A long, long time ago, the American Hockey League was supposed to begin the 2020-21 season this past weekend. In more favorable conditions, I would be readying you for another season of Rockford IceHogs hockey. Lamentably, that is not the case.
The sixty-four thousand dollar question around BMO South (my basement) is when our ‘Bago County Flying Piglets will take to the ice. December? January? Ever?
The tentative starting date, announced back on July 30, was to be no earlier than December 4. Beginning in what’s left of this calendar year seems a pipe dream. The NHL is looking at a January 1 kickoff. It would stand to reason that an AHL opening could follow in that wake, though February seems a better bet.
To the best of my knowledge, Rockford’s staff is still on furlough at this point. Not every AHL franchise is going to be able to swing playing in empty barns. Down Peoria way, the Rivermen are sitting out the SPHL’s season because of the financials. They aren’t the only ones; half of that league is in Peoria’s boat.
Can the IceHogs make a go of a shortened season without ticket revenue? Unless the Blackhawks are subsidizing their AHL affiliate, I kind of doubt it.
Let’s be more positive, though. Assuming the AHL is up and running by, say, mid-January and the Hogs are on board, they will need to field a squad. Who might comprise such a group?
As you may or may not know, Rockford is run for development over winning. We can (and will in the coming months, I promise) quibble about how much development is going on, but the bulk of the Hogs roster will be prospects.
How many returning faces will we see from last season’s club? Well…
Blackhawks RFAs Jacob Nilsson and Joni Tuulola have both signed to play in Europe. RFA forward Alexandre Fortin and defenseman Ian McCoshen were not tendered offers from Chicago. I also would not expect to see the Hawks re-sign UFAs Joseph Cramarossa or T.J. Brennan. UFA Anton Wedin is also currently playing in Europe.
Dylan Sikura was second for the Hogs in scoring with 33 points (14 G, 19 A) in 45 games last season. Chicago punted on the once-heralded prospect by trading him to Vegas. That move likely closes the door on brother Tyler, Rockford’s captain and leading scorer (34 points), making a return to the IceHogs.
In return for Sikura, Chicago obtained forward Brandon Pirri, originally a second-round draft pick of the Blackhawks in 2009. You might remember the internet losing its collective mind at the announcement of this swap when it happened on September 28.
If you believe that Pirri is returning to the organization to find a home on Chicago’s bottom six, you probably are still bent out of shape over this move. If Pirri spends the bulk of the season with the Blackhawks, you might have cause for a beef with Hawks management.
Here’s where you should take some breaths and relax. When you view this trade as a move to improve the organization’s AHL depth, it’s a huge trade for Rockford.
The 29-year-old Pirri has run hot and cold in the NHL in stints with Chicago, Florida, Anaheim, New York, and Vegas. However, he is an elite AHL scorer.
Pirri was a part-timer in the AHL the past three seasons, splitting time between Vegas and the AHL’s Chicago Wolves. In 124 AHL contests in that span, he has 129 points (62 G, 67 A).
Pirri is Rockford’s all-time leading scorer, with 200 points (68 G, 132 A) in 238 games with the IceHogs from 2010-2014. He led the AHL with 75 points (22 G, 53 A) in 2012-13. No Hogs skater has approached that mark since the Blackhawks traded Pirri to the Panthers in the middle of the following season.
The IceHogs have not had a 50-point scorer in the past six seasons. Last season, they were near the league basement in goals per game. Getting pucks in opposing nets has often been an issue for Rockford.
The IceHogs need goals. Brandon Pirri scores and creates goals. That’s the Reader’s Digest version of why he’s back in the organization. At least I hope it is.
A player who is very likely to wind up in Rockford is the newly acquired Anton Lindholm. The defenseman was a part of the underwhelming return (which included D Nikita Zadorov) for Brandon Saad and Dennis Gilbert in Chicago’s trade with Colorado Saturday.
Lindholm is 25 and has spent most of his pro career in the AHL with San Antonio and the Colorado Eagles. He is a defensive-minded player who isn’t going to score a lot. On the other hand, he is a decent skater and handles the puck pretty well coming out of his own zone. Rockford should be able to utilize his defensive skills.
The following players remain in the Blackhawks system and will spend at least a portion of the upcoming (?) season with the IceHogs.
