Wolves Coach Wright Resigns

For the last four and a half seasons, Ron Wright has been the driving force behind the Michigan Gray Wolves.  He has pushed them hard in grueling practices, demanded a relentless commitment to excellence, and shaped the team’s selfless, hard-nosed identity.  It’s an approach that has yielded results, including a Vandy in 2016 and two playoff appearances.

Ron Wright

But Wright and his players have grown increasingly disenchanted with one another as the Wolves’ record has sunk.  They finished last season in a tailspin, ultimately finishing in fourth place.  And this season, Michigan has been battling with Dakota and Kansas City to stay out of the cellar.  This shocking performance led to an even more shocking development on Saturday, as Wright resigned as Wolves coach.

“Our performance this year has been a disappointment and an embarrassment,” said Wright.  “And the responsibility for that starts with me.  I have failed to motivate this team, and our performance has not been up to our standards.  So the only responsible thing for me to do is to step aside and let the team find a new leader.”

To say that the move was a surprise would be an understatement.  “I think you could sum up the mood in the locker room as stunned,” said C Hunter Bailes.  “Coach Wright always talked about the importance of commitment and being all in, and for him to walk away in the middle of a season is – well, it’s unexpected.”

According to sources close to the team, Wright’s intense, hard-driving personality was embraced by the players when the team was winning.  But as the team’s fortunes have declined, the grumbling about the coach’s demands and brutal practices have grown louder.

“Most of the guys in here are veterans, and we’ve been working in this system for years,” said one player.  “For [Wright] to still be yelling at us like we’re raw rookies, it doesn’t sit right.”

Several players also cited the departure of assistant coach Morris Thompson as a key factor in the decline of Wright’s relationship with his team.  Thompson left to become the head coach of the Saskatchewan Shockers for the 2019 season.  According to several players, Thompson served as a vital buffer between Wright and the players.

“Morris knew how to get [Wright] to tone it down a notch, cool out when needed,” said one player.  “And the players knew that if they had a problem, they could go to Morris and he’d smooth it over.  When he left, the emergency brake was gone.”

One theory is that Wright chose a midseason departure in order to control the terms of his exit.  Many on the team believed that, barring a second-half turnaround to claim a playoff spot, Wright was going to be fired at season’s end.  Rather than wait for the ax to fall, Wright could depart on his own terms.

The team announced that assistant coach Roger Stackledge will take over as interim head coach for the rest of the season.  Barring an unexpected turnaround, GM Tim Carrier will face some interesting decisions at the trading deadline and in the coming offseason.  The Wolves are the league’s oldest team, and while they arguably have too much talent (starting with G Dirk Lundquist and including a stellar defensive corps) to be torn apart, they do not have enough offensive firepower to be a top-tier contender.

“I was not expecting to be holding this press conference in the middle of the season,” said Carrier.  “But I am confident that this team is still capable of being a strong contender.  I am confident in Roger’s ability to lead this team.  We’ll re-group over the All Star break and come back strong.”

Wolves’ Unexpected Struggles Draw Wright’s Ire

Last season was a bitter finish for the Michigan Gray Wolves, who collapsed in the season’s final month to finish out of the West’s top two for the first time.  This season, they hoped to prove that last year’s stumble was an anomaly.  Instead, they’ve struggled to clear the .500 mark, and they’re threatening to be left behind in the division race by red-hot Anchorage and Portland.

Ron Wright

Coach Ron Wright minced no words following Tuesday’s embarrassing 3-2 home loss to the Washington Galaxy, who are sitting in last place in the East.  “We were just going through the motions out there, and it makes me sick,” Wright told reporters.  “It seems like we were taking this win for granted, but the way we’re playing lately, we shouldn’t be taking any wins for granted.  There was no drive out there tonight, no intensity.  That needs to change.”

In the past, Michigan’s players have generally accepted the truth of Wright’s rare public critiques.  This time, however, some Wolves pushed back.  “We work twice as hard and twice as long in practice as any other team,” said one anonymous player.  “And then [Wright] wonders why we don’t have any energy.  It’s because we waste it all in morning skates.”

This is Wright’s fifth season with the Wolves.  In that time, the team has produced tremendous regular-season results.  However, they’ve only made the Finals once, in the coach’s debut season.  And some team sources wonder whether Wright’s trademark intensity is starting to wear out the players.

“The drill-sergeant routine only holds up for so long,” said one player.  “It works okay when you win, but when the winning stops, your patience for running a million drills does too.”

Why are the Wolves struggling?  Part of it is the same problem they’ve long struggled with: generating offense.  The team’s top line is producing in line with career norms, but the bottom two lines, and the bottom blueline pairing, are struggling badly.  Wright has tried giving more ice time to the team’s reserves, but they aren’t producing either.  And the constant lineup shuffling may be interfering with the team’s ability to gel.

