BY THOMAS DRANCE
The Canucks’ AHL affilliate the Chicago Wolves enjoyed a hot start to the season. But as we pointed out at the time, their start was something of a mirage and some of their peripheral numbers (especially their special teams play, and goal differential) pointed to the forces of gravity rapidly bringing the club back down to Earth.
Of late the forces of gravity have come to pass, as the Wolves are currently mired in the midst of a three game losing streak and have only won three of their past ten games. They’ve also lost Eddie Lack – probably the best goaltender in the American Hockey League over the past couple of seasons – to the dreaded “lower body injury” for some length of time.
While it appears grim on the surface, the news is not all negative, as the Canucks prospects on the Wolves have been stand outs (Chris Tanev, Zack Kassian, Anton Rodin and Jordan Schroeder in particular) even while the team continues to bleed losses. Zack Kassian has been a physical force and after a bit of a lull has been scoring in bunches of late. Anton Rodin, who really struggled out of the gate, has found his stride and has begun to produce more regularly now that he’s being used on the half-wall on the power-play and is skating with sniper Brett Sterling at even-strength. Jordan Schroeder meanwhile has scored a couple of highlight real goals and seems to have properly triumphed over the early season doldrums.
The other good news is that where the Wolves were experiencing great puck luck, to start out as well as they did, they’re now unlucky to be losing so many games. Their penalty-kill, for example, has gone 20 for 25 over the past nine games, and their power-play has shown some signs of life (albeit nothing to get too excited about) relative to the inertia they displayed in their first handful of games this season. More importantly, the Wolves goaltending which was supposed to be the teams “ace in the hole” this season, has been absolutely woeful and that’s unlikely to continue.
Canucks prospect Eddie Lack – a 6’6 butterfly goalie with a superstar quality command of fan interaction – has a goals against average at 3, and a save percentage that sits below .900 at .898. That save percentage is .020 points below his career average in the AHL and is thus very likely to be unsustainably low. Now it’s possible that Eddie Lack’s early season struggles have been, in part, the result of this “lower body injury” he’s been battling: but once he returns to full health, it’s very likely that he’ll show better over the balance of the season than he has so far. The same goes for Matt Climie, whose career AHL save percentage sits just a tick about .915 in nearly 140 AHL appearances in his career.
Looking at the ratios at play, the Wolves will probably get much better goaltending between now and the end of the season than they have so far. Once that turns around for them, I expect they’ll begin to start winning games again. Overall, their season has been marked by streaky inconsistency which isn’t uncommon for a playoff bubble team this early in the season. That said, before the season had begun, the odds makers and most hockey pundits (myself included) expected the Wolves to be significantly better than simply a “playoff bubble team.”