Forward: Brandon Hagel, John Quenneville, MacKenzie Entwistle, Mikael Hakkarainen, Matthew Highmore, Reese Johnson and Phillipp Kurashev.
Defense: Nicolas Baeudin, Lucas Carlsson and Chad Krys.
Goalie: Collin Delia, Kevin Lankinen and Matt Tomkins.
Forward: Pius Suter, Cameron Morrison, Matej Chalupa, Evan Barratt, Michal Teply, Andrei Altybarmakyan and Brad Morrison.
Defense: Wyatt Kalynuk and Alec Regula.
Goalie: Malcom Subban.
Rockford seems to have made all of their AHL signings. The biggest of these may be Cody Franson. On Wednesday, the IceHogs inked the defenseman to a one-year AHL contract. Franson is 33 and has a decade of NHL experience with Nashville, Toronto, Buffalo, and Chicago.
Franson spent the last three months of the 2017-18 season with Rockford. He was instrumental in the Hogs run to the Western Conference Final that spring. Franson put up 28 points (9 G, 19 A) in 37 games with Rockford and added 13 points (6 G, 7 A) in 13 playoff contests.
Having spent the last two seasons in the KHL with Avangard Omsk, Franson may be looking to impress an NHL team enough to earn a contract. This is a big upgrade on the IceHogs blueline. He should make for a fine veteran mentor who can have a big impact at both ends of the ice.
Rockford has a dozen players under AHL contracts. Forwards Garret Mitchell, Gabriel Gagne, Dylan McLaughlin and Matthew Thompson return to the organization from last season along with defensemen Dmitri Osipov and Jack Ramsey.
In addition to Franson, new AHL signings include forwards Riley McKay, Chris Wilke and Mitchell Fossier, forward/defenseman D.J. Busdeker, and goalie Tom Auburn. AHL contracts who don’t seem to be returning are forwards Nick Moutrey and Liam Coughlin, along with defenseman Josh McArdle.
The ECHL announced a return to play model that includes 13 of its teams starting the season December 11. One of those franchises is the Indy Fuel, the Hogs affiliate. I would guess that many of Rockford’s signings will be skating for the Fuel when the ECHL season begins.
Keeping The Kids Busy
With no set start date for the AHL as of yet, Chicago has farmed out prospects to European clubs. On September 29, the Blackhawks announced that they have loaned forward Brandon Hagel, Rockford’s leading goal-scorer last season, to HC Thurgau of the Swiss League. Hagel was up with the Blackhawks when play was suspended this spring after an impressive rookie season (19 G, 12 A) with the Hogs.
This move by Chicago is the latest in a series of loans that now include three forwards we’ve seen at the BMO, along with three European signings.
Philipp Kurashev was loaned to LC Lugano of Switzerland’s NLA back on September 5. Like Hagel, Kurashev is familiar to Rockford fans. The 20-year-old’s rookie season with the IceHogs was marred a bit by a head injury that cost him five weeks of action. Up until that, Kurashev seemed to be getting into a groove with Rockford. He finished with seven goals and a dozen helpers in 36 games.
LC Lugano began its season October 1. Also starting the season in Switzerland is forward Pius Suter, who the Blackhawks signed in mid-July to a one-year, entry-level deal. Suter was loaned to the GCK Lions of the Swiss B League on September 8. Suter, ironically, had opted out of a contract with the ZSC Lions of the NLA after being named its MVP this past season.
Forward Michal Teply was signed by Chicago to a three-year contract back in April. The Hawks fourth-round pick in the 2019 NHL Draft, Teply returns to his native Czech Republic after spending last season in the WHL with Winnipeg.
Teply was loaned to BK Mladá Boleslav of Czech Republic’s Czech Extraliga on September 5. Also playing in Czech Extraglia will be forward Matej Chalupa, who signed with the Blackhawks at the end of May. Chalupa was loaned to Mountfield HK back on August 15.
Tim Soderlund was loaned to Sweden’s Almtuna IS of the Hockey Allsvenskan League on September 1. The 22-year-old forward struggled to find a role with the Hogs, splitting time between Rockford and the Indy Fuel of the ECHL last season.
Hopefully the AHL is able to set a concrete starting date to the 2020-21 campaign. Until then, I’ll play the waiting game until some sort of training camp takes place. There are countless questions ahead. I will tackle them for you in the coming weeks.