After last year's 'miserable' campaign, Wolves' Noesen having a year to remember
When Chicago Wolves forward Stefan Noesen was a wee 2-year-old he got a skating lesson from his great-grandfather.
"Here's how you go backward," little Stefan was told in a living room in Levelland, Texas.
A year or two later, Noesen was on skates -- and completely hooked.
"Fell in love with it," Noesen said Monday before the Wolves defeated the Stockton Heat 3-2 in Game 2 of the American Hockey League's Western Conference Finals. "They put me on ice and I was kind of able to boogie around."
The fun continued for years and years. Noesen poured in 99 goals with the Plymouth Whalers in juniors, was drafted No. 21 by Ottawa in 2011 and thrived with the New Jersey Devils from 2016-20.
But then came an injury. And COVID.
Suddenly, hockey turned into a job -- a day after day slog of going to the rink, not knowing if he'd be in the lineup and eventually ending up on San Jose's taxi squad for much of the 2020-21 campaign.
"Going to the rink every day was relatively miserable," Noesen said.
That all changed this season thanks to a 48-goal campaign. That's the highest total in the AHL since 2009-10, and the best by a Wolves player since Brett Sterling scored 55 in 2006-07.
Although Noesen had a strong training camp with Carolina, there just wasn't room on the roster. So the Hurricanes sent him to the Wolves, their AHL affiliate. Noesen did play in two games for the Hurricanes during a COVID outbreak, but he spent the rest of the time helping the Wolves post a league-best 50-16-5-5 record.
While the NHL is still the dream, the consistency of this season has been a huge relief.
"It's nice to be in one, little location and be able to thrive and just enjoy hockey again," said Noesen, who has 7 goals and 6 assists in nine postseason contests heading into Friday's Game 4 at Stockton. The Wolves have a 3-0 lead.
"For a long time hockey just seemed like a job. It wasn't really fun. ...
"Now I'm having fun at the rink, I get home and get to see my (18-month-old) daughter. Hang out.
"We have a really good group of guys here too. Definitely the most fun hockey I've had since in New Jersey."
The worst part of last season was the lack of playing time at any level. Fringe players like Noesen were stashed away on taxi squads in case anyone tested positive for COVID.
After a long inactive stretch in San Jose, Noesen agreed to play in the AHL. There's one game that Wolves linemate Andrew Poturalski remembers quite well.
"There was a big scrum in front of the net," said Poturalski, who was playing for the opposing San Diego Gulls, "and his helmet popped off and he was running around trying to fight five different guys. I thought, 'Who the hell is this guy? This guy's nuts.'
"And then I saw we both signed here this summer and I was like, 'Oh God. I've got to be teammates with this guy now?' "
Said Noesen, who racked up a career-high 112 penalty minutes with the Wolves: "They had a couple guys who were kind of hacking and whacking out there. ... I made a move, stuffing their goalie, my helmet came flying off and after that it was just an absolute 'Gong Show.' That's basically me."
Noesen takes this fiery attitude everywhere -- and especially to the golf course, where his drives often travel 350 yards. But watch out after a bad hole.
"He demands perfection," said Poturalski, who led the AHL with 101 points. "On the golf course I didn't think he'd have the mindset for it. If he has a bad hole he's snapping and freaking out, but he's making birdie the next hole.
"He cares so much about he does and wants to be the best at everything."
Noesen has 31 goals and 23 assists in 207 NHL games across eight years. His best season came with New Jersey in 2016-17 while skating mostly on a shutdown line with Travis Zajac and Blake Coleman.
"We'd just go out there, be pesty and go kind of piss off everyone's best players -- which is kind of one of my fortes," Noesen said.
He got hurt the next year, though, and it's been an uneven ride ever since.
At 6-foot-1, 205 pounds Noesen provides plenty of net-front presence (he said more than half his goals have come on tip-ins or rebounds) and is also a proven penalty killer.
Noesen believes he could thrive in the right NHL situation while playing for a patient, understanding coach.
Wolves coach Ryan Warsofsky seconded that opinion.
"He's probably the best around the net in this league and I think he's a guy that's put his name back on the map of someone who can play in the National Hockey League again," Warsofsky said. "I wouldn't say he's resurrected his career. "But he's bounced around a little bit, and sometimes it's good to just get settled on a team and put up numbers. He's done a good job of that."
A look at Chicago Wolves forward Stefan Noesen:Height, weight: 6-foot-1, 205 pounds
Drafted: No. 21 overall by the Ottawa Senators in 2011
NHL stats: 31 goals, 23 assists in 207 games for six teams
Best NHL season: 13 goals, 14 assists in 72 games for New Jersey in 2017-18
This season• His 48 goals are biggest single-season total in the AHL since Hershey's Alexandre Giroux scored 50 in 2009-10. It's the most for the Wolves since Brett Sterling scored 55 in 2006-07.
• Finished third in the league in points (85). Previous best AHL point total was 32 (in 65 games) for San Diego in 2015-16.
• Has 6 goals, 5 assists in nine postseason games. That includes a hat trick (with all goals coming in the second period) in an 8-2 Game 2 win over Milwaukee on May 22.