CALGARY, Alta. – Howdy, pardners!
Excitement is in the air as the American Hockey League returns to the Stampede City. With Calgary’s affiliate relocating from Stockton, California to right in their own home in the Scotiabank Saddledome, the new Calgary Wranglers are looking to make some noise in the upcoming 2022-23 season after a spectacular last campaign in Stockton that saw several accolades adorning the franchise.
Unfortunately, there was one prize that eluded the Calgary affiliate: the Calder Cup. With an intact returning core from a team that stayed at the top of the league’s standing all season long, expectations are sky high for one of the newest teams in the league coming into a market starving for a winner.
Last Season in Review:
Record: 45-16-5-2 (2nd in AHL)
Season Summary: The Stockton Heat were the class of the Pacific Division for the duration of the 2021-22 season. Trading the top two spots with the rival Ontario Reign early on, by January it was theirs alone at the top of the standings. Their dominance throughout a competitive division earned Head Coach Mitch Love coach of the year honors while rookie goaltender Dustin Wolf won the Aldege “Baz” Bastien Memorial Award as the AHL’s top goaltender with a 33-9-4 record to go with a 2.35 and a.924 save percentage. Wolf’s emergence as an elite talent led the way for Stockton: their defense-first attitude shut the door on high-powered teams in the postseason in the Bakersfield Condors and the Colorado Eagles to set up a date with the Chicago Wolves in the Western Conference Finals. The Wolves would defeat the Heat in a tightly contested six-game classic before hoisting the Calder Cup.
Leading Scorer: Matthew Phillips: 31 goals, 37 assists, 68 points
Goals For: 242 (8th in AHL) Goals Against: 185 (1st in AHL)
Powerplay: 19.6% (13th in AHL)
Penalty Kill: 86.6% (1st in AHL)
- Cole Schwindt: The biggest name coming into the Wranglers lineup this season, Schwindt was a key piece of this summer’s trade between Calgary and Florida that saw Matthew Tkachuk, Jonathan Huberdeau, and MacKenzie Weegar on the move. In his rookie season with Charlotte, Schwindt put up 19 goals and 21 assists for 40 points in 72 games. Coming into Calgary, Schwindt adds to an already loaded forward core that includes Phillips, Jakob Pelletier, and Connor Zary. The potential for an even more explosive offense this season with Schwindt is there no matter where Coach Love puts him in the lineup.
- Brett Sutter: A Sutter in Calgary is as natural as a fish in water. A sixth-round pick of the Flames back in 2005, the 35-year old Sutter brings with him a healthy dose of professional hockey experience. After serving as captain of the Ontario Reign, Sutter returns to where it all began for him in Alberta, serving as a mentor for the young prospects and aiming for his first championship in his 16th professional season.
- Radim Zohorna: Picked up off waivers at the end of the offseason, Zohorna is a beast of a man. Officially listed at 6’7, 225 pounds, Zohorna will create headaches of all kinds for defenders in front of Pacific Division nets. The screens set by this skyscraper will set up for a powerplay led by some of the most dangerous scorers in the league that can strike with deadly efficiency. If Zohorna isn’t spending too much time with the Flames, he’s going to be an x-factor for these Wranglers.
- Glenn Gawdin: With 50 points in 62 games, Gawdin scored the third-highest total on Stockton last season. Looking for an opportunity to make it to an NHL lineup, Gawdin signed a contract with the Anaheim Ducks over the summer. Gawdin was especially effective on faceoffs during Stockton’s run to the semifinals, and his responsibility in his own end and effective penalty killing that anchored the league’s top unit won’t be easy to replace.
- Justin Kirkland: The everything man known as “Costco” in Stockton was the team’s leading producer in the postseason with 12 points in 13 games. While a top team like Chicago was able to effectively shut down the likes of Phillips and Pelletier in the postseason, Kirkland was able to create matchup headaches for the Wolves’ coaching staff. After logging a career high in points during the regular season, Kirkland followed his former teammate Gawdin to the Anaheim organization, signing a contract there where he will likely play a huge role for the division rival San Diego Gulls.
- Kevin Gravel: A steady presence in front of Wolf, Gravel was a key piece to Stockton’s top penalty killing unit. For an organization priding itself on stout defense, replacing this top defender is another arduous task. Gravel departed for Nashville, where he will anchor another tight blue line in Milwaukee that is looking to make their own run through the Western Conference and one that Calgary will likely need to power through for a shot at the title.
2022-23 Schedule Breakdown:
The Wranglers open up their season with another newcomer to the league: the Coachella Valley Firebirds. Seattle’s new affiliate comes into town on Sunday, October 16, for Calgary’s home opener. Calgary will be well acquainted with Coachella early on in the season with 6 games before the end of November. In fact, the Wranglers won’t see their old friends in the Ontario Reign until nearly Christmas when they matchup in a holiday series on December 20th and 21st.
While Calgary’s schedule is flooded with the usual names in the Pacific Division, this year they will see one rare opponent from outside of the division in the Manitoba Moose. On November 11th and 13th the Wranglers will visit Winnipeg, while December 13th and 15th they host the Moose in Calgary. The rest of the schedule features the same Pacific faces that the franchise has come to recognize: 12 games against the Abbotsford Canucks being far and away their most familiar opponent.
While November and February feature a favorable schedule for the Wranglers in terms of home games vs. road games, Calgary faces a difficult stretch to end their season: six straight road games in April to lead into the postseason. Hopefully for the Wranglers, they won’t have to be jostling for postseason positioning by this time. Should they find themselves needing points, they find themselves in a tough stretch at Coachella, San Diego, and then three straight in a hostile environment in Abbotsford.
Top Storylines for 2022-23:
New Stadium, New Feel: While not necessarily a new franchise, there is a certain exciting energy surrounding this team as they head in front of a hockey crazed fanbase in Alberta. Staying in the same home as their parent club has to prepare some of the players for the call-up to the Flames, and imagine another ‘C’ of Red for a postseason run. Stockton treated the team well, but these new layers of excitement have to be getting the guys in the lineup fired up. For one, getting away from the triple digit temperatures and cracking ice in the postseason is already a marked improvement going forward. The atmosphere is next to follow, and the best way to endear to friends is by providing a winning product.
One man Wolf pack: Dustin Wolf was an easy pick for goaltender of the year, and the young man is just getting started. With another year of experience under his belt and a strong team in front of him, Wolf’s got the inside track for another run at the Bastien award, and perhaps a dark horse at an MVP run. All eyes of the AHL world and the Calgary organization will be on him, asking how long until he forces the Flames’ management to give him a shot behind Jacob Markstrom?
Prediction Sure to Go Right:
Calgary stampedes through the Pacific Division again and claims the top spot. They have elite talent. They have depth. They have the goaltending. They are incredibly well coached. If anything, this could be a stronger team than last year’s that had their way with the division last year. With Colorado and Ontario losing big chunks of depth, Calgary could have the division wrapped up by February. As long as the Flames don’t have to dip into their depth and the Wranglers stay healthy, this is the squad to come out of the West.
Prediction Sure to Go Wrong:
Dustin Wolf becomes the first goaltender since Jason LaBarbera to win the ‘Baz’ Bastien Award twice, and the first to do so in back-to-back years. Behind the strength of the roster in front of him, it seems like the only thing in Wolf’s way would be a call-up to Calgary or the emergence of Yaroslav Askarov in Milwaukee. Some of the losses on the defensive end could bend those numbers just enough for Wolf to finish as a runner-up this year. Surely, Wolf wouldn’t mind trading this award in for a Calder Cup if he had the choice.
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