“The way this season unfolded made me sick to my stomach. It should make everyone on the team sick to their stomach. I want to burn the game tapes, but instead I’ll keep them and watch them all offseason to make sure it never, ever happens again.”
Michigan Gray Wolves coach Ron Wright, after the Wolves finished in fourth place despite winning the first 12 games in a row
The Michigan Gray Wolves have a very distinct identity: they suffocate opponents with a fierce, trapping defense and elite goaltending from Dirk Lundquist, then they manage just enough offense to win. It’s a frustrating style for opponents, and not always the most fun to watch, but it’s been extremely effective over the years.
This season, however, the Wolves face more challenges than ever before. Not only are their traditional rivals, the Anchorage Igloos, experiencing their usual second-half surge, but the Seattle Sailors and Saskatchewan Shockers are turning in their best-ever seasons. Michigan is no longer guaranteed a postseason berth, and their old winning formula is showing signs of cracking as their offense has stagnated recently. All of this led coach Ron Wright to take the rare step of sounding off publicly after yet another low-scoring loss.
Wright’s postgame comments came during a particularly troubling stretch for the Wolves. They’d lost 8 of their last 11 games, falling out of first place and into third. Although their defense had its stumbles during this stretch – most notably an 8-2 blowout loss to Hamilton that started the slump – the offense was the primary culprit. The Wolves have scored more than two goals only once during the skid, and they’ve been shut out twice.
Tuesday’s game in Hershey was emblematic of Michigan’s recent struggles. The Wolves’ defense was successfully stifling the Bliss attack, but the offense generated little sustained pressure, a problem that was exacerbated by the parade of Wolves going to the penalty box, usually for avoidable minors. The game remained scoreless until the third, when the teams traded goals within an 11-second span. Bliss RW Remi Montrechere finally won it for the home team in overtime.
After the game, Wright was blunt in critiquing his team. “We’re not playing championship-caliber hockey right now,” the Michigan coach told reporters. “If we don’t rediscover our hunger and intensity over these last couple of weeks, we’re going to be watching the postseason from home. And we’re going to deserve it.”
Wright centered his heaviest fire on the offense, or lack thereof. “Our scoring attack isn’t really an attack at all,” Wright said. “When you’ve got a world-class goalie like the Bear, it’s easy to get complacent and count on him to do the heavy lifting. But he can’t put up a shutout every night, and we’re asking him to way too much.”
The coach didn’t spare himself from criticism, either. “I think some of our sets on offense and our approach has gotten stale,” Wright noted. “That’s on me and the coaching staff. We’ve got to freshen things up a bit. But we’ve also got to start playing like the Vandy depends on it. Because it does.”
The players acknowledged that Wright’s concerns were accurate. “We’ve been playing tired hockey lately,” said C Hunter Bailes. “We’ve got to step it up and play the way we know we can, and we’re running out of time to do it. And the leaders on the team, guys like me, it starts with us. We’ve got to find that extra push to get us going.”
Wright’s words appeared to fire up the Wolves in their next game against lowly Dakota, as Michigan’s offense came to life and launched 38 shots. Unfortunately, they ran into an unusually brilliant performance from Jackalopes netminder Christien Adamsson, who made 37 saves, giving his team time to claim another 2-1 overtime victory on a slapshot by Ryan Airston. They snapped their skid in the next game, however, bursting out for six goals against Kansas City.
Wright noted that the team’s current struggles might have a bright side. “Having to fight and claw our way into the postseason might actually be a good thing,” the coach said. “Last season, we were so far ahead all that we started cruising after the All-Star break. Then we got to postseason and we couldn’t flip the switch. This year, we’ll already be in playoff mode. So we should be a more dangerous team… as long as we actually get to the playoffs.”
On Monday, the Quebec Tigres activated D Ward Jones from the disabled list. Jones had missed more than a month with an upper-body that he suffered before the All-Star break. To make room for Jones on the active roster, the Tigres reassigned D Serge Rimbaud to their farm team in Maine. The 18-year-old Rimbaud appeared in 13 games with Quebec, recording 8 assists and a +1 rating.
Also on Monday, the Hamilton Pistols placed goaltender Lasse Koskinen on the disabled list. Koskinen suffered an upper-body injury during Sunday’s 7-4 win over New York. He is expected to miss 2 to 3 weeks, a serious blow for a Pistols team that is trying to snatch a playoff spot in the East. To replace Koskinen, the Pistols called up Hector Orinoco from their affiliate in Oshawa. The 23-year-old Orinoco has gone 13-11-0 with a 2.69 GAA and a .902 save percentage with Oshawa this season.
