CLEVELAND, OH – JANUARY 26: Chicago Wolves left wing Daniel Carr (7) controls the puck during the second period of the American Hockey League game between the Chicago Wolves and Cleveland Monsters on January 26, 2019, at Quicken Loans Arena in Cleveland, OH.
Photo by Frank Jansky / Icon Sportswear
NHL Prospects

AHL PLAYOFF RUN: Chicago Wolves off to Final for Rapidly Growing Vegas Golden Knights System

The Charlotte Checkers have a new dance partner.

Charlotte eliminated the Toronto Marlies in a six-game Eastern Conference Final to earn a spot in the Calder Cup Final. Now joining them will be the Chicago Wolves, who finished off the San Diego Gulls on Monday night to take the Western Conference Final in six games. Game 1 of the Wolves-Checkers series will be Saturday night at Charlotte.

The series will pit the top point leaders in each conference as well as bringing a fresh look to the final round of the AHL season. The Checkers finished as the AHL regular-season champion with a 51-17-7-1 record that gave them 110 points. With a 44-22-6-4 mark, the Wolves’ 98 points topped the Western Conference.


Charlotte is the first Carolina Hurricanes/Hartford Whalers AHL affiliate to reach the Calder Cup Final since 1991. That year, their former Springfield affiliate took the organization’s lone AHL championship. For the Wolves, who are in their second season with the parent Vegas Golden Knights, they are both new and old at this. With the Golden Knights entering the NHL as an expansion club for the 2017-18 season, the Wolves are their first AHL affiliate to reach a final. For the Wolves themselves, who entered the AHL in 2001, they will make their fourth trip to a Calder Cup Final. They made trips in 2002, 2005, and 2008 as an affiliate of the then-Atlanta Thrashers.

However, the Wolves had to survive two first-round elimination games even to continue their playoff journey. From there they knocked out the Iowa Wild in a six-game second-round series before meeting the Gulls. San Diego took a 2-1 series lead before the Wolves checked off three consecutive wins. Monday’s win marked the third time this postseason that they have won a series on home ice, where they are 7-2.

With an NHL parent team in only its second season, the Wolves have had a unique history with the Golden Knights. Last season they utilized a number of players on loan from the St. Louis Blues. When the Blues began a new affiliation with the San Antonio Rampage before this season, the Wolves had to rely exclusively on players under contract to the Golden Knights as well as a handful of AHL-contracted signings.

That means that the Wolves only have two NHL Draft classes, 2017 and 2018, to tap. Two of those 2017 draftees, forward Nick Suzuki and defenseman Erik Brännström, have already been packaged in separate trades that brought Max Pacioretty and Mark Stone to Las Vegas. They do not have any 2018 draftees on their Calder Cup Playoff roster.

But that 2017 class is already blossoming for the Wolves, something that should eventually yield rewards for the NHL parent club. This postseason AHL success comes at an opportune time for the Golden Knights, who will need to lighten the payroll with four pending unrestricted free-agents, two more restricted free-agents, and tight cap room staring at them this summer.


Fortunately for Vegas management, they have a number of young – and affordable – Wolves faces making strong bids for potential vacancies in Las Vegas next season.

Heading the class has been forward Cody Glass, the sixth overall pick in that 2017 Draft. Along with a 15-54-69 injury-interrupted regular season for the WHL’s Portland Winterhawks, he also went 2-4-6 at the IIHF World Junior Championship, his first time representing Canada at that level. After returning to play the Winterhawks’ final playoff game, he headed to the AHL the week that he turned 20. His arrival came at a much-needed time for the Wolves, who had lost AHL MVP Daniel Carr and Brooks Macek to injuries in March.

Glass finished the Wolves’ regular season, going 3-2-5 in six games. He took a firm spot in their line-up and has since gone 6-6-12 in 17 playoff contests, putting him second in AHL rookie playoff scoring. In that time he has found chemistry with Tomas Hyka and posted a goal and assist in the Wolves’ Game 5 victory that put them in position to finish off the Gulls in Game 6.

On the blue line stands 20-year-old rookie Nic Hague, all 6-foot-6 of him. The Wolves drive a large portion of their patient, deliberate offence from the blue line, and Hague is a key part of that. With his booming shot, he ranked fifth among AHL defenders in the regular season with 171 shots in 75 games. Through 17 playoff games, he has put 33 shots on net. After a 13-19-32 regular season, he is 3-6-9 in the postseason, tying him for third among blueliners.

