Sure, it sounds like a blessing to have two NHL teams’ prospect groups at your disposal — to be able to work with multiple first-round draft picks and several impressive veterans at the same time.
But when you’re trying to merge two organizations together…and their staffs…and their expectations…and deal with COVID-19 restrictions…and be there for players mentally and emotionally…and be asked to make every player better on the ice…and win games, it doesn’t make for an easy season.
ChicagoWolves.com sat down with Wolves head coach Ryan Warsofsky as the Central Division champions closed out their 2021 season. The 33-year-old Massachusetts native never has shied away from high expectations — he’s the one during the preseason who set a goal of going 30-0 — and never has shied away from discussing exactly what’s on his mind.
If you missed Part 1 of the Warsofsky Exit Interview, start here before proceeding to Part 2:
Let’s get your thoughts on some more of the team’s promising players. How about David Cotton, the rookie forward who led the team with 14 goals in 26 games?
“Obviously slow start again, just learning the game. But from where he was in Raleigh during training camp to now, we’re seeing a guy who’s more comfortable going into the dangerous areas. I think he’s another guy who can score. We’re trying to get him to change his game a little bit, but keep the scoring.
“When he was at Boston College and he was one of their top three players, he wasn’t playing that in-your-face style — and that’s what we want him to do. For him to go up and play in Raleigh, he’s going to be playing fourth-line minutes until he gains (Carolina head coach) Rod (Brind’Amour’s) trust. Those fourth-line guys, they play hard, they’re detailed, they’re physical. So we’re trying to get him to change his game, which is a challenge. He’s getting there. We started to see it the last few games. He’s had a good year. He’s another guy who needs to add some muscle and get a little bit quicker, but if he does those things, he’ll play.”
What about defenseman Joey Keane, who made his NHL debut with the Canes on May 10?
“He has been a little inconsistent with us. He has worked really hard. I think it has been a little bit on us (as an organization), in a way. He was up there, down here, up there for three weeks and he just practiced, so it kind of hurt his development in a way. He just tries to do too much at times, but then he was really good in his one game with Carolina. He made an impression. It’s up to him to continue to be “less is more.” Be simple. Be harder in front of his net.
“But we also have to remember he’s 21. I think sometimes we get lost in that as coaches and as an organization. It’s hard to play defense at this level, never mind the National Hockey League. He’s a second-year pro who’s 21 years old. We have to remember that. I remember talking to Jay Leach, who’s the coach at Providence. He thinks it takes them 250 games sometimes to feel who they are as defensemen. And I kind of agree with him. I don’t think Joey Keane is a finished product. I don’t think his identity is what he’s going to be in the National Hockey League yet. That just comes with experience, comes with playing games.
Are there a few other guys who impressed you most with how they improved over the course of the season?
“Yeah, I think Max Lajoie has been our most consistent player. We know what we’re getting every time he steps on the ice. Does he makes mistakes? Yeah. But this is a guy who I think is a warrior, blocks a ton of shots. He understands there’s no playoffs, but he’s out there putting his face in front of (shots). He cares deeply about winning. He’s a competitor. So I think he has grown the most since Day 1.
“I think all of our players have gotten better, which is a positive. As management, we get impatient with these players. We’re trying to explain to management, it takes time. It’s not just going to happen overnight. A perfect example is Jamieson Rees. I think he’s going to play (in the NHL). I think he’s going to be a really good player. It’s just going to take a little time. I mean, he played junior before this year. He was the best player on the team and I don’t know how much he had to work on details in his game. So he’s a little bit behind development-wise, but that’s not a shot at the OHL coaches because they’re busy with the younger players. (Because he was so good) he could kind of go out and do whatever he wanted. So we’re trying to rebuild them as players…and that’s a conversation for another day because I struggle with that. We’re getting players that we are rebuilding to play at this level just because they get away with so much in the OHL and college and the Western League because they’re the best players. That’s a conversation for another day.”
And Cavan Fitzgerald got rewarded with a two-year contract recently!
“Outstanding. The kid’s earned it. He works so hard. He came to camp (in 2019) in Raleigh and wasn’t in great shape. Just wasn’t ready for NHL camp and he’d probably be the first one to tell you that. He came in this year despite the pandemic and was probably in the best shape of all the guys on our team. He put the work in last summer. I know him because he lives in the town next to me. I saw him with my own eyes skating at 7 a.m. on Thanksgiving morning. And then he would go work out. So I know he puts the work in. He has earned this contract. He has earned everything he has gotten in his life. We are so happy to have him in our organization. He’s a leader. Quiet, but he does things the right way. Great for our younger players to see.”
