📝 by Patrick Williams
A productive Monday for the Chicago Wolves set up a fruitful Tuesday as well.
The Wolves headlined the American Hockey League trade/loan deadline on Monday, bringing three major pieces into their lineup for what they hope will be a long run through the Calder Cup Playoffs.
To start the day’s activity, the parent Carolina Hurricanes acquired blue line prospect Tarmo Reunanen from the New York Rangers for Wolves center Maxim Letunov. Reunanen, 24, had supplied 17 points (two goals, 15 assists) in 40 games with the Hartford Wolf Pack and immediately provides Wolves head coach Ryan Warsofsky with a proven option for a blue line dealing with injuries.
“[The Rangers] didn’t do it easily, put it that way,” Wolves general manager Wendell Young said of landing Reunanen. “It was tough.”
Reunanen, a 2016 draft pick by the Rangers, was voted to the Atlantic Division AHL All-Star Team during the abbreviated 2020-21 season, and made his NHL debut with New York as well.
“I think he moves the puck well,” Young said. “He shoots well. I think he, like a lot of players, just needs a different venue to play in. And quite honestly, with him playing here, we’re going to see him up close, Carolina’s going to see him up close, and we’ll go from there. But a change of scenery is [often] good for a player in his situation, and we’re trying to provide that.”
That said, fortifying the roster with Reunanen also meant losing a valuable player in Letunov.
“We lost Letunov, who was an absolute model citizen on and off the ice for us,” Young said. “It was tough. But we had to do it.
“With moving [Letunov], we had room for another forward.”
Young went to work to find that replacement. And with the Bridgeport Islanders needing to find playing time for everyone on their roster, Young worked that possibility and managed to acquire veteran NHL forward Richard Panik on loan from the New York Islanders.
Panik, a veteran of 521 NHL games, had 12 points (seven goals, five assists) in 28 games with Bridgeport this season. He also brings AHL playoff experience with him to the Wolves, having won the 2012 Calder Cup with the Norfolk Admirals as a Tampa Bay Lightning rookie prospect. He went to the Calder Cup Finals a year later with the Syracuse Crunch, delivering 14 points (nine goals, five assists) in 16 games on that playoff run.
AHL rules limit the number of “veteran” players a team can dress for any game.
“[Bridgeport] had a vet issue, and I said, “I will relieve that for you for the rest of the season,” Young chuckled, tongue firmly in cheek.
Going to Chicago, where he played parts of three seasons with the Blackhawks, brings Panik back to a familiar place. It also puts him in a position to take more ice time with the Wolves.
“He’s still under contract next year with the Islanders,” Young said of Panik’s opportunity. “It’s a chance for him to play [more] and go from there. It’s not [easy] when you’re a vet, any vet, sitting out because of numbers.”
To round out the day, Young brought in veteran defender Chris Bigras from the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins for future considerations. Bigras, a seventh-year pro, had 10 points (three goals, seven assists) in 28 games in his first season with the Penguins. Like Reunanen, he further deepens the Chicago defense corps, depth that will be tested in the event of a long push through the postseason.
“[Bigras] brings an edge to our team,” Young continued. “Just a downright hard-working guy. He brings a little bit of an edge that we don’t have. So that was a big component for us. We’re pretty close to being modeled like the Carolina Hurricanes. But we needed a little more strength in front of the net and in the corners.
“He fit the bill perfectly.”
There might have been more movement around the league, but Young theorized that the AHL’s expanded playoff format means that most teams preferred to continue with their current rosters as they contend for one of the 23 playoff berths available.
With so many teams still in playoff races ― either to lock down a berth or to battle for positioning ― across the AHL’s four divisions, Young ran into that challenge.
“Now it’s a lot different,” said Young, who has been in this role since 2009. “This year was tough. I spoke to a lot of GM’s, and it was like no one was doing anything. Personally, I got lucky with what happened. Everything kind of fell in place for me, and I got lucky.
“Making three moves, if you asked me this three or four days ago, I didn’t have any moves. It’s a lot different. So it’s a tougher grind in that aspect.”
Chicago did not have to wait long to implement Monday’s moves. On Tuesday, the Wolves took a 4-2 road win against the Cleveland Monsters and became the third team to clinch a berth in the Calder Cup Playoffs this spring.
