The 2022-23 season ended for the Rockford IceHogs Wednesday night in Cedar Park. The playoffs concluded for Rockford with a 4-2 loss to Texas, giving the Stars a three-game sweep of the Hogs in the Central Division semis.
The IceHogs finish in a similar fashion to last season, when they won a play-in series before being blown out by the eventual AHL Calder Cup champs, the Chicago Wolves. If that’s the case, why do things feel less than satisfying following Rockford’s exit two days ago?
You can start with one word-expectations.
The Blackhawks organization offered some big talk last spring and summer. They backed that up in free agency, building a roster that was designed to compete for a deep playoff run. This, in turn, would provide valuable development time for the organization’s prospects.
The IceHogs prospects did get some playoff experience. However, Rockford lasted no longer than the five games last spring’s scrappers managed in 2022. On paper, this doesn’t seem possible. The veteran firepower collected in the offseason should have been able to win more regularly, secure a higher seed, and reach the division final (or at least extend an opponent past the play-in stage). What happened? Who is to blame for falling short of those expectations?
It’s a long story, with the potential for varied conclusions. Since this is my choose-your-own-analysis, I will cast my first glance toward the crease. If any one decision had the potential to hold the Hogs back this season, it was the way the organization set up the mix at goalie.
The rest of the Hogs AHL roster was heavily reinforced with experienced, veteran talent that could fill in at the NHL level if need be. In contrast, the Blackhawks went into October relying on a tandem of Arvid Soderblom and Jaxson Stauber in goal. That would have been fine, provided the two spent the bulk of the season with the IceHogs. However, that was not to be the case.
Not signing a veteran netminder to float between Rockford and Chicago proved costly nearly from day one. Soderblom was pressed into service with the Hawks after just two starts for the IceHogs. He didn’t return to Rockford until December 18, after being lit up in Chicago for two months. Soderblom struggled to regain confidence in two return starts, suffered a groin injury, and didn’t really get his AHL season in gear until late January.
Nothing’s for sure, of course, but if Soderblom had remained in Rockford, he would have likely picked up 45-50 starts befitting his role of primary starter (and likely the organization’s plan). I would imagine his numbers would have been similar to or better than his 2021-22 totals (38 games, 21-15-2-2, 2.76 GAA, .919 save percentage) than to his more pedestrian stats (33 games, 15-12-5, 2.92, .905) this season.
Once Soderblom settled into Rockford and piled up the starts, he began to resemble the goalie he was in his rookie season. Beginning on January 20, after he returned from the injury, he started 28 of the Hogs final 35 games, posting a 14-9-5 mark with a 2.66 GAA and a .911 save percentage.
Rockford got some credible production in November and December from their two AHL contracts, Dylan Wells and Mitchell Weeks. The offensive explosion came in handy in that span as the IceHogs climbed up the Central Division standings. In particular, a strong December by Wells (4-0-1, 1.95, .928) pushed Rockford into contention with Texas for the top spot in the division.
Stauber had his ups and downs this season. He was out a couple of weeks with an injury in November and spent two months with the Hawks, going 5-1 in January and February before finishing the season with just five more appearances in Rockford in the last six weeks of action. His AHL time showed flashes but Stauber never really got a steady stretch of game action to work toward any consistency. His Rockford numbers: a 6-8 record, a 3.32 GAA and an .894 save percentage.
There were many times this fall and winter when I pointed out that the Hogs would go as far as their goaltending could take them. What would a dozen additional starts from Soderblom have done to Rockford’s point total? Injuries happen, but it’s fair to believe Soderblom and the IceHogs would have been better off had he remained in Rockford in the first half of the season.
By the time Soderblom played his way back into form, the offense that was the IceHogs calling card in the first three months dropped way off. Shuffling pieces of the roster at the trade deadline didn’t prove to be a springboard to success. Key pieces of the lineup were recalled to Chicago, leaving a thin roster for about six weeks until some of the top scorers returned. These things happen in the AHL; at some point, control isn’t an option.
What could have been handled better was hedging bets on two injury-prone goalies in Chicago. Soderblom did not return to the Blackhawks following his return; the organization elected to recall Stauber was recalled in January, which allowed Soderblom to pile up the starts. Anton Khudobin, obtained at the trade deadline, would have been the perfect solution for Chicago (albeit a pricy one) to keep its two prospects toiling in Rockford.
Looking ahead, it would appear that Soderblom will be re-singed and continue his development in Chicago next season. The early forecast on the Hogs tandem would seem to suggest Drew Commesso and Stauber will be the approach.
Weeks will be back for the second year of his AHL deal. He was excellent (15-5-1, 2.35 GAA, .916 save percentage) for the Indy Fuel in addition to solid numbers in 12 appearances in Rockford (5-2-3, 2.72, .906), so he should provide quality play in a pinch. Still, a veteran goalie on a two-way deal would be a welcome addition come July.
The forward bunch had a lot to do with Rockford’s fortunes this season, both good and bad. I will take a more detailed look at the Hogs skaters, along with the trade deadline moves that factored into the final results, in the coming weeks.
Follow me @JonFromi on twitter for thoughts on the IceHogs throughout the spring and into the offseason.