Leading the list of top-scoring AHL blueliners in the Calder Cup Playoffs is Zach Whitecloud, a free-agent signing. Another rookie for Chicago Wolves head coach Rocky Thompson’s defence corps, Whitecloud is 22-years-old. He has gone 2-10-12 in 17 playoff games following a 6-22-28 regular season. He also handled the adjustment from his NCAA schedule at Bemidji State and dressed for 74 regular-season games.

Without a long list of draft classes, savvy free-agent signings instead have helped to bulk up the Golden Knights’ organizational depth chart. Along with Whitecloud is another undrafted rookie, 21-year-old Dylan Coghlan, who returned to the line-up for Game 5 in San Diego after missing the team’s first 15 playoff games. Golden Knights management signed him out the of the WHL after an impressive development camp performance in 2017. He quickly adapted to the AHL game and finished 15-25-40. His 15 goals led all AHL defensemen in the regular season while his 40 points placed third. Another blueliner who embraced the shoot-first mentality, Coghlan pounded 143 shots on net in the regular season.

In net Oskar Dansk is 25-years-old, but, well, history sometimes has shown that age need not necessarily hold back a goaltender’s NHL possibilities. Dansk, a 2012 second-round pick by Columbus, has taken the scenic route to this point. After turning pro in 2014 and spending one season in the Columbus system, he went to the SHL for two seasons with Rögle BK. He earned a one-year deal with the Golden Knights in July 2017, which eventually yielded a two-year extension that has him under contract to the organization through 2019-20. That could put him in line to challenge for a back-up role with the Golden Knights next season.

Thompson alternated between Dansk and Max Lagacé in the first round. But Lagacé stumbled slightly, and Dansk has taken over since then. Since Game 3 of the first round, Lagacé has played only once, and that was Game 5 at San Diego in a stretch of three games in four nights. Dansk is 9-5 | 2.16 | .921 in 14 playoff games. He owned a 27-9-4 | 2.46 | .913 regular-season record in 40 games.


Dansk’s numbers represent, in part, a months-long change that Thompson has guided since personnel losses hit his line-up. Veteran sniper Brandon Pirri earned a full-time promotion to the Golden Knights in December. At the time, the Wolves’ ample firepower – aided by a healthy shooting percentage – allowed them to attack opponents relentlessly. They averaged 3.89 goals per game for the first third of the season and possessed a 13.3 shooting percentage. Pirri alone piled up 18 goals in 29 games. Macek ran his goal total to 15 after 27 games.

But by the time Brännström departed in the Stone trade with the Ottawa Senators, the Wolves’ in-season makeover had already started. That came in handy when Carr and Macek went out in March with long-term injuries.

Ultimately they improved their penalty kill from 25th to 11th and knocked down their goals-against mark from 3.26 (20th overall) to a third-overall 2.62. They will jump on teams early and have struck first in 11 of their 17 playoff games. That attack-first mentality goes back to the regular season when they scored first a league-best 48 times. Their formula has carried into the postseason as well. Averaging 2.94 goals per game, they also are holding opponents to 28.4 shots per game. With Dansk in strong form, that has them at 2.65 goals-against per game.

In Game 6, San Diego outshot the Wolves, 12-5, in the first period. Before that, however, the Wolves’ plus-25 first-period shot differential ranked second in the postseason (the Bakersfield Condors, eliminated a round earlier by San Diego, finished plus-26).


Veteran-wise, the Wolves are well-stocked. Carr returned at the start of the Iowa series and immediately resumed his production. He is 5-5-10 in 12 games after a 30-41-71 regular season that was cut short to 52 games. Hyka, at 3-11-14, leads the team in scoring. Curtis McKenzie, who put up 11 goals for the Texas Stars in their run to the Calder Cup Final last season, added two more strikes in Game 6 and is up to a team-best eight goals and 47 shots in 17 games.

Matching against Charlotte should provide these young Golden Knights prospects with one more major test before they head home for the summer. The Wolves’ confidently deliberate set of forwards will face Charlotte’s high-pressure relentless puck pursuit. And the Wolves’ group of rookie blueliners will have to contend with Charlotte’s consistently heavy forecheck, something that the Checkers used to grind down Toronto most recently.

NHL management teams love to see their prospects tested by the best competition possible, and that should be exactly what the Golden Knights-Wolves union sees for the next two weeks.

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