But offense isn’t the team’s most troubling issue.  Rather, it’s the underperformance of the player widely regarded as Michigan’s rock: goalie Dirk “The Bear” Lundquist.  While it’s true that many big-name goaltenders have struggled this season, Lundquist isn’t just another goaltender.  He’s been the SHL’s standard of netminding excellence since its inception.

Dirk Lundquist

Lundquist has been so consistently brilliant over the years that it’s easy to assume that he is immune to slumps.  But this season’s results prove otherwise.  After never posting a GAA above 2 or a save percentage below .932, this season’s marks are 2.58 and .919.  It’s reached the point where some fans are calling for backup Brandon Colt to get more starts.

“It’s definitely frustrating for me,” said Lundquist.  “I’m used to the team counting on me to bail them out, to make the impossible saves.  Now, I feel like I need them to bail me out, and that’s not a situation I ever want to be in.”

Wright remains adamant that Lundquist is the Wolves’ starter.  “He’s proved his worth over the seasons,” the coach said.  “I’m not worried about him pulling his weight.”

But if Michigan doesn’t rediscover its typical winning ways, will there be changes in store?  Will Lundquist lose the unquestioned starter’s mantle?  Will Wright lose his job?  Will the Wolves become trade-deadline sellers for the first time ever?  As unlikely as those possibilities may seem, they become increasingly realistic the longer that Michigan stumbles.

SHL Quote of the Week (Week 16)

“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

Wright Issues Wake-Up Call to Skidding Wolves

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.

Ron Wright

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.”

Continue reading “Wright Issues Wake-Up Call to Skidding Wolves”

Wolves Bolster Depth in Trade With KC

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?”

Wolves Fall Out of First, Wright Warns Against Complacency

Four weeks ago, the Michigan Gray Wolves looked unbeatable.  Literally.  Twelve games into the season, they had yet to lose (or tie) once.  It looked as though the Western title was all but assured, and the rest of the season would be a race for second place.

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.

Ron Wright

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.”

Hungry Wolves Dominant in Early Going

When the Michigan Gray Wolves were swept out of last year’s Western Division playoff, some observers felt it was a watershed moment for a team that has regularly been among the SHL’s best.  Were the Wolves getting complacent after multiple seasons of success?  Was their aging roster starting to catch up to them?  Were they about to be passed by the rising young teams in Seattle or Saskatchewan?

As it turns out, rumors of Michigan’s demise were greatly exaggerated.  The Wolves are playing their most dominant hockey to date, smothering the life out of their opponents and threatening to turn the Western race into a battle for second place.

“The way they’re playing right now, no one can even lay a glove on them,” said Seattle Sailors LW Rod Argent.  “They’re not even on the same dimension as the rest of us.”

The Wolves are relying on their tried-and-true formula, built around airtight defense and goaltending.  They’ve been able to dictate the pace of games, often forcing high-flying opponents to play at Michigan’s preferred deliberate tempo.  They’ve held opponents to 27.3 shots and under a goal per game.  Even by the Wolves’ usual rugged standards, that’s domination.

They’ve already recorded six shutouts, more than most teams manage over an entire season.  You might be tempted to credit elite goalie Dirk “The Bear” Lundquist for that achievement, but two of those shutouts were recorded by backup Art Cowan.

Michigan’s sternest test yet came on Tuesday, when they faced off against the Anchorage Igloos, the longtime rivals who knocked them out of the playoffs last year.  The Igloos are off to an underwhelming start, and they were eager to deal the Wolves their first loss.  Anchorage managed to break Michigan’s defensive pressure and outshot them 41-20.  But thanks to a sterling performance from Lundquist, the Wolves walked away with another shutout victory, this time by a 2-0 margin.

Ron Wright

Ask Michigan players for the secret to their success, and they’ll point to coach Ron Wright.  The Wolves’ bench boss is a master motivator, and he reinforced the team’s commitment to hard work coming into the season.

“Coach Wright knows how to get the most out of this team,” said Wolves C Hunter Bailes.  “He knows just how hard to push us without going too far.  He demands a lot from us, but he’s taught us to demand even more from ourselves.”

Throughout the offseason, every time Wright came across an article or broadcast segment suggesting Michigan might be on the decline, he texted it to the team group chat.  “We saw every bad thing anyone said about us,” said D Fritz Kronstein.  “We were too old, too slow, over the hill.  We were overconfident and rested on our laurels.  The game is favoring youth and speed, and we were dinosaurs.  It just fueled our fire.  When we got to the first day of camp, Coach just smiled and said, ‘So, ready to prove them all wrong?’”

As great as the Wolves have looked, they know full well that this won’t guarantee them anything.  They’ve had a history of getting off to hot starts, although never quite this hot.  Both last year and in 2015, they started strong but ended up without a title.  Michigan’s players, however, show no sign of letting up, which can only be bad news for the rest of the league.

“We know that we’ve got a long way to go if we want to win the Vandy,” said Bailes.  “But we’re in it for the long haul.  We’re all in to get the title, and we’re not going to let up until we get there.”