On Tuesday, the Tigres placed LW Stellan Fisker on the disabled list. Fisker suffered an upper-body injury during the Tigres’ 3-0 win over Hershey. He is expected to miss 3 to 4 weeks. To replace Fisker on the roster, the Tigres called up LW Carl Bleyer from their farm team in Maine. Bleyer has put up 26 points (8 goals, 18 assists) with the Moose on the year.
Wednesday was the trading deadline. The following trades were consummated at the deadline:
The New York Night traded RW Mickey Simpson, D Andy Ruger, and a 3rd-round draft pick to the Washington Galaxy for RW Nori Takoyaki. (More details here.) After making the trade, the Night promoted D Craig Werner from their farm team in Utah and signed D Sheldon Harville to a minor-league contract.
The Michigan Gray Wolves traded RW Cleo Rodgers, G Gus Parrish, and a 2nd-round pick to the Smoke in exchange for LW Kevin Starkey and D Scott Hexton. (More details here.) After the trade, Kansas City called up Parrish and LW Veikko Sikanen from their CHL affiliate in Omaha, and demoted G Jim Fleetwood to Omaha. They also released G Toby Kemper. Meanwhile, Michigan released D Igor Shovshenkov, demoted F Yann Eberlein to their affiliate in Cleveland, and signed Kemper to a minor-league deal.
The Saskatchewan Shockers traded C Tanner Brooks to the Dakota Jackalopes in exchange for D Rusty Anderson. (More details here.) After the trade, the Shockers demoted D Valeri Nistrumov to their farm team in Virginia. They also released D Knute Skoeglin and signed F Marvin Cascio to a minor-league deal.
The Hamilton Pistols traded C Pat Collistone, D Buster Kratz, and a 1st-round pick to the Galaxy in exchange for C Eddie Costello. (More details here.) After the trade, the Pistols called up D Russ Klemmer from their CHL affiliate in Oshawa, and demoted RW Michael Jennings to Oshawa. They also signed D Gresham Sourwine to a minor-league contract. The Galaxy demoted Kratz to their affiliate in Baltimore and promoted C Tucker Barnhill from Baltimore. They also released D Sheldon Harville.
The Quebec Tigres traded D Kirby Hanlon, C Jacob Cunniff, and a 1st-round pick to the Jackalopes in exchange for D Matt Cherner. (More details here.) After the trade, Dakota released RW Omar Zdurchek; Quebec then signed him to a minor-league deal.
Finally, the Seattle Sailors traded D Serkan Mratic to the Galaxy for D Stan Gallagher. (More details here.)
On Saturday, the Jackalopes activated D Rodney Black from the injured list. Black, who was sidelined in only his second SHL game, missed two and a half weeks with an upper-body injury. Since Dakota was one player short of the roster limit, they did not make a corresponding move.
Also on Saturday, the Hershey Bliss placed LW Lance Sweet on long-term injured reserve. Sweet was carried off the ice on a stretcher after being crunched into the boards late in the second period during Saturday’s 6-3 win over Saskatchewan. Sweet underwent surgery on his right leg, and is expected to be out for the rest of the season. To fill Sweet’s roster spot, Hershey called up D Seth Dowd from their CHL affiliate in Milwaukee. The 33-year-old Dowd, who last played in the SHL in 2016, recorded 27 points with Milwaukee this season.
The Michigan Gray Wolves have never been ones for the trade market. While other contenders have frequently used the trade deadline as a chance to patch weaknesses before the stretch run, the Wolves have always passed. In some cases, this has been because they were too far ahead to be caught. But it also seemed to be a matter of philosophy; Michigan tended to trust their own players, even when they struggled, rather than looking to add outsiders.
“The guys in this locker room have been around from the beginning,” said Wolves coach Ron Wright in the run-up to this year’s deadline. “They’ve made the sacrifices and bought in to what we’re trying to do. I’m happy with what we have.”
But with Michigan clinging to a razor-thin lead in the West and with three other teams hot on their heels, GM Tim Carrier decided to break with tradition and make a deal. The Wolves picked up LW Kelvin Starkey and D Scott Hexton from the Kansas City Smoke in exchange for minor-league winger Cleo Rodgers, goalie Gus Parrish, and a 2nd-round draft pick.
“This is obviously not our usual approach at the deadline,” said Carrier. “And this is not in any way a commentary on the players on our current rosters. But with the race as tight as it is, I’d be remiss if I wasn’t looking for ways to improve our team. And this is a deal that makes us better now and in the future.”
