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Early success for Chicago Wolves driven by youth movement

About a third of the way through the season, the Chicago Wolves stand at the top of their division.

Portland Winterhawks at Kelowna Rockets Photo by Marissa Baecker/Getty Images

Slightly over a third of the way into the AHL season, the Chicago Wolves are sitting in a pretty familiar spot: they’re first overall in the Central Division (by both points and points percentage) and third overall in the league. No matter who’s behind the bench or on the ice, the Wolves have become accustomed to experiencing success, a tradition which coach Ryan Warsofsky has been able to uphold.

As the Wolves are currently sidelined due to unspecified COVID protocol issues, we’ll use the pause to take a look at the season to date.

The Hybrid Team Works

When the Wolves announced that they would be taking in players from the Milwaukee Admirals, the AHL affiliate of the Nashville Predators, this season, fans immediately were concerned about not just the logistics, but how the two teams would work together.

While no one on this year’s Wolves team has had the experience of battling their Admirals counterparts for around 10 games a season, the two teams do have a long-standing rivalry. With the Predators and the Hurricanes being in the same division this year, players who were teammates could easily find themselves on opposite sides of the puck while up in the NHL.

Maybe even more pressing than friends-to-enemies and bad blood was the issue of meeting needs of two very different teams. The Wolves coaching staff suddenly needed to balance the needs of the Hurricanes, their primary affiliate, with the needs of the Predators.

The good news is that the partnership between the Wolves and Admirals has been smooth sailing since day one. Wolves coach Ryan Warsofsky and Admirals coach Karl Taylor have worked together with the team, with Taylor being a frequent face around the Wolves’ facility to help provide instruction.

While Carolina and Nashville both may have slightly different systems or points of emphasis in the NHL, Warsofsky and Taylor have collaborated to find a system that makes sense for the Wolves while still preparing the players in the event of a call-up to the NHL.

Additionally, the Wolves have benefited from having some of Nashville’s top prospects on their roster. The experience of Frederic Allard and Anthony Richard on the blue line has been a noticeable difference-maker for the team. Phil Tomasino has been electric for the Wolves, showing alongside Ryan Suzuki and Seth Jarvis that highly-skilled young players can find success in the league. In fact, six of the top 10 scorers for the Wolves would have otherwise been on the Admirals this season.

The partnership was a highly unusual one, and if all goes back to normal next season, many of these players will be battling one another for the puck on a regular basis. But for this highly unusual season, it’s been perfect.

The Kids Are Alright

The pause in play for the WHL and OHL has provided an extended opportunity for young players to get experience at the professional level. Seth Jarvis, Ryan Suzuki and Jamieson Rees, as well as Nashville’s Phil Tomasino, have all taken advantage of the opportunity.

Jarvis in particular has turned some heads as he briefly led the AHL in scoring before being recalled to join his WHL team, the Portland Winterhawks. He very quickly earned Warsofsky’s trust and was rewarded by playing big minutes for the Wolves, including significant power play time. Now back with Portland, Jarvis has two assists in three games and leads his team in shots on goal.

Suzuki, Rees and Tomasino are all still with the Wolves as they continue to wait for an official start date for the OHL. While Suzuki and Rees haven’t had the same immediate offensive success as Jarvis did, both have been showing why they are highly regarded Hurricanes prospects.

The success of players like Jarvis and Tomasino has of course re-opened the debate regarding the agreement between the NHL and CHL. The leagues are unlikely to make any changes to that agreement, as the CHL would fight very hard to keep its most elite players rather than losing them early to the AHL. But having the opportunity to see what these kids can do when playing against older, stronger, more experienced opponents should give fans a lot to look forward to when they are finally able to leave juniors behind.

Urgency and Consistency

The Wolves have been mostly dominant this season so far, but aren’t immune to the struggles of young teams. The young Wolves learned very quickly that offense isn’t everything and that a strong defense can’t be overlooked.

Play away from the puck is something that Warsofsky has focused on with his team, particularly after a pair of losses to the Cleveland Monsters. Fans of the Charlotte Checkers likely know how detail-oriented Warsofsky is as a coach, so it should come as no surprise that he has focused heavily with his team on the small details of the game that can help lead to success.

To their credit, the Wolves responded immediately to Warsofsky’s frustration, handily winning their next two games against the Iowa Wild. While there are sure to be more struggles ahead, particularly if and when the Wolves lose Suzuki, Rees, and Tomasino to the OHL, it’s encouraging to see that the team appears to take the lessons learned from their mistakes to heart in order to not make the same mistakes again.