Wolf Tracks: Lowering expectations, improving results

Kocha Delic, right, of the Sudbury Wolves, attempts to fire the puck past David Jesus, of the Oshawa Generals, during OHL action at the Sudbury Community Arena in Sudbury, Ont. on Friday October 29, 2021. John Lappa/Sudbury Star/Postmedia Network John Lappa / John Lappa/Sudbury Star

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One of the biggest things that changed for the Sudbury Wolves on Jan. 10 was expectations.

When the trade deadline was said and done, GM Rob Papineau had shipped out the team’s two biggest stars — a world junior invitee in Jack Thompson and a first-round NHL draft pick in Chase Stillman.

So how the heck did this team seemingly get better?

Last weekend’s road trip into Peterborough, Kingston and Ottawa easily could have been a disaster. No one would have been shocked on the heels of those blockbuster trades if we saw a wolf come back to Sudbury with its tail between its legs. But instead, they miraculously captured five of a possible six points, highlighted by what may play out as a TSN turning point victory on what was supposed to be a celebration of Shane Wright’s superstardom.

The fact that one of our favourite former Wolves stars, Frankie Corrado, was on the TSN panel wearing a big Sudbury smile made it all that much better.

The expectations on Wright as the odds-on favourite to be selected first overall in the 2022 NHL Entry Draft are high every time he steps on the ice. Heck, every time he does an interview, for that matter. The kid seems to handle it really well and for him, a TSN game was just another night in the spotlight.

Not so for the Wolves line of David Goyette, Evan Konyen and Kocha Delic.

For the trio of 17-year-old up-and-coming stars, that national stage was a perfect coming-out party, the effects of which will not be known for a while. Could their performance see all three climb further up the NHL draft rankings?

Absolutely.

Scouts will tell you they judge players based on a body of work rather that one game on TV. And that is clearly true. But it’s also fair to suggest that a game with that audience is weighted a little differently than a run-of-the-mill regular-season matchup on a Tuesday night in November. It offers an understanding of how a player is going to perform when the lights are at their brightest.

The expectations on Goyette, Konyen and Delic were probably a lot more realistic than on Wright, allowing them to use it as a huge opportunity. As Corrado said during the telecast, the players all know about the game being televised, so it’s totally not “just another game.”

All three players were plus-4 in the 8-4 win over the Frontenacs and combined for 10 points — four goals by Goyette, four assists by Delic and a couple of helpers for Konyen.

Konyen is actually the oldest of the three, with his 18th birthday a month away on Feb. 22. Delic and Goyette will both turn 18 in March.

Before the trade deadline, putting those three together on a line for any length of time would have been tough. All three are rookies, given that the 2020-21 season was lost due to COVID, and jumping right into their NHL draft year definitely brings added pressure. Also, even though they entered the league a year older than the average rookie , it’s still their first tour through the best teenage league on the planet.

The learning curve is huge.

While their skill is undeniable, but here’s what stands out for me. All three are plus players, on a team that took a record of 10-19-3-1 into a Thursday-night tilt in North Bay.

It speaks to the Wolves’ struggles on special teams, for sure, but it also further demonstrates the potential of these 2004-born budding stars.

Coach Craig Duncanson protected them at times in the first half, made sure there were veterans on their lines and matched lines whenever necessary.

Also, some hockey people are not big fans of plus-minus as a statistic. But Delic, at plus-10, has more than proven himself to be a very responsible player in all zones and Goyette and Konyen, at plus-6, are showing themselves as dependable, while filling opposing nets with regularity.

Goyette’s five goals and seven points in those three weekend games earned him player-of-the-week honours in the OHL, which he got to share with his new linemates, as well as overage teammate Mitchell Weeks, who was named OHL goalie of the week. Weeks was 2-0-1, with a 2.92 goals-against average and .924 save percentage in three games.

It looked like they were going to pick up where they left off to start this week, with the line of Goyette, Konyen and Delic lighting the lamp just 2:22 into what was eventually a 4-1 loss in Barrie on Tuesday night.

That’s just how it’s going to be — ups and downs and not every game will feature the euphoria of the big win on TSN.

There is a thirst for this team to make the playoffs, as there should be, but trading away Thompson and Stillman removed the expectation that they should be a playoff team.

The narrative now is that they can be, if they play the right way.

It’s early days, but the chemistry experiment seemed to work for GM Papineau. We know the added draft picks will help down the road, and the players the Wolves brought in seem to have provided the right mix of experience and enthusiasm for this season.

If your top line is a trio of 17-year-olds, you can’t assume they’re going to win every night. That would be expecting too much.

But if you don’t expect it and they do it anyway? Well, then you might have something special.

Wolf Tracks runs weekly during the OHL season.

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