Hockey

Last season, the Chicago Blackhawks allowed their AHL affiliate, the Rockford IceHogs, to be severly undermanned in terms of depth. Nowhere was this more evident than at forward, where the organization went with a few NHL prospects and a slew of AHL signings.

How do things look entering the 2021-22 season? Right now, I’d say there’s some optimism that wasn’t there a year ago. This forward group will still consist of a lot of fresh-faced prospects. However, the piglets should be a lot deeper up front.

Is that going to show up on the scoreboard and the standings? Time’s going to tell on that one.

Rockford has been near the league basement for several seasons in terms of goals per game. Last season, the IceHogs were 25th of 28 teams with a 2.78 per game scoring average. The lack of offensive bite was a big factor in the team’s last-place finish in the Central Division.

AHL signing Dylan McLaughlin paced Rockford with 22 points (8 G, 14 A) in 28 games last season. That point total was good for 55th place in AHL scoring in 2020-21. Chris Wilkie co-led the team with eight goals and finished the season with 13 points in 22 games, while fellow rookie Evan Barratt totaled 14 points (5 G, 9 A).

Other forwards who chipped in on offense included D.J. Busdeker (5 G, 7 A), Andrei Altybarmakian (5 G, 7 A), and MacKenzie Entwistle (4 G, 8 A). All figure to be back in action for Rockford, thought Entwistle may find a spot on the NHL roster to open the season.

Getting consistent offense out of players getting their feet wet in professional hockey is a challenge. Some organizations keep their rosters well-stocked with proven, AHL-level scorers to bolster their prospects. That’s a strategy the Blackhawks have employed sparingly, if at all, over the past few seasons.

In 2020-21, the taxi squad required of NHL teams kept several potential lamp-lighters in a kind of limbo. Chicago had obtained former AHL scoring champ Brandon Pirri with the plan of him anchoring the IceHogs offense. Pirri spent most of his season on the Blackhawks taxi squad.

When Pirri was unleashed on AHL opponents, he filled the net. In just seven games, the veteran forward potted eight goals, tying him for the team lead. He had points in six of those contests, including a hat trick against the Chicago Wolves on April 7. Unfortunately, Pirri spent far more time not playing for Chicago than he spent on the ice for Rockford.

Pirri, along with other experienced scorers, are still free agents waiting to contribute to an AHL club. The Blackhawks, who own the IceHogs as of this season, don’t seem to be inclined to move in the direction of seeking established scorers. However, there may still be some offensive punch on this year’s roster.

NHL veteran Brett Connelly, obtained in a trade with Florida last season, cleared waivers this month and was assigned to Rockford. 2020-21 was a tough year for Connelly, but he’s been a consistent NHL scorer in the past. He put up a 31-goal season with Syracuse in a full season with the Crunch back in 2012-13.

Chicago is getting some cap relief by sending the 29-year-old Connelly to the AHL. If this serves as motivation for him to play his way back to the Hawks or another NHL organization, the IceHogs could have a big offensive weapon to open play in Grand Rapids October 15.

Another potential goal-scorer comes in the form of Alex Nylander, who was assigned to Rockford after he was declared waiver-exempt by the NHL. Nylander, who missed all of last season, could have been claimed otherwise.

It is unclear how long Nylander remains with the Hogs. However, he is certainly skilled enough to post a 40-point season in a full AHL campaign. Skill with the puck was in short supply in the abbreviated 2020-21 season, so any time he spends in Rockford will be a bonus to IceHogs fans.

Center Garrett Mitchell will captain Rockford, as he did last season. Mitchell, who is on an AHL contract, is probably past the days where you could expect 20-30 points from his stick, but the long-time veteran is on board to mentor the prospects.

Reese Johnson is one of the elder statesmen on the IceHogs, even at age 23. Johnson split time between Rockford and Chicago and is back for his third pro season. He was in Rockford for 18 games in 2020-21, putting up eight points (4 G, 4 A).

Other Blackhawks prospects include Matej Chalupa, Josiah Slavin, and Michal Teply. Slavin showed some offensive spark after he was signed midseason, with three goals and three helpers in his first six games.

