The Rockford IceHogs, the Blackhawks’ AHL affiliate, will soon be opening their 2019-20 season. The Flying Piglets of Winnebago County will take to the BMO Harris Bank Center in hopes of furthering the careers of Chicago’s prospects. I’m back for another season of bringing you my takes on the (Olive) garden party down Rockford way.
Rockford went 35-31-4-6 last season, finishing seventh in the eight-team Central Division. My thoughts on the 2018-19 campaign can be found here. If you don’t have the time to read, here are the Cliffs Notes: The Hogs couldn’t score, so they missed the playoffs.
After taking over for the promoted Jeremy Colliton in November, Derek King was officially named Rockford’s head coach this summer. The Blackhawks will measure King’s success in how he handles the organization’s young talent.
In Rockford, winning takes a backseat to development. The Blackhawks have made this abundantly clear over the years in the way they have assembled the IceHogs roster. This year is no different.
Actually, the landscape in Rockford is even more devoid of veteran presence than usual. Veterans like Peter Holland, Jordan Schroeder, Andreas Martinsen and Andrew Campbell weren’t re-signed by Chicago. Players like Anthony Louis and Luke Johnson were not tendered offers. Rockford elected not to re-sign popular winger William Pelletier or AHL vet Terry Broadhurst.
This leaves a lot of openings for playing time. The bulk of it is going to go to the slew of prospects set to join the team. In terms of grizzled veterans, the cupboard is mostly bare. With one notable exception.
The big name at the top of the roster (as well as this post) is two-time Stanley Cup winner Kris Versteeg. Let’s examine why he’s here. Versteeg, who spent last season in the KHL and SHL when he wasn’t injured, signed an AHL contract with the IceHogs back in April. Signing that early really surprised me, as usually a veteran like Versteeg would test free agency in hopes for some NHL ink later in the summer.
Nothing has fallen off the 33-year-old winger so far in training camp. He was dutifully assigned to Rockford last week and will be among a handful of AHL signees to make the Hogs roster. There hasn’t been a captain named by the team the last two seasons. Whether King elects to make it official or not, consider that role to be Versteeg’s.
The Blackhawks can’t bring him aboard for a third tour with Chicago unless he’s signed to an NHL contract. I have trouble envisioning that scene, though it certainly could happen at some point this season. I think that Versteeg is prepared to spend the full season in Rockford. By the way he’s spoken publicly, he seems pretty happy to be on the farm. How that time plays out depends on his health as well as his leadership abilities.
“What leadership abilities?” comes the call from above.
Well, Versteeg has been with seven NHL teams (eight including the Bruins, for whom he never played) and I don’t recall anyone ever putting a letter on his sweater. He does, however, have a 643 games of NHL experience and eight trips to the playoffs. It stands to reason that he is fully aware of his role in the scheme of things and can put his considerable experience to use in Rockford.
The ceiling on this move: a fit and motivated Versteeg plays 60-plus games, puts up some respectable offensive numbers, mentors the piglets on and off the ice and helps draw a few curious fans into the BMO this winter. If the brass in the Hawks organization have another plan mapped out for Versteeg, I don’t see it.
As for the remainder of the roster? Things won’t be set in stone for a couple of weeks, but lets take a look…
Glad To Have You Back
Rockford is not long on returning players at forward. The ones coming back each have something to prove.
Dylan Sikura was Rockford’s Rookie of the Year, with 35 points (17 G, 18 A) in 46 games. The question for the organization is whether Sikura’s game can translate to NHL production.
Matthew Highmore, spent most of 2018-19 out of commission after a shoulder injury in late October. He’ll be looking to rebound in his third season in Rockford. With Sikura, Highmore will be counted on early this season to provide steady scoring at the top of the lineup.
Alexandre Fortin is in dire need of finding a finishing stroke as he enters his third season. Graham Knott and Nathan Noel are other players on the last year of their entry contracts. Both may find ice time harder to come by as new prospects flood the roster.
Jacob Nilsson was placed on waivers by Chicago Sunday. Provided he clears, the IceHogs get last season’s MVP back in the fold. He was solid at both ends in his rookie season and will be a key player on special teams for Rockford.
Welcome To Winnebago County
King’s roster will be brimming with new faces up front. Mackenzie Entwistle, Brandon Hagel, Reece Johnson, Philipp Kurashev, Tim Soderlund, and Mikael Hakkarainen will be entering their rookie campaigns when the season begins.
The IceHogs will likely see several new acquisitions by the organization in action for at least part of the 2019-20 season. John Quenneville is a pickup from New Jersey who has 50-point potential in a full season of AHL play. He was a point a game player with Binghamton last year with 39 (18 G, 21 A) in 37 games.
A player like Aleksi Saarela could put up big offensive numbers if he winds up in Rockford with the proper mindset. Saarela had 30 goals for Charlotte last season, but it appears that he feels he belongs on an NHL roster. That could be an issue if Saarela comes to Rockford and sulks.