Is he a guy who might be captain material next year?
“Yeah, I think so. He’s just a quiet guy. We’re trying to get him to open up a little bit. I think as leaders, you can’t really change who you are. Fitzy’s Fitzy. He’s going to go out and show you how he does it on the ice. But (the Boston Bruins’) Patrice Bergeron is quiet too.
What’s your brother, David, going to do?
“I don’t know. I think part of him wants to explore Europe. I think his game would be well-suited over there. We’ve had talks about whether he’d like to come back here. I think it has worked well between myself and him. I don’t think it has been a distraction in any way. I think he has been really good for the young players. He has been a voice. He’s a guy who does speak up and we’re going to need some leadership for the young players that are coming. But we’ll talk and I’m sure his agent is going to talk to Carolina. He has definitely had a positive impact on the younger players.”
What might the goaltending situation look like next year?
“I think there will be some changes. Beck Warm will be back. ‘Biebs’ (unrestricted free agent) Antoine Bibeau) has done a good job. We’ll talk to him to see where he’s at. But Carolina has no goalies signed, so there will be some changes. We’ll add someone at some point to play with Warm, whether it’s ‘Biebs’ or someone else.
“It’s a weird, unique free agency. We don’t know where the market’s going to be. I think we only have four forwards signed for next year and it’s all the young kids, so we’re going to need some players.
Will (22-year-old Swedish defenseman) Jesper Sellgren come back?
“Yep, he’ll be here next year. You guys saw him in the playoffs when we played you in the Calder Cup Finals in 2019. Good young defenseman. Played a lot this year in the Swedish Elite League. Played deep into the playoffs. I think he’s going to play on the national team (Editor’s note: Yes, Sellgren is on Sweden’s roster for the 2021 IIHF Championships in Latvia). I like him. I think he’s a really good puck-moving defenseman. I think he’ll be really good for us next year.”
Who are we missing here?
Spencer Smallman is a restricted free agent. He’s a guy we want back. Poor kid has been as banged-up as they come. Torn ACL his second year. Snapped his kneecap. Shoulder…and now he’s dealing with a little bit of an issue. We don’t think it’s serious…just a couple more tests. If he gets a clean bill of health, he’s a guy I’d have back in a second.
“He just needs to play some games. He went down to Fort Wayne and did really well. I think his future is as a center. I think that will free up his skating. He’s a guy I look at as a (Steven) Lorentz in a way. He was a guy who was pegged as fourth-line, mop-up minutes. We moved him to the middle and it freed up his skating and now look at him with Carolina. I think Smallman has that skill. He’s a very smart player. Low-maintenance. Coachable. Awesome kid. We want him in our locker room.”
Who was the MVP of this team?
“It’s probably Tanner Jeannot. I think he set the tone early in the year in how we wanted to play. Now look at him. He’s probably a guy who doesn’t touch the American League again. I’ve said before, if we were going to name a captain, it would have been him. I had a feeling he was going to go up, though, so we didn’t do it. But he just set the tone.
“He knows how to play the right way. He’s earned everything he’s got. He’s a free-agent signing out of the Western League and worked extremely hard to play in the ECHL. So I thought he was important for our young players to see and he was really important for us. You could show his shifts to every guy on the team and say, ‘This is how you do it.’ ”
Did the season go the way you wanted? Did it fulfill what you set out to do in January?
“Yeah, I thought our players got better — and that’s what both organizations wanted. And I’m not just saying that because I’m the head coach. I thought all of our coaches worked together on what we wanted to do and what the plan was. There were times when it was challenging. Whether it was COVID issues that we had. Lineup changes, guys going up. Injuries. The execution in practice wasn’t as high as we wanted it to be at times. The energy. The seriousness of games kind of came and went at times. But I thought, ultimately, it was a positive and a success. And I thought the players got better. I know both organizations are happy with how it went. But I think both organizations are excited, not that it’s over, but it was the right amount of time. Put it that way.”
We heard that (assistant coach) Bob Nardella took you over for your first visit to Allstate Arena since Game 5 of the 2019 Calder Cup Finals?
“I’m excited to get playing there. Obviously it was great that we could play this year, but it’s going to be nice to have fans in the building at the Allstate. There’s just more to it.”