It appears that 2020 first-round pick Lucas Reichel will begin his North American career with the Hogs. Reichel will be a player to watch in terms of offensive potential. First up for the 19-year-old Reichel will be getting used to maneuvering the rink in the grinding, physical AHL.

Cameron Morrison will also be looking to get his pro career started. In Morrison’s case, it’s a bit of a restart. The former Notre Dame skater was injured in the 2020-21 preseason and was out for the year. The question last year was how Morrison’s game translated to the professional level. Hopefully he gets the chance to answer those questions starting this weekend.

Mike Hardman and Jakub Pour are additional new faces on the IceHogs roster. Hardman turned pro after his second season at Boston College and saw some action with the Blackhawks before the season ended. Pour, who, like Hardman, is 22 years old, has spent the last two seasons playing professionally in the Czech League.

Last year, the taxi squad and a lack of depth signings made it necessary for a lot of Rockford’s AHL contracts to carry the load. Besides Mitchell, McLaughlin, and possibly Busdeker, it may be harder for some returning AHL contracts to find ice time.

Wilkie, Chad Yetman, Riley McKay, and Carson Gicewicz could split time between Rockford and the team’s ECHL affiliate, the Indy Fuel. New faces include Kale Howarth, who was signed following his college career ended at UCONN, and Liam Folkes, who was obtained in an AHL trade with Bakersfield.

Dmitri Osipov is a bit of an outlier. The former defenseman is apparently being converted to forward by the Blackhawks. He may get a chance to play the position with the IceHogs, or head to Indy to continue to learn the new position.

The first month of the season may see the IceHogs struggle for points. A team of young players will need to build chemistry and find the same kind of scoring touch from their college or junior days. If Rockford has aspirations of competing in the Central Division, they will have to find some steady point producers.

How will the Hogs fare in this year’s AHL schedule? Things get started in Grand Rapids on Friday, October 15. Rockford visits Chicago the following evening. I’ll be back in a few days to preview the opening weekend of action with the Griffins and Wolves.

Follow me @JonFromi on twitter for my thoughts on the action in Rockford throughout the season.

Hockey

The Rockford IceHogs have offered opportunities for prospects throughout the 2020-21 campaign. The lack of NHL contracts on the Hogs roster has allowed some players the ice time to make an impression on the organization.

Several of Rockford’s AHL contracts have been regulars in coach Derek King’s lineup. King cited one in particular in last week’s media availability.

“A kid who has really opened my eyes is (D.J.) Busdeker,” King admitted.

Busdeker is a 5′ 10″ forward who signed an AHL contract with the IceHogs after posting 57 points (22 G, 35 A) for Saginaw in the OHL last season. The 21-year-old native of Dexter, Michigan spent about a month with the Indy Fuel before the AHL season got underway. He’s been in Rockford from opening day on, and has ten points (5 G, 5 A) in 17 appearances for the Hogs.

“When he did come back up, he took full advantage of it,” King said. “He’s probably one of our biggest surprises of this season.”

Busdeker is one of several players who may have spent this season with the Fuel under ordinary conditions. However, he’s been a contributor up and down the lineup for Rockford. Busdeker has a nose for the puck and has been an effective forechecker and penalty killer.

In April, Busdeker has points in four of Rockford’s six games. He has points in each of the IceHogs three wins this month, including a pair of goals in Saturday’s victory in Iowa. He was also instrumental in a comeback win over the Chicago Wolves back on April 17.

Busdeker is second among IceHogs rookies in goals and points. Like Chris Wilkie (who tops Rockford in both rookie categories), he has taken a unique opportunity and made the most of it.

 

A Weekend Split In Iowa

This weekend’s action in DesMoines was about as physical as the piglets have had to deal with. They gave as good as they got, splitting a pair of games with the Wild.

Friday, April 23-Iowa 3, Rockford 2

The game was scarcely underway when Dimitry Osipov delivered a big open ice hit to Iowa forward Damien Giroux. Keaton Thompson objected to Osipov’s rough play; the two battled fifteen seconds in.

Rockford got the first goal of the game at the 3:33 mark. Josiah Slavin came up with a loose puck in the Wild zone, passing to Chris Wilkie. Wilkie was allowed to operate on the doorstep of the Iowa crease, hitting the top right corner to put the Hogs up 1-0.

