They have missed the Ontario Hockey League playoffs three times in the past four years including the 2017-2018 season in which they finished in last place in the 20-member loop. But at about the one-third mark of the 2018-2019 season, Sudbury Wolves are on track to more than double the 17 wins they managed over the course of the entire 2017-2018 campaign.
The Wolves are by no means a high scoring team. They are averaging just three goals per outing but have a record of 12-6-2 through 20 games and are a definite contender in an Eastern Conference that is much stronger than it has been in many years.
While they have not been lighting the lamp with the regularity of other top teams in the OHL, the Wolves do have a well balanced scoring attack and they have been getting exceptional goal-tending from Finnish import Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen, who is the top amateur goalie prospect of the Buffalo Sabres of the National Hockey League.
Winners of a number of close, low scoring games, the Wolves have received clutch goals from players such as forwards David Levin and Quinton Byfield.
Levin, who was the first overall pick by Sudbury at the 2015 OHL priority selections draft, is on pace to score 30-plus goals in this his fourth season in the league.
Byfield, who was the first overall pick by Sudbury at the 2018 OHL priority selections draft, is on pace to score 20-plus goals in what is his rookie season in the OHL.
Opposing coaches have termed the Wolves a “tough team to play against” which is a testament to second-year head coach Cory Stillman and his hand-picked assistants Darryl Moxam and Bud Stefanski.
The 63-year old Stefanski has several prior seasons of experience as an OHL head coach with the Barrie Colts and erstwhile Toronto St. Michael’s Majors and is the father-in-law of aforementioned Wolves bench boss Cory Stillman.
The man in charge of the Wolves hockey department is 47-year old general manager Rob Papineau, a former OHL player himself. Papineau, who is a hometown Sudbury boy, is in his third season with the Wolves organization and second as the GM.
Papineau began a rebuild of the Wolves during the 2017-2018 season, trading off a number of 19 and 20-year old players for younger skaters and draft picks.
Hockey News North asked Papineau to comment on the turnaround that is going on in Sudbury and for his assessment of a number of Wolves players.
“It is a process to build a program into a preferred place to play and a Memorial Cup contender. We feel that last January (through a number of trades) we took the necessary, painful steps to point our team in the right direction,” Papineau began.
As for team scoring leader, the aforementioned David Levin, Papineau had plenty to say.
“He is a tremendously skilled player and has brought more north-south to his game. He has a high compete level and has the skill and ability to be a difference maker every night. Going to (a National Hockey League training camp) and learning what it takes to be a pro has helped show David that at the next level it matters as much what you do without the puck as what you do with it and that playing a strong 200 foot game and winning board battles make a huge difference. His shots on net have really taken a positive leap forward this year which has helped his scoring,” Papineau relayed.
As for this year’s, first overall draft pick, the aforementioned Quinton Byfield, Papineau refers to the rookie forward as a “special player.
“Quinton has transitioned as expected from minor midget to the OHL. He is an elite player with dynamic speed and power. He has been one of our top players on many nights,” said Papineau.
Second-year forward Blake Murray, who was the Wolves first round draft pick in 2017, is playing more of an all around game, Papineau noted.
“Blake is such a smart player. He had a tremendous rookie season and is now obviously on more (NHL) teams radars and is learning to play this year with more traffic and tougher assignments.”
Fourth-year forward Macauley Carson is known for his leadership and many other attributes.
“Macauley has grown into a diverse power forward who has strong leadership skills and has been a great influence on our younger players. He works as hard in the gym as he does on the ice. He is one of the most effective players in the blue paint and has great hand eye coordination when he is there,” Papineau stated.
Then there are the feisty Pilon brothers from Sault Ste. Marie, who are a pair of relentless, energetic, overage forwards.
“Darian has improved his speed over the summer and his work ethic is relentless. He can play in all situations. He needs to convert more of his forecheck into shots on net and he will see his offensive numbers jump. He has undercover skill and will push himself to his limit.
“As for Drake, he has battled a few minor nagging injuries that has had him in and out of the lineup early on. When he is in, he is also relentless on his forecheck. He plays hard every shift,” Papineau said, in summing up the twin terrors from the Soo.
Overage defenseman Cole Candella hopes to use this season as a spring board to the pro ranks.
“Cole has played huge minutes for us. He has exceptional feet and a heavy shot. He is very focused on using his overage year to earn an opportunity at the next level,” Papineau pointed out.
Third year defenseman Peter Stratis, a former first round pick of the Ottawa 67s, is rounding into a top OHL defender.
“Peter keeps getting better and showing the skill that made him a high pick in the OHL. His ability to skate pucks out of trouble and get up ice have really helped us early on,” said Papineau.
And aforementioned goalie Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen, he has been a sensation in his first OHL season.
“He has been our MVP and gives us a chance to win every night. He is such a pro on and off the ice. He has been a difference maker for us this year,” Papineau said evenly.
As for the overall team play by the Wolves and their ability to compete in the Eastern Conference, Papineau is pleased with the results to date.
“Cory and his staff have done a great job in getting our guys to play hard every night. We do not get out worked and we are not an easy team to play against,” Papineau relayed. “The conference is outstanding for OHL fans to follow. Every weekend sees movement in the standings. We have been happy with our start but always want to get better.”
PHOTO: Sudbury Wolves general manager Rob Papineau. (Photo by CTV News Northern Ontario.)