What's behind Chicago Wolves resurgent season?
When a team such as the Chicago Wolves fail to make to playoffs after a long history of postseason success, a change in team philosophy is often needed.
Wolves coach Craig Berube says this year's players clearly are responding well to last year's disappointing season. The Wolves, now in their 23rd season, are in second place in the AHL's Central Division with a 33-17-4 record, just behind Grand Rapids at 35-16-1, which also has 73 points.
"First and foremost, we've gotten this group to play for each other and work together on the ice. Our success is based upon that," the 50-year-old Berube said. "When look at our team and the players who've been here … these guys play for each other and compete. That's why they've been successful thus far."
This season, the Wolves are led by players such as defenseman Vince Dunn, center Wade Megan and blue-liner Jordan Schmaltz, who was recently called up to the team's NHL affiliate, the St. Louis Blues.
"All of these guys we have here really want to win. They put the team ahead of themselves," Berube said. "Day in and day out, the coaching staff develops players for the NHL, but at the same time win hockey games. That's our goal and it's working so far."
After joining the AHL for the 2000-2001 season, the Wolves hit the ice fast by winning the Calder Cup twice, most notably in their first season after the IHL folded. Along the way, the franchise posted 20 consecutive winning seasons. Last season, the Wolves compiled a 33-35 record and finished sixth in the Central.
The life of an American Hockey League team is complex, as many of the players are coming and going at the whim of the their NHL affiliate. Berube, who is in his second season as coach of the Wolves, said his message to his players stays the same no matter who's in the lineup.
"I think they go hand-in-hand. We have some young guys coming out of college who are first-year pros, so there's a learning curve for those kids, but developing players by teaching them the importance of winning and being a good team is important for development into the NHL," Berube said. "The first conversation is about what we expect. It really comes down to the work ethic and competitiveness of our team and the players that are here."
The Wolves' fan base, he said, has noticed the team's improvement this season.
"The fans are excited about the way we play," Berube said. "We're all thinking about one goal -- winning."
The improvement has come in several areas. Defensemen have accounted for 32 percent of the team's scoring this season (five defensemen with 20 or more goals), and Wolves players are not spending as much time in the penalty box.
Through 57 games, the Wolves have tallied 515 points and are averaging 3.39 goals per game, which is well ahead of last season's 2.55 average. Kenny Agostino leads the way with 63 points and 45 assists while center Wade Megan has a team high 25 goals.
With 19 games left in the regular season, the Wolves begin a three-game home ice stretch at Allstate Arena when they host the reigning Calder Cup champion Cleveland Monsters (25-23-3) at 7 p.m. Saturday, followed by a 3 p.m. Sunday game against the Manitoba Moose (22-27-3). They play Cleveland again at 7 p.m. Thursday, before a road match at Milwaukee (32-18-3) on March 11.