To say that the Rockford IceHogs had a successful 2018-19 campaign would be overstating things by a goodly amount. This year’s crop of piglets certainly had its ups and downs. A youthful Rockford club had to deal with changes in the coaching staff as well as injuries.
The Hogs finished the season with a 35-31-4-6 mark. Their 80 points placed the team in seventh place in the eight-team Central Division. The playoffs were within reach, though ultimately Rockford fell seven points short of a postseason berth.
The IceHogs began the season with a 6-3-1-2 record before coach Jeremy Colliton was promoted to the head coaching position in Chicago. Assistant Derek King took over, guiding the team to a 29-28-3-4 mark the rest of the way.
In their brief stint with Colliton, Rockford averaged three goals a contest. King didn’t receive the same offensive production in his 64 games at the helm. The IceHogs finished dead last in the AHL in offense, averaging just 2.39 goals per game.
That was pretty much the story of the season. If the Hogs put three or more goals up on the board, they were likely to win. Credit Mario Tirabassi of the-rink.com for this stat: Rockford was 30-2-2 when they hit the magic number.
They were involved in a league-high 43 one-goal games, going 23-10-4-6. Rockford had eight third-period comeback wins, tied for tops in the AHL. The Hogs played hard every night, kept things close, and
On the other hand, the IceHogs were shut out seven times this season. The power play hit at an anemic 14.5 percent. And when opposing teams scored three times in a game, Rockford was 11-29.
The high water mark for the piglets this season came in a two-month stretch from January 25 to March 20. Rockford went 14-5-1-1 in that time to claw its way into fourth place in the division. Three straight losses to Milwaukee put them back in seventh place; the Hogs went 4-4 to finish the campaign.
The IceHogs finished the season with the second-fewest penalty minutes in the league. Rockford skaters were tagged with 19 fighting majors this season, which was 28th in the 31-team AHL.
The goal tending really kept the Hogs afloat for the bulk of the season. Whether it was Collin Delia, Anton Forsberg or Kevin Lankinen, the play in net was outstanding. The pace was fast enough to keep a young defensive corps from feeling too much pressure in their own zone. Rockford simply couldn’t convert enough at the offensive end most nights.
Did The IceHogs Meet Expectations?
With that question answered, let’s see if we can’t pinpoint why Rockford came up short this season.
I went back into time and pulled my forecast of the 2018-19 before this got underway this fall. Those thoughts are italicized, with my 20/20 hindsight included.
Before the Hawks organization sent veteran reinforcements in February, Rockford was a young, exciting team that was fun to watch but was probably going to finish a spot or two out of the playoff picture. Not a one of the veteran catalysts remains from the club that reached the Western Conference Final.
Veteran AHL goaltender Mike McKenna has recently retired after a long career in the professional ranks. He led Texas to a Western Conference Final win over the IceHogs in 2017-18. Back on Wednesday, he tweeted about some of his former teammates having an impact with Dallas this spring.
McKenna dropped this nugget of wisdom on the importance of winning at the AHL level:
“I’ve always felt winning is so important in the minors. Development is the key word, but that can’t truly be achieved without habitually winning and learning what it takes to do so. And if you want to win…you need vets to support those blue chip kids. Takes a balanced attack.”
Excluding last spring, that balance has largely been absent in Rockford. This spring, it equates to a seventh-place team that is watching the playoffs at home. This year’s team very closely resembled last year’s model, pre-fortification.
The only veteran add made this year was Peter Holland, who came aboard in February in a trade with the Rangers. Holland put up 16 points in 21 games. It was an erstwhile move by management, but in no way resembled the massive veteran wave that arrived the season before. As a result, this year’s Hogs wound up pretty much where last year’s team was headed before the big roster boost.
Where does that leave this season’s group? Well, it would be foolish to think that the roster will undergo its share of turnover over 76 games.
Players are going to slide in and out of town at various points in the campaign. A lot of skaters earned looks in Chicago last season and that figures to continue with a lot of youth in the Hawks lineup.
Nine IceHogs would up with some time in Chicago this season. Delia, Alexandre Fortin, Luke Johnson, Jacob Nilsson, Dylan Sikura, Dennis Gilbert and Lankinen were in Rockford when the season ended. Gustav Forsling and Carl Dahlstrom were recalled midseason and finished up with the Blackhawks.
As constructed, a lot of the load will have to be shouldered by returning players like (Matthew) Highmore, (Tyler) Sikura and (Anthony) Louis. (Terry) Broadhurst and (Jordan) Schroeder getting off to hot starts and being steady, point-producing vets would be more than welcome.
Highmore injured his shoulder October 28 and played in just a dozen games. Sikura missed two months with a broken thumb and saw his number drop as a result. Louis was healthy but didn’t match his production from his rookie season.
Schroeder had a career-high 45 points. No offense to Nilsson, but he was Rockford’s MVP this season. Broadhurst’s impact was less than his career number would have suggested, with a career-low 12 points (4 G, 8 A) in 40 games.
Ultimately, it could come down to how Rockford grows up on the defensive side of the puck that dictates team success. Last spring’s playoff lessons could pay dividends with what is still a very young team. Will it be enough to land the Hogs in the postseason?
The play on the back end was sufficient. Ultimately, the Hogs couldn’t find a replacement for the extended loss of their two top goal scorers from the season before. There wasn’t enough veteran scoring added to replace what had departed last summer.
The result? A young, hard-working team that couldn’t score and was prone to streaky play. It was not enough to keep the piglets season going.
Next week, I will begin looking at the Hogs player by player. We’ll start with the forwards.
Follow me @JonFromi for thoughts on the IceHogs in and out of season.