ROSEMONT, Ill. – When the final buzzer rang out in Game 5 of the Calder Cup Finals, one team stood alone on the summit of the American Hockey League season. The Chicago Wolves, owner of the regular season’s best record, marauded their way through four series of hockey with a single loss in regulation before their victorious hoisting of the Calder Cup.
When the celebrations ended, the vultures circled. The Wolves soon found the price of success in the AHL. With opportunities in the NHL and Europe knocking for numerous members of the team, the reigning champions found their lineup gutted from the inside out.
While the team’s makeup is to be considerably different than last year’s juggernaut, there is talent saturated through the roster combined with the experience of a championship that fosters the hunger for another. Make no mistake: while the record-breaking names no longer take to the ice at Allstate Arena, the 2022-2023 Chicago Wolves will not be an easy out for any team in front of them.
Last Season In Review
Record: 50-16-5-5 (1st in AHL)
Season Summary: Putting it mildly, the Wolves were utterly dominant last year. They didn’t lose consecutive games in regulation all season. After taking the best record in the league on the last day of the season, the Wolves thrashed their in-state rivals in the Rockford IceHogs in a three-game sweep. They dismantled the Milwaukee Admirals in four games before a heavyweight faceoff with the Stockton Heat, whom they managed to defeat in a six-game thriller of a Western Conference Final. Their final test was the Eastern Conference Champion Springfield Thunderbirds, and after a Game 1 loss in overtime, the Wolves steamrolled Springfield over the next four games to claim the Calder Cup.
Leading Scorer: Andrew Poturalski: 28 goals, 73 assists, 101 points.
Goals For: 261 (1st in AHL) Goals Against: 194 (4th in AHL)
Powerplay: 19.6% (12th in AHL)
Penalty Kill: 83.2% (5th in AHL)
- Malte Strömwall – In losing nearly every veteran winger on the Wolves’ roster, Carolina GM Don Waddell and Director of Hockey Operations Aaron Schwartz looked to retool this depth from overseas. Strömwall spent the last three seasons in the KHL, and with nine seasons of professional hockey under his belt, will be leaned on as that veteran presence on the wing of Chicago’s young centers. Strömwall is also no stranger to the AHL, having played 44 games with the Hartford Wolfpack in the 2016-17 season. In training camp and preseason, Strömwall showed off his quick release as potential to be a top scorer for the Wolves this year. He’ll be just one piece of the puzzle trying to replace the 48 goals left behind by Stefan Noesen’s callup to the Hurricanes.
- Zachary Sawchenko – The Wolves’ depth in net last season was paramount to leading them to the league’s best record. With the departures of Alex Lyon, Eetu Makiniemi, Jack LaFontaine, Beck Warm, and Dylan Wells, that depth has all but disappeared. Behind goaltending phenom Pyotr Kochetkov, the Hurricanes signed Sawchenko to shore up their strength in net. While Kochetkov should get the bulk of starts in Chicago, it’s not guaranteed that he’ll be in Chicago full-time. Considering the injury concerns of Carolina’s goalies (that saw Kochetkov having to suit up and even play NHL playoff games), there could be a chance that Sawchenko could see considerable time in Chicago’s crease.
- Anttoni Honka – Perhaps hit hardest in the exodus of talent this summer was the Wolves’ blue line. Powerplay quarterback Joey Keane left for the KHL. Jalen Chatfield looks to have played his way onto the Hurricanes full-time. Josh Jacobs signed in Colorado. Jesper Sellgren and Tarmo Reunanen returned to their home leagues in Scandinavia. These holes open the door for Honka: a puck-moving right-handed defender making his North American debut this season. The gaps in Chicago’s blue line mean a lot of learning for Honka will have to be on the fly, but the opportunities for success will be plenty for the young defender.
- O Captain My Captain: It starts and ends with former captain Andrew Poturalski. Since 2019, the AHL has been Poturalski’s playground, racking up two Calder Cup championships, two AHL regular season scoring titles, and one playoff MVP in that span. Not a big deal. The Wolves will be looking not only to replace Poturalski’s 100 points but also his leadership on the ice and in the locker room.
- The Entire Second Line: For as much a force as Poturalski, Noesen, and Richard Panik were on the Wolves’ top line in the postseason, it was the line of playoff MVP Josh Leivo, rookie phenom Jack Drury and sparkplug David Gust that set the tone in the postseason. Leivo departed for the St. Louis Blues and while Drury will start the season in Chicago, its not very likely that he remains for most of the season. Gust – a native of Illinois – stayed close to home with a contract with the rival Rockford IceHogs, making replicating the Central Division crown for the Wolves much more challenging.
