering the Wolves?
“Since the team is new for everybody, there’s a sense of positivity and excitement surrounding it. They hit a skid earlier in the season, but the team was always upbeat and looked to the next game with optimism. It’s always rewarding to cover a group like that, and especially so when they start improving. Beyond the hockey staff, the front office is excellent. It’s a top-notch club all around.”

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Photo from SI.com

To read more of Emily’s work, check her out at http://www.reviewjournal.com. Her most recent piece features exclusive interviews she conducted with Wolves goalie tandem of Oscar Dansk, and Maxime Lagace.

 

In the desert, Coyotes young core shines bright, as Canadiens aging vets look paralyzed in Arizona’s 5-2 victory

The Canadiens (22-27-7) may have outshot the Arizona Coyotes (16-32-10) by a margin of 36-21 on Thursday night in Glendale, AZ, but this stat is hardly indicative of the effort put forth by a Montreal group that failed to show up in a humiliating 5-2 loss to the league’s lowest ranked team.

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Arizona Coyotes Tobias Rieder celebrates his eighth goal of the season in 5-2 victory over Montreal on Thursday night, (Image courtesy of the Arizona Coyotes)

In short, the rebuilding Coyotes looked like a group that is committed to growing together, and focused on progressing toward the future. Montreal, on the other hand, resembled a squad with an undefined core and is waiting for management to reassemble some of the roster’s core pieces that have proven all year it is past its expiration date and in need of a new direction.

The game got off to a sloppy start, which shouldn’t be a surprise given that both clubs rank in the league’s bottom five in terms of goals allowed this season. But Habs goalie Carey Price, and Coyotes netminder Antti Raanta both bailed out their teammates defensive lapses early on in the contest. Raanta, in particular, got away with “grand larceny” so to speak, when he exhibited an elite ability to move laterally and catch a one-timer off the stick of Canadiens rookie Nikita Scherbak. As the period progressed, it became clear that this deflated a Montreal offense that already lacked confidence entering the game, especially on the heals of a 2-0 shutout loss to Colorado less than 24 ago. Conversely, this remarkable stop by Raanta appeared to give the guys in front of him some momentum.

The young Coyotes took this momentum, and parlayed into the game’s opening goal. Arizona’s Clayton Keller, and one of the top rookie’s in the league this year, scored the icebreaker during a power play, on a heavy slap shot that whizzed by Carey Price. Tobias Rieder, who did not pick up an assist on the goal, contributed immensely with his ability to screen Montreal’s goalie on the play.

For Keller, the goal was his 17th, and part of a performance that saw him register four points, as the rookie sensation augmented his totals atop the team’s scoring leaderboard. Keller even managed to score without the use of his own hockey stick.

The game’s next turning point took place at the start of the second period, when another member of the Yotes young blossoming core managed to break open the game in a span of 19 seconds. At 57 seconds and again at a minute and 16 seconds into the period, Brandon Perlini notched his 15th and 16th goals of the season, surpassing his career high of 14 set last year.

For the remaining 18 minutes and 44 seconds of the second period, Montreal’s response was underwhelming to say the most. As rumors continue to swirl about most of the Habs roster in advance of the NHL’s upcoming trade-deadline on Feb. 26, and having played the night before with travel included, the Canadiens hardly looked inspired or unified.

5-2 W!!

A post shared by Arizona Coyotes (@arizonacoyotes) on

Finally, one of Montreal’s only bright-spots this season, Brendan Gallagher, got his team on the scoreboard with a gritty power play goal 5:46 into the game’s third period when he banked in a rebound from behind the goal line off of Raanta’s left pad for his team leading 21st of the campaign.

“Les glorieux”  would feed off of Gallagher’s goal, and follow it up when forward Daniel Carr buried his fourth at 7:38 of the period. This sudden dose of inspiration was short lived, however, as the Coyotes made Habs captain Max Pacioretty pay for an untimely holding penalty.

With 3:59 to play in the game, and down by a score of 4-2, Montreal’s Carey Price surrendered a soft goal to Josh Archibald of the Coyotes. Price, who appeared disinterested following the Perlini’s two goals early in the second period, looked particularly weak on a backhand from Archibald that was taken from at least 20 feet out and without anyone blocking his line of a vision.

For the Arizona Coyotes, a team building around youngsters like Clayton Keller, Tobias Rieder, Brandon Perlini, and netminder Antti Raanta, this game offered a glimpse into a desirable future for this organization. The Yotes brain trust must continue to build around this young and talented core, but this game showed a group that is progressing from their horrendous start to the regular season, and beginning to play with pride.

On the losing side, the Canadiens looked nonchalant and essentially went through the motions. Unlike the Coyotes, they do not have a group that is defined. They are not yet in the growing phase. General manager Marc Bergevin will undoubtedly be a seller prior to the trade deadline on Feb. 26, and in the summer. For now, as witnessed in yet another crushing loss, the players are waiting to see where they stand with the organization.

Blue Demons guard Brandon Cyrus credits Toronto Raptors for his love of basketball, as seen during and despite emotional 76-75 loss to Creighton

Blue Demons guard Brandon Cyrus was just one piece of an assembled puzzle that almost defeated the Creighton Bluejays (17-6, 7-4) in a spirited Big East conference showdown on Wednesday evening at Wintrust Arena.

