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Part 1: Catching up with … Wolves GM Wendell Young

After the defending Calder Cup champion Chicago Wolves fell one point short of reaching the playoffs, general manager Wendell Young immediately started working on constructing the roster for the 2023-24 season–the 30th in franchise history.

Here is Part 1 of a conversation with Young where he discusses topics ranging from last season to building a roster for the upcoming campaign to what he looks for in a player and much more…

You’re entering your 15th season as Wolves GM, what MOTIVATES YOU year after year?

“You’re trying to get the best players for the best price while trying to win. That’s what’s fun about my job.

I’m a competitive person and I enjoy the team concept. I don’t think I’d be very good at singles tennis. I need a team atmosphere—I’ve been in one in everything I’ve done.”

How would you describe the 2022-23 season as a whole?

“Well, it’s frustrating in the aspect of going from winning a championship to not making the playoffs.

We start every season off with the goal of winning a Calder Cup and it was disappointing because we want to have an organization where while we know we have to play players and prospects, we also want to have a good team and a good product on the ice.

We want a winning product that will make the players better and play more games in the playoffs. And it’s sad that our players had to go home and Carolina’s prospects had to go home in the middle of April instead of going home in the middle of June.”

How do you balance that commitment to winning vs. developing players for the NHL?

“Part of our philosophy is we can do both—it doesn’t have to be strictly one or the other. Some teams don’t really care about winning and they’re only here for one reason: To make prospects better and ready to go up to the NHL. We’re here to facilitate a bunch of things, whether it’s the dumping of money, taking on a veteran that they don’t want on the team or have some call-up guys for depth and develop prospects.

I think part of our development is winning because then the guys play more meaningful games; they learn how to win and they step right into a winning atmosphere or they bring that winning atmosphere to a team. I really think that’s the balance and what makes us successful.

If you’re in just a development organization, it’s disheartening for the players because we all have a fire and a burning desire to win. Players work all summer developing and they want to win once it comes to game time.

If you’re not competitive as a person, you shouldn’t be in the game. And if it’s just developing, you’re suppressing that competitive nature of the players.”

What are the biggest challenges in building a roster, especially coming off a CHAMPIONSHIP?

“It’s a challenge, but it’s heartwarming at the same time because the guys did so well and they should be rewarded for their success and having great years.

You don’t win a championship with bad people. With every championship team I’ve been a part of, the dressing room has been awesome. We have a great makeup of people, not just players and that’s a key thing. But it happens with every team that wins the championship—everyone wants to be rewarded.

And every time I see a guy signing for a lot of money that will really set them up for the future, I’m excited. We’re here to win and we want to develop and if we make a guy’s career better by winning, that’s awesome.

But the challenge of winning is if you get to the finals, more people are watching and more teams want your players because they know they’re winners.”

What factors go into building a roster? It’s not all about stockpiling 50-goal scorers.

“There’s a formula for a team to be successful so you have to see what you have and what your needs are. Some years you need more scoring or you need to be bigger or you need penalty killers.

You can’t have four lines of 50-goal scorers. Everyone needs a role. You try to slide people into those roles and some people exceed expectations.

It’s a chess match. You’re trying to figure where guys sit, what you have on defense, from your penalty killers to power play. You can’t have six power-play guys on your team. You have to have some shut-down guys for your penalty kill. And hopefully you have a No. 1 goalie.”

Take us through a typical day during the offseason.

Whether we fail to make the playoffs or win the last day of the season in the Calder Cup, I’m always going through lists. I’m looking at free agents, I’m talking to agents, taking calls, trying to figure the makeup of the team and who’s available.

You just don’t have Plan A and Plan B—you’ve got a hundred different plans going on at one time.

You’re trying to put everything together and it’s fun, but it’s also nerve-wracking sometimes because you don’t know if you’re going to get a player or move on. But one thing I learned over a period of time is if you don’t get the top guy, you go after the second guy and if you don’t get him, you just move on.

You can’t wonder, ‘why didn’t he sign with me?’ because the guy probably had 20 teams to pick from him, you know? So you just move on.”

you do a lot of traveling. Is it your desire to get your own eyes on guys rather than relying on scouting reports?

“Yes, 100 percent. There’s a lot of watching games, talking to people and developing relationships with the people in hockey.

Someone told me recently that I’m the fourth-longest-tenured GM in our league, and I didn’t realize that. And, ironically, the other three are within our division, Mark Bernard (Rockford), Scott White (Texas) and Craig Heisinger (Manitoba).

You call on people, and say, ‘hey, I know you had this guy a couple years ago, what’s his makeup?’ We want good people.

Like if there are two guys who are relatively the same, I want the good person in the dressing room because I want a good room.

You don’t win championships with bad people. You want to win with good people. That shows in the character of the people we’ve had through our dressing room and in the makeup of our teams.

If you’re a bad person, we try to move you out. We don’t want that in our dressing  room, as a part of our team and we don’t want it as part of our community.

So there are a lot of phone calls happening, some are just general relationship calls and sometimes it gets to the point where I’ll call an equipment guy and ask him, ‘hey, you had this guy, what’s he really like?’

So you find out things. You do your own background checks on guys for things like injuries and what kind of attitude does he have? There’s more than just analytical stats.”

While we’re on the subject, how deep are you into analytics?

“I like analytics. I don’t think it should be the sole reason why you take somebody because there are a lot of holes in analytics, but there are a ton of good things, too.

It should be a part of the formula to picking a player.

Analytics don’t show grit or about how good a team guy someone is or whether the guy was hurt during the season and played through it.

The analytics people in hockey have a tougher job than an analytic guy in baseball because baseball’s so static and in hockey there are so many things changing and  so many factors.

In baseball, you’ve got a pitcher against a batter and basically that’s all there is. I’ve simplified it to the basic, but it’s about does the hitter get on base, does he not get on base and is he good against lefties or righties? In hockey, there are so many variables.”

For Part 2 of the conversation, go here.