Down 2-1 going into the third period, the Wolves struck twice in 19 seconds to secure their league-leading 40th victory. At 40-11-5-5 (.738), Chicago continues to gain ground on the AHL-leading Stockton Heat (.755) heading into a three-game weekend that starts Friday in Milwaukee.
With the Hurricanes second overall in the National Hockey League standings and capable of a lengthy march through the Stanley Cup Playoffs, Monday’s moves also hedge against potential player recalls from the Wolves. And with an April schedule packed with 15 games, adding this trio offers insurance against any additional injuries.
Now the Hurricanes-Wolves affiliation that began last season has a strong chance to pursue both the Stanley Cup and Calder Cup this June. No NHL organization has pulled off that feat since the New Jersey Devils and Albany River Rats did so in 1995. Carolina prospects won the Calder Cup in 2019 with the Charlotte Checkers, defeating the Wolves (then partnered with the Vegas Golden Knights) in five games.
“We’re always trying to win the Calder Cup,” Young said. “We don’t have a standard of ‘Let’s make the playoffs.’
“We have a mandate to develop, and we have a mandate to win. That’s a good mix.”
Let’s break down the deadline’s implications beyond the Wolves:
HARTFORD WOLF PACK (NEW YORK RANGERS)
No question, no team would want to lose someone like Letunov. He completed his Wolves tenure in style, scoring two third-period goals in Sunday’s 5-2 win at Iowa. The well-respected 26-year-old, who had spent the past three seasons with the San Jose Barracuda before signing with Carolina in the offseason, provided 23 points (13 goals, 10 assists) in 60 games for the Wolves.
With the Wolf Pack having lost key center Morgan Barron to the Winnipeg Jets organization at last week’s NHL trade deadline, Letunov, a University of Connecticut product, can replenish some of that depth down the middle in Hartford. The Wolf Pack (29-23-5-2, .551), fourth in the Atlantic Division, are trying to fend off contenders below them while possibly taking a run at third-place Charlotte. They visit Wilkes-Barre/Scranton tonight.
ROCHESTER AMERICANS (BUFFALO SABRES)
Rochester needed defensive help. And they found it.
The Amerks acquired experienced pro Mark Alt from the Barracuda for forward Mason Jobst. Dealing with the loss of Brandon Davidson to injury for the season, Rochester was burned by the Syracuse Crunch and Bridgeport for 11 goals in two games this past weekend and ranks 29th in the league in goals allowed per game (3.71).
In comes Alt with 451 AHL games behind him as a dependable 6-foot-4, 201-pound defensive stalwart who can be a seamless fit for head coach Seth Appert. He will also supply another leader for the Rochester dressing room, having worn a letter for the Barracuda, Ontario Reign, Colorado Eagles, and Lehigh Valley Phantoms. At 30-24-5-3 (.548) and sixth in the North Division, the Amerks are fully immersed in a fierce stretch-drive battle with four other clubs going into tonight’s home date with the Utica Comets.
SPRINGFIELD THUNDERBIRDS (ST. LOUIS BLUES)
Springfield’s blue line has undergone a rather substantial makeover this month.
St. Louis acquired Grand Rapids Griffins alternate captain Luke Witkowski in a deadline trade with the Detroit Red Wings last week, then added defenseman Brady Lyle from the Boston Bruins organization at the AHL deadline. The 22-year-old Lyle had been with the Providence Bruins, where he had nine points (two goals, seven assists) in 48 games as a second-year pro, and could be a potential offensive supplement in Springfield. Last season as a rookie out of the Ontario Hockey League, he had 14 points (seven goals, seven assists) in just 25 appearances for the P-Bruins.
With Calle Rosen still on recall to St. Louis, Lyle is a high-quality reinforcement for the Thunderbirds, who will enter the final month of the season in first place in the Atlantic Division (34-20-5-2, .615).
Patrick Williams has been on the American Hockey League beat for nearly two decades for outlets including NHL.com, Sportsnet, TSN, The Hockey News, SiriusXM NHL Network Radio and SLAM! Sports. He is currently the co-host of the Around the A Podcast.
Patrick was the recipient of the AHL’s James H. Ellery Memorial Award for his outstanding coverage of the league in 2016.