The contest, which saw DePaul (9-13, 2-8) loose in the final second of regulation by a final score of 76-75, was as impressive as it was dejecting; at least for Blue Demon supporters leaving the game who hoped to witness a massive upset against their longtime rival. Especially after leading for more than 25 of the game’s 40 minutes.

But Cyrus, who grew up in Oakville, Ontario, tried to remain upbeat following the tough loss. “Obviously it’s a bad feeling right now, but it’s important to look at the positive things we were doing. We’ll come back tomorrow and look at the film. Go over some of the negative things, but know that we can correct it easily,” said Cyrus.

His head coach, Dave Leitao echoed the sentiment that tomorrow is always a new day, regardless of today’s outcome.

“Every day that we live, we have a challenge. And that challenge is tomorrow. Each one of us has an obligation to take it as a step by step process by the way we compete, by the way we do everything. So that’s my message to these guys. This game kind of gets us back to reset ourselves mentally, so that physically we can be in position to win these kinds of [close] games,” coach Leitao said.

Cyrus, who was on the floor for 29 minutes against Creighton, only put up a modest seven points. However, as I watched him up-close, it was his intensity and competitiveness that was his most pronounced feature in a game where not all of his shots seemed to be going in the basket. He looked engaged on every play, and after the game he acknowledged that his love for basketball, and his desire to improve every day is the reason why he plays with so much passion.

Growing up in a country that lives and breathes hockey, Cyrus fell in love with basketball instead, and he believes the NBA’s Toronto Raptors had a profound influence on him as a fan. He even sports the number four for DePaul, as a tribute to ex Raptor, Chris Bosh.

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Photo courtesy of NY Daily News

 

“Definitely growing up they were a big part of my life. I loved Vince Carter first, and then Chris Bosh,” he said. “Now it’s more about guys like DeMar DeRozan, Kyle Lowrie, and even Drake,” Cryus said with a chuckle.

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Photo of Drake, sitting courtside at Air Canada Center during Toronto Raptors game. Courtesy of Yahoo Sports

 

Who knows if Cyrus would have pursued basketball if he hadn’t been exposed to the Raptors as a young kid. Perhaps he might have fallen in love with something else completely.

Fortunately for DePaul, and fans of the Blue Demons, Cyrus has a passion so deep that his will to get better each day compliments his strong desire to win. He’s just a sophomore, and he’ll face Creighton again, as well as many other good teams. Hopefully his friends and family watching back home in Canada will see Cyrus on the winning end next time.

Zac Leslie trade: a measuring stick acquisition for Vegas Golden Knights, Chicago Wolves

When the Vegas Golden Knights announced its acquisition of 24-year-old defenseman Zachary Leslie on Monday from the Los Angeles Kings in exchange for future considerations, he was immediately assigned to the American Hockey League’s Chicago Wolves by Knights general manager George McPhee.

This transaction, which might seem highly insignificant to hockey fans in Las Vegas, will be an interesting one to monitor if you follow the Wolves. As I wrote about previously, an organization’s ability to develop young talent at the AHL level is a monumental part of cultivating a successful operation that is as sustainable as it is prolific.

For a defenseman, 24-years of age is still considered quite young, and Zac Leslie’s development under new head coach Rocky Thompson will serve as an opportunity to evaluate Vegas’ professional scouting and development divisions. Moreover, usually when a trade involves just a single AHL player, it means that the team receiving him is hopeful he could help and grow in their organization, even if he never reaches the NHL level.

For right now, Leslie will undoubtedly provide the Wolves with a steady defensive presence on the back end, as he aims to implement some more offense back into his game now after focusing on becoming more reliable without the puck over the last couple of seasons under Ontario’s coach Mike Stothers.

Prior to being drafted by the Los Angeles Kings at 178th overall in 2013, the Ottawa, Ontario native Leslie registered an impressive 155 points in 250 combined games as a junior player for the Ontario Hockey League’s Guelph Storm.

This is a part of his game that hasn’t been a top priority for him lately, but as a third pairing rearguard and a quick set of wheels, Leslie will certainly be given a regular shift and opportunity to develop as a two-way threat at the professional level.

Interestingly, aside from Chris Cato who shoots right, the Wolves only possess left-handed shooters. Leslie, who is traveling to Iowa and will be available for Chicago’s crucial divisional matchup on Friday against the Wild, is yet another lefty.

It remains to be seen whether coach Rocky Thompson elects to use Leslie on the right side, where he has played from time to time with the Ontario Reign when needed, or if he’ll suit up on his natural side.

With his arrival to the Wolves, the six-foot tall rearguard brings with him 121 games of professional experience with the Ontario Reign. He also arrives with a fresh start, as he looks to move up the ranks on Vegas’ depth chart.

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Photo of Zac Leslie from LAKingsinsider.com

As a pending restricted free agent come July 1. he will want to prove his worth to the Wolves, especially down the stretch. And that’s good news for the Wolves blue line, especially as the playoff race really begins to heat up.

Leslie will suit up sporting the number 37 on the back of his jersey, as his previous number eight belongs to forward Tyler Wong.

I look forward to monitoring Leslie’s play on Friday night and his development beyond that with the Wolves. Stay tuned for more Wolves updates from yours truly!

Chicago Wolves Prepare for Crucial Weekend Games

In this blog, I introduce my voice to the readers of this blog. I try to provide insight into what’s to come for the Wolves, and the keys will be for them in the second half of the season.

I also speak briefly about Read to Succeed, an initiative I wrote about in a previous post, and one that I feel is more important than you may think at first glance.