The Sudbury Wolves had a new identity when they started the 2009-10 season and had the playoffs on their minds from the first time they assembled for training camp back in September.
Long time assistant coach Bryan Verreault was promoted to head coach as Mike Foligno stepped back from the duty to concentrate on being a general manager. With assistant coach Jeff Beukeboom ó hired last summer ó also on the bench, the men guiding the Wolves at ice level were all new.
The Wolves went through an up and down season, struggling to find consistency in their offensive and defensive games. The team was also hampered by injuries throughout, which contributed to their struggles.
The team was forced to relieve Verreault of his coaching duties early on and Foligno returned as head coach.
The Wolves made the playoffs before being bounced out in the first round by the Barrie Colts.
"It was a trying season because we had so many injuries," head coach and GM Mike Foligno said. "We felt as an organization, we could get to the fourth or fifth spot in the conference in December by the way the team was playing. At Christmas break we lost key players to injuries in Jake Cardwell, Andrew Loverock and Matias Sointu. We tried to keep it all together. We weren't able to get in a better spot than the eighth seed. We had some streaks where we didn't do well at all. We were a team that needed everyone on board because we didn't have a lot of depth. It hurt us in the overall picture."
Foligno was split down the middle on his thoughts on the player's efforts this season.
"They had some great nights and other nights they weren't," he said. "We expected more out of the team, but injuries took their toll."
Here's a look at the Wolves' season with an emphasis on highlights and lowlights and a look to the future.
The Verreault era didn't begin with a bang as the team dropped its first two games. Sudbury quickly turned around and won its next three games, sending expectations for the team sky high. The wheels came off instead of staying on as the Wolves then dropped their next seven games. Despite defeating Brampton 3-0 to snap the ugly losing streak, the damage was done and Verreault was relived of his duties after going 4-8-0-1. Foligno brought back some bite to the team as they won the first game with him back behind the bench 4-0 over Sarnia. Foligno went 2-2 in his first four games to conclude the first 17 games of the regular season.
The highlight was the team's speciality teams play. At one point early on, the Wolves penalty kill and power play was in the Top 3 of the league at the same time.
The low light of the quarter was the off-ice incident over the Thanksgiving weekend in Windsor which resulted in import defenceman Stefan Stepanov being released from the team and sent back to Russia.
"It was a disciplinary action," Verreault said to the Star at the time. "He broke some team rules and we decided as an organization to send him home. He will not be returning. It was an incident on the road last weekend, and we thought that (sending Stepanov home) was the right decision to make."
With Foligno back and firmly entrenched on the bench, the Wolves were looking to realize their potential and soar up the standings. This wasn't the case as the team's consistency issues continued and so did a lack of overall discipline. The team went 8-9 in the segment, but failed to gain ground in the Central Division with four losses to Barrie and Mississauga.
The highlight was the Wolves five-game winning streak from Dec. 3 to 17 in which they beat Peterborough, Brampton (twice), Belleville and Niagara. The streak was the best by the team all season and had Sudbury climbing up the standings. It wouldn't last though.
The low light was the team being unable to defeat the Central Division powerhouses in Barrie and Mississauga. Sudbury lost all four games to their hated rivals from the south by a combined score of 22-8.
It was another below average quarter for the Wolves as they went 7-10 overall. The Wolves continued to struggle against elite competition, but kept their heads above water by putting the boots to lower level and on par competition.
The highlight was the Wolves back-to-back wins over Oshawa on Jan. 10 and 15. The wins were critical as Oshawa and Sudbury were slugging it out for playoff positioning.
The low light came on Jan. 17. The Wolves took on the Guelph Storm on national television. The Wolves were rocked with a difficult to swallow 8-3 loss. There was a silver lining to the huge loss.
"The third period," Foligno said at the time. "We won the period. When you win a period, it's not the game, but when you have played so badly in the first two periods, to keep competing and win the next period says a lot about our hockey club. We might have had a stinker for a period or two, but the boys showed they have heart and kept battling."
The team also shored up its blueline at the trade deadline by sending popular defender and two second round draft picks to Guelph for defenceman Ben Chiarot and two mid-round draft picks.
The regular season came to and end with the Wolves barely making the playoffs after going 5-12 overall in the quarter and squeaking into the playoffs ahead of Oshawa.
The low light of the quarter was the 6-2 loss to Sarnia on Feb. 15. With their playoff lives on the line and in need of a win, the Wolves come out flat against Sarnia, who at the time, was stuck in a 17-game losing streak.
The highlight was the team's 2-1 victory over Mississauga on March 7. It marked the first time Sudbury had beat the Majors franchise since Feb. 23, 2007. It was the first road win over the franchise since Jan. 19, 2006.
"It was definitely big," goalie Andrew Loverock said at the time. "It's been a while and it's a real positive feeling. It was huge for us right now."
The post season
The Wolves clawed their way into the playoff dance by taking the eighth seed in the Eastern Conference.
As rewarding as it was to make the playoffs, the reality facing the Wolves was they had to take on the mighty Barrie Colts in the first round. The Colts finished first overall in the OHL with record of 57-9-0-2, good for 116 points.
As expected, the Colts went on a stampede and ran down the Wolves in four straight games. Barrie took the first game by convincing fashion courtesy of a 11-4 blow out. The Wolves made a go of it in the second game at home, losing 2-1. Barrie wrapped up their series with 6-2 and 6-3 victories in Games 3 and 4 respectively.
The loss ended the Wolves season.
Captain John Kurtz summed up what the whole team was feeling after the loss.
"It doesn't feel good at all," Kurtz said about the end of the season. "I'm very disappointed. We have a great group of guys in here and I thought we could have done more in the playoffs. Unfortunately, we drew the eighth seed and had to play the Barrie Colts. It was a tough go, but that's the way it goes sometimes. Unfortunately the Barrie Colts got the best of us."
Every team in the OHL says goodbye to numerous players every year and the Wolves are no different. Gone for sure from the club are Kurtz, forward Steve Reese and goalie Andrew Loverock. All three players were overage players. Kurtz was the team's captain for a season-and-a-half and played three full seasons for the Wolves. He had 63 goals and 128 points in 193 games with Sudbury. Loverock was instrumental in the team's rebuilding process after the run to the OHL final in 2007 and played two-and-a-half seasons, compiling a record of 37-50-7-6. He was acquired at the trade deadline in 2008 from Niagara for Sebastian Dahm. Reese was brought in early in the season from Sarnia to provide leadership and scoring. Reese put up 14 goals and 34 points in 51 games. The Wolves list of potential returning over age players hasn't been clearly identified. Possibilities include Jared Staal, Kyle Tarini, Kain Allicock and Eric O'Dell.
OHL Priority Draft
As always, the Wolves will participate in the annual OHL Priority Draft. Like last season, the Wolves will pick fifth overall. In 2009, Sudbury selected rugged defenceman Justin Sefton fifth overall.
2010-11 season outlook
The Wolves will be a dramatically different team next season. The rookie class of 2009-10 will be back with bigger expectations. Defencemen Justin Sefton and Frankie Corrado and forwards Kristoff Kontos, Greg Trichilo and Gregory Jambrosich will all be counted on to take huge steps forward in terms of development and impact.
"The youth we brought in, they were great kids with a bright future in this league," Foligno said. "They all played good for us this season and we expect them to continue to improve next year. Our goaltending will have to be addressed and we'll do that over the summer. We want to thank the fans again for their great support. We will build on our youth ... guys like Justin Sefton, Frankie Corrado and Kristoff Kontos. Sefton is a man already and has a big shot and toughness. Corrado will control the power play. Kontos is an intelligent player. We have lots to grow on."