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Monday, October 15, 2007

The puck has dropped; Wolves tougher on D

Chicago’s 2007-8 hockey season has started with games Saturday for both the Chicago Blackhawks, winning an overtime game against the Detroit Red Wings and the Chicago Wolves at home, winning an overtime game against the Milwaukee Admirals.

The key story of the new season is the passing of Bill Wirtz, the controversial owner of the Blackhawks. This week saw the Hawks give Bob Pulford a “promotion” within the Wirtz-held companies. Fans critical of the management of the Hawks cheered the move, seeing Rocky Wirtz taking quick control of the long mismanaged team.

The Hawks made news too in the areas minor leagues as their American Hockey League affiliation moved from Norfolk, Va. to Rockford, Ill. The team, the once and future Rockford IceHogs, has struggled off the pad, with a 1-1 record, looking rather powerless against the Quad City Flames a week ago Saturday. Yet it is a team with great promise for promoting fierce rivalries and strong playoff possibilities.

The AHL Western Conference has had a significant tinkering over the summer, and a quick run through of the changes is in order. The Western Division had consisted of the Omaha Ak-Sar-Ben Knights, affiliated with the Calgary Flames; the Chicago Wolves, affiliated with the Atlanta Thrashers; the Milwaukee Admirals, affiliated with the Nashville Predators; the Iowa Stars who were affiliated with the Dallas Stars; the Peoria Rivermen, affiliated with the St. Louis Blues; the San Antonio Rampage, affiliated with the Phoenix Coyotes; and the Houston Aeros, affiliated with the Minnesota Wild. The teams finished the regular season in the order of that list, with the Peoria Rivermen just edged out of gaining a wild card seed into the North Division, over the Grand Rapids Griffins.

The Rockford team joins this crowd. The former Norfolk Admirals have made the playoffs each of the last five years in the Eastern Division. That division featured a very tight race for first among three tough teams, including the Admirals. The Hawks, who have by-passed the AHL with two of their top prospects, Jonathan Toews and Mike Kane, still have a powerful team on the ice. Figure that this team will be in the playoffs again in the Western Division.

The Milwaukee Admirals have lost a number of key players as the Nashville organization has gone through a fire sale. The biggest loss, however, was Coach Claude Noel to the Columbus Blue Jackets. Many people, including this writer, expected Pekka Rinne, their goalie, to be a sure thing in the NHL this season. However, he is back in net in Milwaukee instead. Figure on a weaker Admiral team probably not making the playoffs this season.

The San Antonio Rampage has finally let the lackluster Pat Conacher go. The team was a graveyard of prospect hopes, as the organization above seemed to crush their interest in winning. With the former Grand Rapids Griffins coach, Greg Ireland, now in control, figure on the Rampage to be competitive for the final playoff spot for the first time.

The Quad City Flames are basically the same as the Omaha Ak-Sar-Ben Knights from the previous season, with new local ownership in Moline. This team has played together for three years, without a lot of personnel changes. They won the Western Division last season. They will be competing for a playoff spot.

Peoria has just missed making it to the playoffs for two seasons. Their playoff hopes were for two seasons. Now with another team in the Western Division, teams will be under even greater pressure to perform. Peoria now joins four other teams in Northern Illinois and one, the Rockford, feeding players to another NHL team in its parents division. Expect them to compete for a playoff spot too.

The Wolves--- they are back with a better blue line and maybe a better scoring line too. Plus, with Fred Brathwaite and the Atlanta prospect Ondrej Pavelec in goal, the final line of defense should be even tougher. It was the weakness of the Atlanta system last season that it depended on the health of one person: Kari Lehtonen. Now, with a prospect being developed and good people to back Lehtonen in both Blueland and Chicago, both the Wolves and Atlanta should be in better position for their playoff runs. The Wolves will be playing for one of the four playoff spots again this season.

Brathwaite, considered a key player in the playoff run last spring, is a well respected veteran player whose game-three shutout of the Calder-Cup winning Hamilton Bulldogs was a highlight of the 2007 season, is probably near the end of his playing career. From a come from behind victory in the Memorial Cup to the NHL and the Russian Super League, Brathwaite has seen a great deal. His charge, 20 year-old Pavelec, will be in his first professional season. The Czech native is being groomed to play in Atlanta.

Darren Haydar, the regular season AHL MVP, and line-mate Jason Krog are returning to the Wolves. Together with Brent Sterling and sometime linemate Jordan LaVallee, their line made up the highest scoring line in the AHL last season. Krog, who played in Atlanta and for the New York Rangers last season, played with great heart in the 2007 playoffs. While Haydar, formerly a Milwaukee Admiral winger, has not been able to stick to the Atlanta line-up. Called to Atlanta this week following a minor injury to Ilya Kovalchuk, he now wears the C for the Wolves. Expect him to return within 30 days to Chicago. [10/16/07 Correction: it was Atlanta Thrasher Marian Hossa, who suffered a groin injury, not Ilya Kovalchuk. Darren Haydar was brought in to cover the opening in Atlanta this week. Haydar continues to play in Atlanta, although Hossa has returned from injury.]

In a development league, like the AHL, the blue line is always a place for turmoil. One of the best things to have happened to the Wolves blue line in 2007 was the loss of Atlanta’s number one draft pick, Braydon Coburn. Whatever magic Coburn had, was not evident in either Atlanta or Chicago last season. The blue line notably improved when he was traded.

Today’s blue line has big and short-tempered Boris Valabik, Nathan Oystrick and Brian Sipotz anchoring it. Newcomer Chad Denny has a wicked slap shot while Scott Lehman, Karel Pilar, prospect Grant Lewis and Brian Fahey have all shown great promise. It is the best blue line in many years on the team and starts stronger than the blue line that competed for the Western Conference title last season.

The outlook, another high scoring season with a better defense backing it. It should be a deadly combination for Wolves foes. The next home game is Friday, October 19 at the Allstate Arena against the Rockford IceHogs.

1 comment:

Maal said...

Hi, we linked to this post on our blog. Just wanted to give you a heads up :)