Several additional players should be coming down from Chicago once training camp winds down. Waiver-exempt players like Anton Wedin, Alexander Nylander or Dominik Kubalik could join a veteran or two who passes through waivers to bolster the Hogs roster.
In addition to Versteeg, the IceHogs signed five other forwards to AHL contracts. Tyler Sikura, the MVP of the 2017-18 Hogs, is back on an AHL deal following seven-goals, twelve assists in 50 games for Rockford last season.
Sikura the Elder was hampered by a thumb injury but should be a regular in King’s lineup. Other than Nick Moutrey, who adds some bottom-six muscle, don’t expect the other Hogs signings to be at the BMO all that much.
That includes former 2014 Hawks draft picks Liam Coughlin (fifth round), who signed an AHL contract after finishing his college career at Vermont, and Jack Ramsey (seventh round), who signed after four years at Minnesota.
Matthew Thompson had 50 points (21 G, 29 A) for the Indy Fuel last season and figures to be in Indy for most of 2019-20.
The few returning players at defense are led by Lucas Carlsson and Dennis Gilbert.
Carlsson was Rockford’s Defenseman of the Year after a 33-point (9 G, 24 A) rookie season.
Gilbert was the IceHogs most consistently physical presence most nights. He’ll be looking to find a bit more offense in his game in his sophomore season, totaling 14 points (5 G, 9 A) in 2018-19. Joni Tuulola (4 G, 10 A in 52 games) could be Rockford ‘s only other returning player on defense.
Chicago did not ink a veteran defenseman to mentor the blue line, as was the case with with Andrew Campbell last year. The Blackhawks did sign Philip Holm to a two-way deal. Holm, who is currently going through waivers, spent last season in the KHL and has just one career NHL game to his credit.
Provided he doesn’t make the Blackhawks out of camp, expect Adam Boqvist to lead the host of rookie piglets. Nicolas Beaudin and Chad Krys are also new faces who should inject some excitement.
Rockford re-signed Josh McArdle to an AHL contract and also secured the services of Dmitry Osipov and Jake Ryczek. McArdle (19 games) and Osipov (eight games) both saw time with the IceHogs and will find themselves in the lineup when not in the ECHL with Indy.
Ryczek, a seventh-round pick by Chicago in the 2016 NHL Draft, spent most of last season in the QMJHL with Halifax.
It’s in this area that Rockford can enter the season with a measure of confidence. If things break Chicago’s way health-wise (keep ’em crossed), then the IceHogs may have one of the top goalie tandems in the AHL.
Collin Delia is coming off a season in which he was ninth in the league with a 2.48 GAA. His .922 save percentage was second in the league among qualified net men. As good as Delia has been for the Hogs, the other half of the goalie picture could wind up to be even better.
Kevin Lankinen was the odd man out for much of last season but played very well for Rockford in the latter stages of the 2018-19 campaign. He then followed up his rookie season in the AHL with an outstanding performance to win a gold medal with Finland at the World Championships.
I would expect the organization to balance the minutes in net, though either Delia or Lankinen should be able to handle full-time work in Rockford if need be. In a best-case scenario, both will man the crease 35-40 times for the IceHogs. If that doesn’t come to fruition, Rockford has two players under AHL deals.
Matt Tomkins enters his third year as a Rockford signing, having spent most of last year with Indy. He was up in Rockford briefly but did not appear in a game with the Hogs. Chase Marchand was signed by Rockford and will likely be with the Fuel all season.
Division wins are going to make the difference for the IceHogs; 66 of the 76 games on Rockford’s schedule are within the confines of the AHL’s Central Division.
Rockford have two games each with Laval, Belleville and Toronto and another four with Cleveland. The IceHogs non-division games are all against Eastern Conference teams; Rockford will not play a game against a Pacific Division opponent this season…unless it’s in the Western Conference Final.
As usual, besting the neighbors will be vital. The piglets will attempt to wrest the vaunted Illinois Lottery Cup from the Chicago Wolves. Rockford’s interstate rivals took the grail for the third consecutive season last spring; despite each team winning six of the twelve season contests, the Wolves earned more points in those games.
The Hogs also have an even dozen with Milwaukee again this season, though Rockford won’t see the Ads until December 7 at the BMO. The IceHogs square off with Grand Rapids ten times and have eight apiece with Iowa, Manitoba, San Antonio and Texas.
The schedule is fairly balanced throughout the season. Rockford has 24 home dates out of its first 46 games, then is at home in 14 of its final 30 games. The Hogs have a five-game home stand Oct. 30-Nov. 8 and a six-straight at home Jan. 25-Feb. 8. They have a five-game road trip at the end of February. Otherwise, there are no more than three consecutive games either home or away.
So…How’s This Team Gonna Do?
That, friends, is a question I’ll set about answering when the roster is more concrete. The Hogs kick off the season in Iowa October 4; I’ll be back with more thoughts on the upcoming season before then.
Follow me on twitter @JonFromi throughout the season as I offer updates and musings on the scene in Rockford.