While Michigan’s success has always been built on defense and goaltending, their punchless offense and aging roster have been growing concerns. As of the deadline, the Wolves were tied with Boston for dead last in the league with only 88 goals. And of their 15 regular starting skaters, eight of them are over age 30.
Starkey helps the Wolves address both concerns. The winger has been a reliable and steady scorer for Kansas City, with 23 points (9 goals, 14 assists) so far on the season. The 26-year-old is also signed for this year and next at a very reasonable $200,000 annual salary, another plus for the cap-strapped Wolves.
“This is a pretty cool opportunity for me,” said Starkey. “Knowing that a strong team like Michigan was interested in me… that’s a real boost. I can’t wait to get over there!”
The 28-year-old Hexton has struggled with the Smoke this season, recording a lone assist in 16 games as he has shuttled between Kansas City and their Omaha farm club. But he is a veteran with a reliable track record, and he was reportedly highly disenchanted with a Smoke team that he considered directionless and unprofessional. According to team sources, he had asked to be dealt if the opportunity presented itself.
With the Wolves, he’ll replace Igor Shovshenkov, a depth defender who was another member of the over-30 club. To facilitate the trade, the Smoke agreed to retain $150,000 of Hexton’s salary.
For the Smoke, the 21-year-old Rodgers provides the team with a much-needed scoring prospect. He had been considered a likely replacement for one of Michigan’s aging wingers, but despite a solid season with the Wolves’ affiliate in Cleveland (14 goals, 20 assists), his star seemed to have dimmed a bit within the organization. He will report to the Smoke’s farm club in Omaha, but is considered a strong shot to make the big-league roster next season.
The 29-year-old Parrish, meanwhile, will reportedly head straight to Kansas City to aid the Smoke’s woes in the crease. Kansas City is last in the league in GAA (4.13) and save percentage (.880). Parrish was having an exceptional season in Cleveland (8-9-4, 1.97 GAA, .912 save percentage), but was blocked in Michigan by the exceptional tandem of Dirk Lundquist and Art Cowan.
So after his “happy with what we have” comment a couple days earlier, how does Wright feel about the new additions? “I’m all for it,” the coach said. “What, you thought they were going to make this deal without asking me?”
On Sunday, the New York Night activated LW Lee Fleming from the disabled list. Fleming missed nearly a month with a lower-body injury sustained after blocking a shot. To make room for Fleming on the roster, the Night returned RW Mickey Simpson back to their minor-league affiliate in Utah. Simpson, who had been called up when Fleming was injured, recorded 3 assists and a -5 rating in 9 games up with the big club.
On Monday, the Night released F Bobby “Wacko” Warner and signed F Harper Hawking for the remainder of the season. The Night signed Hawking to a short-term contract to replace Simpson with their Utah farm club. The 20-year-old Hawking played in 9 games for Utah, notching 3 assists and a +2 rating. He played well enough to earn the respect of the coaching staff, who opted to keep him around after Simpson returned. Warner, who had been with Utah since the 2017 season, had 2 assists and a -1 rating in 13 games this season.
On Wednesday, the Michigan Gray Wolves activated C Hunter Bailes from the disabled list. Bailes, who is Michigan’s leading goal scorer despite playing in only 19 of their 32 games, was out for two and a half weeks with a lower-body injury. In a corresponding room to make roster space for Bailes’ return, the Wolves reassigned C Phoenix Cage to their affiliate in Cleveland. Cage has spent time with Michigan in each of the last three seasons, and recorded three points (2 goals, 1 assist) during this most recent stint.
What a difference a month makes. Since their 12-0-0 start, Michigan has stumbled to a 4-7-5 record. This week, they lost three games in a row for the first time in three years, and they ended the week in second place for the first time in almost a season and a half. The team’s performance was so concerning that coach Ron Wright took the rare step of publicly chiding his team.
The week began on Sunday in Kansas City against the struggling Smoke. The Wolves fell behind 2-0 before rallying with a pair of goals in the third period to salvage a tie. After the game, the players expressed disappointment in their performance. “We definitely didn’t play our best hockey today,” said D Max Madison. Although they had no way of knowing it at the time, it would be Michigan’s best performance of the week.
On Tuesday, they headed west to take on their strongest challenger to date, the Seattle Sailors. The Wolves were thoroughly outplayed by their rivals. Seattle outshot Michigan 17-7 in the first period, setting the tone for the contest. Although netminder Dirk Lundquist stopped all 17 to keep it scoreless, the dam burst in the second as the Sailors scored three times. In the end, the Wolves were outshot 37-23 and outscored 4-0.