- Bench Boss: The lineup wasn’t featuring the only holes in the locker room for the Wolves; over the summer, Wolves head coach Ryan Warsofsky accepted a position on the bench of the San Jose Sharks as an assistant coach. With two Calder Cups on his resume in the Carolina system and a 105-46-11-7 record as head coach, it wasn’t a matter of if but when Warsofsky would get the call to the NHL. His replacement, Brock Sheahan, comes from the USHL’s Chicago Steel and has the immense task of having to fill the shoes of a coaching giant in Chicago.
2022-23 Schedule Breakdown
The Wolves begin with the banner raising of their championship season on Saturday, October 15 against a familiar foe in the Milwaukee Admirals. In fact, most of Chicago’s opponents this coming season are the usual suspects. Their in-state rivals in Rockford are the most common face on the schedule with a staggering twelve meetings all season long; a number shared along with the Admirals with both teams looking for revenge with improved rosters after last postseason.
However, there will be a new face for Wolves fans to see on the schedule, as Chicago will face off against the Tucson Roadrunners in a rare Pacific Division home-and-home. January 24 and 25 will see the Wolves heading to Arizona, while on February 25 and 26 Wolves fans can see the Roadrunners at Allstate Arena. The only other opponent outside the Central Division on the schedule is the Cleveland Monsters, with whom the Wolves will split eight games in four weekend sets between Ohio and Illinois.
The rest of the standard 72-game schedule will be split among Chicago’s Central division rivals in Manitoba, Grand Rapids, Iowa, and Texas. The 2022-23 schedule also features four school-day games: three at Allstate Arena with 11 a.m. CST starts and one in Milwaukee with a 10:30 a.m. CST puck drop. One piece of schedule trivia to wrap up: from October 15 to April 16, the Wolves don’t play a single Monday game in their regular season schedule.
Top Storylines for 2022-23
- Suffering From Success: With nearly every key contributor in the 21/22 lineup leaving for bigger opportunities elsewhere, the Chicago Wolves will have to form a brand new identity with several different looks up and down the lineup. Key roles will be given to young players like Honka, Vasili Ponomarev, and Noel Gunler to take the next step in their development to lead the Wolves back to contention for a division crown. While the return of crucial defender Max Lajoie and the additions of Strömwall and Mackenzie MacEachern add a veteran presence to the team, the youth will have to step up as top contributors for this team to succeed in 22/23.
- Healthy Middle: A big piece of the puzzle for the Wolves’ success this coming season is the health of Ryan Suzuki. Suzuki, a first-round draft choice in 2019, impressed last season when he managed to stay on the ice. However, he only managed to play in 34 out of 76 regular season games for the Wolves and couldn’t recover for the postseason. Hopes were that Suzuki would be healthy enough to come into October potentially as Chicago’s top center, but his absence from prospect and training camps combined with his practicing in a non-contact jersey has drawn concerns about Suzuki’s ability to stay in the lineup. If Suzuki can stay healthy, he and Ponomarev create a problem for Central Division foes down the middle with their 200-foot prowess. Unfortunately, it’s a big “if” for the Wolves.
- Pyotr the Great: One of the biggest stories of last year was the late-season addition of Kochetkov to the Wolves’ goaltending ranks. Kochetkov jumped into the scene and immediately became a fan favorite in Chicago with a 13-1-1 record and a swagger that’s become infectious in the locker room and in the stands. Kochetkov took his game to another level in the postseason with a 5-1 record and an absurd 1.65 GAA to go with a .950 save percentage, including his first two shutouts in North America. The Wolves are sure to lean on Kochetkov heavily, and if he keeps up a similar level of play, he could be an early favorite for the Aldege “Baz” Bastien Memorial Award as the AHL’s top goaltender.
Prediction Sure to Go Right:
Vasili Ponomarev will emerge as the Wolves’ top center. Ponomarev’s skill was on display on last year’s team even as he was buried in the depth chart. As the opportunities emerge and Ponomarev’s game grows, his playmaking, vision, and responsible defensive play will elevate him as the Wolves’ top center – especially with the absence of Suzuki for a possible lengthy duration.
Prediction Sure to Go Wrong:
The Chicago Wolves will repeat as Central Division champions. The exodus of talent may be alarming to Wolves’ fans, especially considering some of the build-ups in Rockford, Milwaukee, and Grand Rapids. The Carolina organization, however, prides itself in its depth at all positions. Several areas on the Wolves’ roster remain loaded with talent and, perhaps most importantly, championship experience. Along with a new coach that knows what it takes to rise to the top and win, this Wolves team won’t be going anywhere.
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