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Early struggles are unfamiliar territory for the Chicago Wolves

A franchise that’s used to being at the top currently sits in last place in the Central Division.

Dale Woltman/Chicago Wolves

Fourteen games into the AHL season, life hasn’t been quite as easy for the Wolves as anyone thought it would be. Sure, the team’s top players have all moved onto other franchises, or are getting chances in the NHL. But the Hurricanes and Wolves went out and brought in experienced players like Ryan Dzingel, Mackenzie MacEachern, Brendan Perlini, and Jason Garrison to help bolster a young roster.

Despite the reinforcements, the Wolves currently sit at the bottom of the Central Division. That’s a very unfamiliar spot for a franchise which has only missed the playoffs five times since they joined the AHL for the 2001-02 season. (The Wolves missed in 2005-06, 2008-09, 2010-11, 2012-13, and 2015-16. No playoffs were held in 2019-20 and 2020-21 due to the pandemic.) Teams like Milwaukee and Manitoba are stepping up to fill the void at the top of the standings left by the Wolves, who have a long road to climb if they’d like to be playing postseason hockey.

Coach Brock Sheahan has used words like “frustrating” to describe the performance so far this season, where nothing seems to be going right for the team. A lack of chemistry between players at the beginning of the season hasn’t been helped by a cavalcade of injuries to veteran players. With lines being juggled and at one point the entire fourth line being made up of players loaned from the ECHL, it’s been hard for anyone to really get into any sort of rhythm.

The Wolves special teams have been a significant source of struggle this season. They’ve had relatively few power play opportunities compared to the rest of the league — 51 opportunities has them tied for 28th in the league. (The Belleville Senators lead the league with a whopping 81 power play opportunities over 15 games.) Given their lack of opportunities, the Wolves would be best served by capitalizing as often as possible, but they’ve scored power play goals in just six of their 14 games. They frequently have trouble even getting set up in the offensive zone, and when they do, the chances they’re generating aren’t particularly dangerous. Shorthanded breakaways are common; the Wolves have allowed three against, putting them in a five-way tie for fourth in the league.

To delve briefly into fancystats, the Wolves’ PDO gives a pretty dismal picture of the team’s prospects. For the uninitiated, PDO adds together a team’s shooting percentage and save percentage, all from even strength play. A team with a PDO closest to 100 is performing at expectations; above 100 means the team is likely performing better than they actually are, whereas below 100 you can expect the team to improve at some point. The Wolves’ current PDO is 100.61, showing that they may be exactly who we think they are.

One bright spot has been Jamieson Rees, Vasily Ponomarev, and Tuukka Tieksola, who have spent significant time together as a line. The three have combined for 25 points and have been seeing an increase of minutes due to injuries and callups. Rees is following up on his strong camp with the Hurricanes, where he was one of the final cuts. With four goals in 14 games, he’s shooting unsustainably high (13.3%), but even if he slows down, he’s on track to eclipse his career high in goals of eight, set during his 2020-21 season. Ponomarev and Tieksola have both shown why they’re two of the more exciting Wolves prospects — like, say, perhaps on this goal the two teamed up on against Milwaukee.

The defense has been at times nonexistent, with more experienced players like Max Lajoie being forced into doing too much to cover for an out-of-position teammate. Anttoni Honka has been excellent in his rookie season. Honka leads the team in scoring from the blue line and has made smart defensive plays that make it easy to forget that this is his first professional season in North America.

While it’s far too early to call anything a lost season, the Wolves need a quick turnaround in essentially all areas of the ice in order to make another run at the playoffs. Young players like Honka, Ponomarev, and Tieksola are getting opportunities to lead and develop, which will serve the franchise better in the long run, but as the lopsided losses pile up, it’s difficult to see them climbing out of the hole they’ve already dug for themselves.

Game 9: Chicago Wolves 5, Milwaukee Admirals 3

Scoring: Blake Murray, 1 G 2 A; Malte Stromwall, 1 G, 1 A; Noel Gunler, 1 G; Oliver Cooper, 1 G; Vasily Ponomarev, 1 G; Max Lajoie, 2 A; Alexander Pashin, 1 A; Tuukka Tieksola, 1 A; Josh Melnick, 1 A

In net: Zach Sawchenko, saved 39 of 42, 0.929 sv%

Game 10: Chicago Wolves 2, Iowa Wild 5

Let’s be honest, this game was mostly interesting for the fact that the opposing goaltender, Jesper Wallstedt, scored a goal. That’s right.

Scoring: Griffin Mendel, 1 G; Logan Lambdin, 1 G; Anttoni Honka, 1 A; Jason Garrison, 1 A; Blake Murray, 1 A

In net: Zach Sawchenko, saved 12 of 16, 0.750 sv%

Game 11: Chicago Wolves 3, Milwaukee Admirals 6

Scoring: Anttoni Honka, 1 G; William Lagesson, 1 G; Oliver Cooper, 1 G; Jamieson Rees, 2 A; Ronan Seeley, 1 A; Malte Stromwall, 1 A; Vasily Ponomarev, 1 A

In net: Cale Morris, saved 35 of 40, 0.875 sv%

Game 12: Chicago Wolves 4, Rockford IceHogs 3

Scoring: Griffin Mendel, 1 G; Nate Sucese, 1 G; Malte Stromwall, 1 G; Vasily Ponomarev, 1 A; Ryan Dzingel, 2 A; Ronan Seeley, 2 A; David Farrance, 1 A; Jamieson Rees, 1 A

In net: Zach Sawchenko, saved 32 of 35, 0.914 sv%

Game 13: Chicago Wolves 3, Rockford IceHogs 4

Scoring: Jamieson Rees, 2 G; Nate Sucese, 1 G 1 A; John Melnick, 2 A; Anttoni Honka, 1 A; Logan Lambdin, 1 A; Malte Stromwall, 1 A

In net: Cale Morris, saved 41 of 45, 0.911 sv%

Game 14: Chicago Wolves 1, Iowa Wild 5

Scoring: Vasily Ponomarev, 1 G; Jamieson Rees, 1 A; Malte Stromwall, 1 A

In net: Zach Sawchenko, saved 31 of 36, 0.861 sv%