The Wolves then flew coast-to-coast for an interdivision game against the New York Night on Thursday. The Night have scuffled recently, but the Wolves found no reprieve in the Big Apple. New York dictated the tempo of play, and although Michigan outshot them 37-36, goalie Jesse Clarkson stymied them for a second straight shutout, 3-0.
On Saturday, the Wolves showed up at Centre Citadelle to face the Quebec Tigres. The Tigres are built in the same deliberate, defense-first mold as the Wolves, and the game was a taut and close affair. The game remained scoreless until the third period, when Tigres RW Sindri Pentti bulled his way into the slot and jammed a rebound past Lundquist. Unfortunately for the Wolves, they were unable to come up with the equalizer and lost 1-0. It was their third defeat in a row and dropped them a point behind Seattle.
After the Quebec loss, Wright critiqued his squad during his postgame press conference. “I’m not going to lie, I’m a little concerned by what I’m seeing,” Wright told reporters. “The first three weeks of the season, they were a thing of beauty. We were tight, we were winning the battles along the boards, our passes were on target. But I think we’ve gotten complacent. We started believing our own headlines a little too much, acting like we’d already clinched. The intensity level isn’t where it needs to be.”
The coach cautioned that his team can’t take the postseason for granted. “Last season was basically a cakewalk,” Wright said. “But this year is different. Seattle’s playing out of their minds. Anchorage is coming on strong. Even Saskatchewan’s right in the mix. We better not let it slip too far, or we might not even make the playoffs.”
Wright concluded on a hopeful note: “Fortunately, we know we’ve got plenty of talent, and we’ve got time to get things back on track. And I think we’ll be better off having to work for it, rather than waltzing through the season. We’ll be sharp, and we’ll need to be if we’re going to win the Vandy.”
The players generally agreed with their coach’s assessment. “We’re not playing the kind of game we need to play,” said C Warren Marlow. “I think we’re all pretty disappointed. But like Coach Wright said, we’ve got time to turn it around.”
Marlow noted one key factor that might explain Michigan’s recent struggles: the absence of C Hunter Bailes, one of Michigan’s top scorers. Bailes is currently on the disabled list with a lower-body injury, his second ailment of the season. The Wolves have gone 4-6-1 without Bailes, and 12-1-4 with him in the lineup. “Once we get Hunter back, we’ll be in a lot better place,” said Marlow. “He’s the guy we need.”
On Monday, the Quebec Tigres returned RW Luc LePettier to their minor-league affiliate in Maine. The Tigres called up LePettier two weeks ago, at a time when LW Stellan Fisker was injured and Quebec needed forward depth. Fisker returned shortly after, and LePettier appeared in only one game with Quebec, failing to record a point. After suffering a couple injuries of their own, Maine is now in need of some forward help; additionally, Quebec wanted to avoid stunting LePettier’s development due to a lack of playing time. The Tigres are currently one shy of the roster limit due to D Richard McKinley‘s injury; for now, they will leave the slot unfilled.
On Wednesday, the Dakota Jackalopes traded G Dennis Wampler and D Terry “T-Rex” Hendricks to the Kansas City Smoke in exchange for G Brooks Copeland and D Geoff Moultrie. Read more about the trade here. In order to make room for Wampler and Hendricks on their roster, the Smoke demoted G Bill Bates and D Lowell Sharkey to their CHL farm club in Omaha. The 20-year-old Bates went 1-1-0 with a 3.50 GAA and an .872 save percentage with Kansas City. The 19-year-old Sharkey, who was called up last week, appeared in only 2 games without recording a point.
On Friday, the Jackalopes reinstated LW “Flyin’ Ryan” Airston from the injured list. Airston missed nearly three weeks with an upper-body injury. Airston’s return can’t come soon enough for the struggling Jackalopes; they have lost every game they played without him, and averaged a pitiful 1.8 goals per game in his absence. To make room for Airston on the roster, Dakota reassigned LW Van Dyke Browning to their affiliate in Idaho. Browning appeared in 3 games with the Jackalopes, recording an assist and a -1 rating.
On Saturday, the Michigan Gray Wolves placed C Hunter Bailes on the 10-game DL. Bailes suffered a lower-body injury blocking a shot in the third period of the Wolves’ 1-1 tie against Quebec. It’s the second injury of the year for the fragile center, who missed 3 games last week with an upper-body ailment. To replace Bailes on the roster, Michigan called up C Phoenix Cage from their farm team in Cleveland. Cage has 2 goals and 11 assists in the CHL this season.