A bad bounce off the boards set Gerry Mayhew up for an easy tap-in at 7:53 of the first to tie the game. However, less than a minute later, Rockford took a 2-1 lead after Garrett Mitchell tipped in a long-distance offering by Anton Lindholm.

Wilkie was chasing down a stretch pass when he collided with Iowa goalie Derek Baribeau, who had come out to clear the puck. Baribeau had to leave the game in favor of Hunter Jones. Wilkie was assessed a five-minute penalty for elbowing and a game misconduct.

The Wild began the middle frame with over four minutes of power play time. Iowa drew even at two goals with a Connor Dewar strike at 1:21 of the second. The IceHogs held first for the rest of the shorthanded time to limit the damage.

Iowa gained a 3-2 lead after forcing a turnover behind the Hogs net. Morris stopped a shot by Gabriel Dumont, but Brandon Duhaime gathered in the rebound, skated back out to the right dot and threaded his shot between Morris and the right post. The goal came at the 15:00 mark and Rockford skated to the locker room needing to rally.

Jones kept the IceHogs at bay, stopping all 20 shots he faced in relief of Baribeau in the final two periods. Rockford was 0-3 on the night on the power play, including a chance twelve minutes into the third period.

Lines (Starters in italics)

Josiah Slavin-Caron Gicewicz-Chris Wilkie

Tim Soderlund-Dylan McLaughlin-MacKenzie Entwistle

Evan Barratt-Reese Johnson-Michal Teply

Andrei Altybarmakian-Garrett Mitchell (A)-D.J. Busdeker

Anton Lindholm-Dimitry Osipov

Issak Phillips-Alec Regula

Cole Moberg-Michael Krutil

Cale Morris

Ivan Nalimov

 

Saturday, April 24-Rockford 5, Iowa 3

The physical tone set the previous evening continued in the rematch. Iowa took a 1-0 advantage 2:10 into the game on a Cody McLeod tally. Hogs goalie Ivan Nalimov did a nice job keeping the Wild from building on that lead in the remainder of the frame. In all, the Hogs were listless in the offensive zone, getting out-shot 17-8 by Iowa.

D.J. Busdeker provided some net-front presence to tie the contest 4:29 into the second stanza. Busdeker got his stick on a drive by Dylan McLaughlin to redirect the puck past Iowa goalie Hunter Jones.

Late in the second, Dimitry Osipov sent a shot from the right point that glanced off the right post. The puck struck Jones in the back and into the Wild cage at the 15:51 mark for a 2-1 Rockford lead. The goal was set up by some dirty work behind the net by Carson Gicewicz, who gained possession and found Osipov for the primary assist.

The Wild got some late momentum with a Gabriel Dumont goal with 32 seconds remaining in the second period. Dumont jumped on a loose puck in the slot and fired past Nalimov to send the teams to the locker room all square at two goals.

Rockford stormed out to a 4-2 lead early in the third. Busdeker potted goal number two on the evening at the 3:39 mark, pouncing of a rebound of a McLaughlin shot. McLaughlin got in on the goal scoring at 6:30, putting a shot from the high slot through the pads of Jones.

Iowa responded quickly, getting a goal from Connor Dewar at 7:02 of the third period to draw within one. However, Nalimov and the IceHogs prevented the equalizer, locking up the contest with an empty-netter from Garrett Mitchell in the final minute.

Lines (Starters in italics)

MacKenzie Entwistle-Dylan McLaughlin-D.J. Busdeker

Evan Barratt-Reese Johnson-Michal Teply

Josiah Slavin-Carson Gicewicz-Mitchell Fossier

Matej Chalupa-Garrett Mitchell (C)-Andrei Altybarmakian

Cole Moberg-Cody Franson (A)

Anton Lindholm-Dimitry Osipov

Issak Phillips-Alec Regula

Ivan Nalimov

Cale Morris

 

Grand Rapids State Of Mind

The IceHogs begin a three-game set with the Grand Rapids Griffins on Wednesday in Rockford. The piglets travel to Grand Rapids Saturday before returning to ‘Bago County on May 1.

Follow me @JonFromi on twitter for updates and thoughts on the IceHogs all season long.