Wolves in familiar Finals territory

Photo: Ross Dettman

📝 by Patrick Williams

Leave it to Chicago Wolves head coach Ryan Warsofsky to immediately cut to the point in his characteristically direct fashion.

Said Warsofsky after putting his team through practice Friday, “[I] get asked a lot, ‘Oh, do you focus more on developing or do you focus more on winning?’

“Can’t you focus on both?”

The Wolves have done plenty of both on their path to Game 1 of the Calder Cup Finals against the Springfield Thunderbirds on Sunday afternoon (4 ET, AHLTV).

Any good relationship takes plenty of work, and the union between the Wolves and the Carolina Hurricanes is no different. Both sides have put in that work needed in the early stages of a new American Hockey League affiliation.

“It’s taken a lot of work, a lot of communication between both organizations,” said Warsofsky, who has been with the Hurricanes organization since 2018. “Carolina’s obviously really big on developing the players, and I think the best way to do that is in a winning environment.

“You see it now in the [Stanley Cup] Playoffs, what these guys are witnessing. You hope Jack Drury witnesses that next year in Carolina on a deep playoff run. All of these experiences that these players are going through, I think are really important for their development.”

Warsofsky’s outlook on that development model has never wavered. He speaks from experience, too, even though three years can be a lifetime by AHL standards.

In Warsofsky’s first year with the Hurricanes, as an assistant coach with the Charlotte Checkers, his club powered through the Calder Cup Playoffs, eventually defeating the Wolves (then Vegas’s affiliate) in the 2019 Calder Cup Finals in five games. That championship capped a 15-4 postseason run that accompanied a 51-win regular season.

Forward Andrew Poturalski took the Jack A. Butterfield Trophy as the most valuable player of the 2019 Calder Cup Playoffs after his 23-point performance (12 goals, 11 assists) in 18 games.

Plenty has changed since that night the Checkers celebrated their championship on Allstate Arena ice. For one, the Wolves and Carolina joined forces before the 2020-21 season.

And there are a few familiar traces linking 2019 with this spring’s Chicago team. Warsofsky took over as head coach in Charlotte before the affiliation moved to Chicago in 2020. Poturalski now captains the Wolves following a two-season stint in the Anaheim Ducks organization. The Wolves roster also features defenseman Jesper Sellgren and forward Stelio Mattheos as holdovers from the 2018-19 Checkers.

One theme definitely has carried over, too: Hurricanes prospects are learning how to win and experiencing the highs and lows that come with a long fight for the Calder Cup. After denying Chicago’s championship bid three years ago, the goal is now to bring that Calder Cup back to the Wolves. The Wolves franchise is seeking its third Calder Cup title after winning it in 2002 and 2008.

“I think Chicago’s rich history of winning is almost contagious as a coach,” Warsofsky said. “When you get here, you see the banners. You see the pictures, and you want to be part of that.

“[Hurricanes head coach] Rod [Brind’Amour] wants competitive people and wants competitive players. I think we’re hopefully breeding some of that into these players, so when they get to that next level, they’ve already experienced certain situations. Late in the game, up 3-1, up 3-2, down a goal… Those are all things that you have to feel it, you have to experience it, and learn from it.”

As the Hurricanes’ affiliate did in Charlotte three years ago, the Wolves finished atop the AHL to win the Macgregor Kilpatrick Trophy during the regular season. Poturalski has been his usual productive self, winning his second consecutive league scoring title with 101 points. And with 14 points (five goals, nine assists) in 13 playoff games, he could capture another playoff MVP award too.

Sellgren jumped into the Charlotte lineup midway through that playoff run after completing his season in the Swedish Hockey League and played 11 games, becoming a key part of the Charlotte defense corps. Following two seasons back in Sweden, Sellgren, a 2018 draft pick by the Hurricanes, returned to the AHL and had a strong season on the Chicago blue line.

“Everything is a little bit harder,” Sellgren told reporters Friday. “It’s a little bit faster. It’s a little bit smarter.”

Mattheos has had his own challenges since lifting the Calder Cup. Two days after that championship night in 2019, Mattheos was diagnosed with testicular cancer. Rather than a summer spent celebrating, he spent it undergoing treatment in Winnipeg and beginning a long road back to resuming his pro career. This season he played 59 games for the Wolves in the regular season and has made himself a mainstay in the Chicago lineup during the playoffs.

The Wolves’ Calder Cup ties do not end there, either. Veteran forward Richard Panik, on loan to the Wolves from the New York Islanders organization, won a championship as a rookie with the Norfolk Admirals in 2012, playing for Jon Cooper as part of a dream season featuring a record 28-game winning streak.

A key part of the move to acquire Panik in March, Wolves general manager Wendell Young has been a member of the Wolves organization as a player, coach and executive since the franchise was formed in 1994 as members of the International Hockey League. Young also won a Calder Cup as a goaltender with a Hershey Bears team that went 12-0 through the 1988 postseason. And Wolves assistant coach Bob Nardella was a defenseman with Chicago’s 2002 Calder Cup championship team.

Now Warsofsky, Poturalski, Mattheos, Panik, Sellgren, Young, and Nardella could all have an opportunity to see their names on the Calder Cup again. Meeting with the Chicago media after practice Friday, Poturalski put it succinctly.

“This is what we work for – to be in a spot like this.”