Hockey

The Rockford IceHogs provided a sneak peek at what’s in store for the next couple of months with the commencement of Rockford’s sole preseason tilt with the Chicago Wolves. These are two AHL franchises with diametric philosophies that were on full display at the Wolves practice facility in Hoffman Estates.

Rockford is approaching the upcoming four months as an extended prospect camp. The Wolves, as usual, are playing to win, Calder Cup or no Calder Cup.

The little campers went down to a 6-1 defeat, though Rockford did score the first goal of the contest. All I can say is…get used to it, kids.

With a shortened schedule coupled with the likelihood that the BMO Harris Bank Center will be largely fan-free, this shall be the way for Rockford. As I said earlier this week, this is completely understandable. The top prospects are tied to the bottom of the Blackhawks roster and the taxi squad. A lot of teams are taking similar approaches to the upcoming season.

Coach Derek King and his staff have another week to get this year’s crop of prospects ready for action. How will they fare against their Central Division opposition? Chicago, Grand Rapids, Iowa, and Cleveland have a bit more experience throughout their lineups than Rockford, which could mean trouble. Expect the piglets to take some lumps, especially in February and March.

Let’s complete our look at the IceHogs roster, beginning with the forwards.

 

Forward

Every season, I lament the lack of scoring punch in the IceHogs lineup. This year, it could be even worse if no one steps up. There are a lot of potential goals lost on the Blackhawks taxi squad, so there are jobs to be earned in Rockford by players who can fill the net.

There are five Hawks prospects set to begin their first professional seasons, topped by their two third-round picks from 2017. Evan Barratt spent three seasons developing his game at Penn State. Andrei Altybarmaykan spent most of that time in the KHL, where he posted 17 points (6 G, 11 A) in 49 games with HK Sochi last season.

Matej Chalupa was signed last May and will be making his North American debut with the IceHogs. Fellow Czech Michal Teply joins him in Rockford. Teply skated for Winnipeg in the WHL last season, scoring 63 points (29 G, 34 A) in 53 games. Look for Teply to be one of Rockford’s offensive threats as he attempts to improve his skating.

Cam Morrison was originally a second-round pick of the Avalanche who became a free agent after his college career at Notre Dame. The Blackhawks signed him to a two-year entry deal. Morrison should get the chance to show his potential as a power forward.

Returning NHL contracts start with John Quenneville, who cleared waivers and was assigned to Rockford. Quenneville is one of the few forwards on the current roster who can be counted on to score. He’s been a consistent 30 to 40-point scorer throughout his four years in the AHL.

Two returning players with a lot to prove are Mikael Hakkarainen and Tim Soderlund. Neither player got a lot of playing time with the IceHogs last season. Hakkarainen, a fifth-round pick by Chicago in 2018, was injured to begin the season and played in just eight games between Rockford. The Finnish center will be looking to make a bigger impact; he should get that chance with fewer players ahead of him on the depth chart.

Soderlund also didn’t get many chances to show off his wheels in Rockford. He had a goal and two assists in 29 appearances with Rockford and I liked what I saw of his forechecking game. During the fall, Soderlund was loaned out to Almtuna IS in Sweden’s second-tier league. He was really good there, with 10 goals and six assists in 23 games.

Soderlund has the type of game that could make him a fan favorite if he could get the puck into the net on a regular basis (and also if there were fans at the games). He’ll have to show that he can produce offensively at higher levels, but should get plenty of chances to do that with the Hogs.

Brad Morrison comes to Rockford from the Kings in the Ollie Matta trade. He spent the previous season in the ECHL, skating in 17 games with Fort Wayne. In that time, he had six goals and seven assists. 

The IceHogs signed eight players to AHL contracts in the offseason. Many of those players should make the roster. Garrett Mitchell is a long-time AHL veteran who was signed to mid-season PTO after Rockford was dinged up. He closed the season with an A on his sweater and earned a contract with the IceHogs. Mitchell is my odds-on favorite for team captain.

Gabriel Gagne is another pickup from last season that should see regular playing time. Gagne has an effective shot and could be a force on the Hogs power play. Dylan McLaughlin and Matthew Thompson also saw time in Rockford and could wind up with regular bottom-six minutes.

New faces signed by the IceHogs include D.J. Busdeker, who was one of three players assigned to the Indy Fuel by Rockford to begin the ECHL season. The right wing had four points (2 G, 2 A) in seven games with the Fuel. Also skating for Indy was Riley McKay, who was scoreless in five appearances.

Mitchell Fossier was signed to an AHL deal after a four-year college career at Maine. He was captain his senior year and had 42 points (10 G, 32 A) in 34 games.

Christopher Wilkie put up a 23-goal season in his final year at Colorado College and will be looking to make his pro debut with Rockford. Chad Yetman was selected in the sixth round in the 2020 draft by Chicago. He’s on an AHL contract looking to make an early impression on the Blackhawks. He was a big goal scorer in juniors (43 for the Erie Otters last season) and could find a spot in the lineup.

 

Defense

The Hogs blueline will feature a lot of size but also a lot of inexperience. Like the forwards, there are a lot of openings in the regular lineup.

Cody Franson, currently on an AHL contract with the IceHogs, will be the de facto leader of this group. Franson will provide solid two-way play in Rockford and displayed a lethal one-timer while helping the Hogs to the Western Conference Final back in 2018. Franson will likely wind up pairing with several of the young defensemen on the Hogs roster.

Anton Lindholm is an experienced AHL defenseman that can help bring pucks out of his own zone. He hasn’t made a big impact on the scoreboard in his four years in the Avalanche organization. However, he does have 164 games of AHL action for San Antonio and Colorado. Rockford should benefit from that experience.

On Thursday, the Blackhawks signed 25-year-old Madison Bowey to a two-year contract and placed him on waivers. Should he clear, which seems likely, Bowey provides another experienced piece on the Rockford blueline, having skated 113 games for the Hershey Bears. He has 154 NHL appearances with Washington and Detroit; he should provide some offense from the point for Rockford.

Chad Krys has a lot to prove after a middling rookie campaign for the Hogs in 2019-20. Krys potted the only IceHogs goal on Wednesday in that 6-1 loss to the Wolves. He should get more of a chance to showcase his game and needs to take advantage.

Alex Regula is the prospect to watch in Rockford now that most of the organization’s youth is up in Chicago. Regula is coming off of a junior career with the OHL’s London Knights, capped off by a 27 goal, 33 assist effort in 56 games last season. One of the bigger stories to watch in Rockford this season is how the 6’4” Regula adjusts to the professional game.

Jack Ramsey was signed to an AHL deal this spring and will compete for a spot in the lineup. Another defenseman with size, the 6’3” former Minnesota skater spent all of last season with the Indy Fuel, where he totaled two goals and eight helpers in 46 games.

Dmitry Osipov brings physical play to the mix. He got steady playing time for Rockford as the 2019-20 season progressed. He skated in 28 games for the IceHogs and should see regular minutes.

Rockford also signed several recent Blackhawks draft picks to tryout agreements heading into the season. Cole Moberg, a seventh-rounder from the 2019 NHL Draft, is on a PTO with the Hogs. Michael Krutil and Issak Phillips, Chicago’s fourth and fifth-rounders from the 2020 NHL Draft, are getting the opportunity to play AHL hockey on amateur deals.

Give me a follow @JonFromi on twitter for my thoughts on the IceHogs throughout the season.

 

 

 

 

Hockey

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…

 

NHL Contracts

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.

Returning Prospects

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.

 

New Faces

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.

 

AHL Contracts

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.