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Thursday, January 18, 2007

Wolves falling short: Is it Atlanta's fault?

Wash your sweaters, get the grill out. The Wolves slide has started a new season. The 5-4 loss to the North Division fifth place Toronto Marlies on Wednesday brought the Wolves opponents within striking distance of taking the lead from the Wolves. Just two points ahead of the Omaha Ak-Sar-Ben Knights, the Wolves have blown a substantial lead, gaining just 13 points since December 18.

Darren Haydar, the league’s top scorer has continued to score, although the streak of goals and assists which at one point threatened to topple a twenty-three year old record held by Wayne Gretzky ended. Still the 39 games in a row in which Darren Haydar scored either a goal or an assist rank among the top five professional runs.

And, the Wolves have a rookie, Brent Sterling, who has twice won rookie of the month. Sterling is ranked third for points in the American Hockey League and tops the league with 35 goals.

What has prevented the Wolves from winning recently? December saw injuries and call-ups that disrupted the lines. Most recently, Boris Valabik, injured during a December 29th game in Peoria is expected back at any time. Since he’s been gone the blue line has called up several promising rookies and prospects from the Gwinnett Gladiators. But the defense is still suffering. Jason Krog, part of the high scoring line with Darren Haydar and Brent Sterling, was called up to the Atlanta Thrashers on December 12th. Further turmoil in the Wolves lines in December included a call-up of former captain Derek MacKenzie on December 21st. Krog was sent to waivers last week by the Thrashers. The New York Rangers picked him up and he is now playing there. If the Rangers release him, which isn’t likely right now, he would probably end up back in Chicago. MacKenzie was sent back to Chicago without incident.

The other problems are in the nets. First let’s set the top of the league. Jaroslav Halak of the Hamilton Bulldogs is stopping 93.5 percent of shots and has a goals against average of 1.92. Karl Goehring, who was supposed to back Pekka Rinne in Milwaukee, is ranked 17th with a 2.66 GAA and stopping 90.9 percent of shots.

For the Chicago Wolves, Fred Brathwaite ranks 20th on this list, with a 2.75 GAA and stopping 89.7 percent of shots. And, Brathwaite, the Wolves leading goalie, is credited with 12 wins, seven losses and 2 shoot-out losses. Michael Garnett is ranked 39th on the list with a 3.42 GAA and stopping 88.8 percent of shots, has a win loss of 13 – 8. The AHL is only ranking 46 goalies, meaning Brathwaite, a veteran, is ranked just better than average, while Garnett is near the bottom.

Clearly at least one of the problems the Wolves have is they can’t stop an effective offense. The problem is not limited to the Wolves. Further into the Thrashers organization, at the top there is Kari Lehtonen. Lehtonen, who suffered a groin injury early in the previous season, is ranked 21st among NHL goalies, with a GAA of 2.78, stopping 91.2 percent of shots. Backing Lehtonen is Johan Hedberg. Have you heard of him? If his cold hand has to play, he has a GAA of 3.17 and is stopping 88.1 percent.

In the Gwinnett Gladiators of the ECHL are Atlanta prospects Dan Turple and Dave Caruso. Caruso and Turple have about split the season at the Gladiators, Caruso playing 18 games and Turple 21.

Turple, ranked 35th among 40 ranked goalies in the league, has a 3.58 GAA and an 87.7 save percentage, winning 11 and losing 7 games with a shutout loss. Caruso is ranked 30th in the league, has a 3.41 GAA, and an 89.3 percent save. Top scorers and a strong group of prospect blue liners have allowed the Gladiators to be ranked 3rd in the ECHL, tied in points with ECHL champion Alaska Aces and the Florida Everblades.

The Thrashers have built a fragile group of goalies. Lehtonen, who played in 40 games this season, has been a wall, bringing the Thrashers to the top of the Southeast Division and fifth overall in the NHL in points. But if he falls, who will the Thrashers put in the net? Who will get the call from Chicago?

It is a bad situation. Everything is riding on the back of one person, Lehtonen. If he falls, things will only get worse in Atlanta, Chicago and Gwinnett.

Wrist Shots:
1) Glen Falls, NY, which lost the UHL Adirondack Frostbite last season in a league contraction, is looking again at minor league hockey. This is the first season since 1980 that the town has not been home to a minor league hockey club.
2) The ECHL Cincinnati Cyclones are off to a terrible start with an average attendance of less than 2,000. There could be a reason the AHL left town.
3) Allentown, PA has received a study giving a thumbs up to trying to obtain a minor league team. The study compares the region favorably to Wilkes-Barre, one of the hottest minor league hockey markets in the country.
4) Bentonville, AK, home to Wal-Mart, is getting an eye from the ECHL, local leaders say. A team would help fill a new arena being built there.
5) The list of cities hoping Pittsburgh and the Penguins fail to reach an agreement: Houston, Kansas City and Winnipeg. The list of cities that should be added but won’t: Oklahoma City, Portland, OR. The next meeting is set for Wednesday night or Thursday morning.

A couple of news items that I saw that haven't been widely reported but may deserve some more attention:

The Flint Generals have accused their former coach of entering their locker room during a January 6th game, perhaps taking note of game strategy. The story is from MLive. The UHL is investigating and warning it will discipline Elmira head coach Robbie Nichols if he entered the Generals locker room.

A New Year's Eve game between the Muskegon Fury and the Quad City Mallards saw the Fury coach, Bruce Ramsay, ejected after he objected to an on-ice officials call, thoriwing sticks on the ice in protest. The Muskegon Chronicle reported in MLive.com that there were 28 penalites in the game. Nineteen of the penalties were against the Fury, including 11 in the third period.

Well, maybe that's all the attention they really deserve after all!

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